It is barely 7:30 a.m. in the Valley of the Kings, and tourists are already milling just beyond the yellow police tape like passersby at a traffic accident. I step over the tape and show my pass to a guard, who motions for me to climb down a wooden ladder sticking out of a small, nearly square hole in the ground. Eighteen feet down a vertical shaft, the blazing Egyptian sun is gone, the crowd's hum is muted and the air is cool. In a small chamber lit by fluorescent lamps, a half-dozen archaeologists are measuring, drawing and gently probing relics in the first tomb to be found in the Valley of the Kings, more than 400 miles up the Nile from Cairo, since the resting place of King Tutankhamen was discovered here 84 years ago.
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A jumble of seven wooden coffins of various sizes fills one corner of the room. Termites have turned parts of some of them into powder, while others have suffered only a thin layer of dust. Edwin Brock, an Egyptologist formerly at the American University of Cairo, is on his knees, cataloging the contents of a coffin filled with a strange assortment of pottery, rocks, cloth and natron—the powdery substance used to dry mummies. A couple of yards away, University of Chicago archaeological artist Susan Osgood intently sketches the serene yellow face painted on a partially intact coffin. It was likely built for a woman; men's faces were typically rendered a sunburned red. Deeper in the pile, a child-size casket is nestled between two full-sized ones. Something resembling a pillow seems to bulge out of another casket. The 17-foot-long space, which has plain limestone walls, also holds a number of knee-high ceramic storage jars, most still sealed.
Nervous about bumping into someone—or worse, something—I make my way back out to the narrow shaft and climb to the surface with Otto Schaden, the dig's director. Until this past February, he had worked in obscurity, splitting his time between studying a minor Pharaoh's tomb nearby and playing bass fluegelhorn in a Chicago band. Back up amid the heat and tourists, the 68-year-old archaeologist pulls out tobacco and bread crumbs, thrusting the first into a pipe and flinging the second onto the ground for some twittering finches. Just yards away, visitors in shorts and hats are lining up to get into King Tut's cramped tomb, named KV-62 because it was the 62nd tomb found in the Valley of the Kings.
Accordingly, Schaden's newly opened chamber is KV-63. Unlike Tut's, it contains neither gold statues and funerary furniture nor, as of early June, the mummified body of a long-dead Pharaoh. Despite the coffins, this probably isn't even a gravesite. Still, the discovery, announced in February, was trumpeted worldwide, because most archaeologists had long ago given up hope of finding significant discoveries in the valley. More remarkably, the artifacts appear to have been undisturbed for more than three millennia, not since one of Egypt's most fascinating periods—just after the death of the heretic king Akhenaten, who, unlike his predecessors, worshiped a single deity, the sun god Aten.
The child-size coffin in KV-63 held the flashiest artifact: a second, nested coffin coated in gold leaf. It was empty. Instead of the usual mummies, the other coffins opened so far contain only a bizarre assortment of what appears to be debris and constitute a 3,000-year-old mystery: Why fill coffins and jars with rocks and broken pottery, then carefully seal them up? Why hew out a subterranean chamber only to turn it into a storeroom? And who went to all this effort? "It may not be the most glamorous find," says Betsy Bryan, an Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University, "but it is a whole new kind of entombment—which raises all kinds of questions."
For 400 years beginning around 1500 b.c., the rulers of three powerful Egyptian dynasties built their tombs here in the Valley of the Kings, what they called "The Great and Majestic Necropolis." During the peak of ancient Egypt's wealth and influence, artists and masons carved and decorated miles of underground corridors for the afterlife of some five dozen kings, along with their wives, children and principal ministers. Egyptians filled the tombs with untold wealth, a grandeur only hinted at by the relatively modest grave of Tutankhamen, who died at around age 19 and whose tomb is small and unadorned compared with those of other Pharaohs.
The burials halted abruptly around 1100 b.c.—following the chaotic reign of Ramses XI. After his death, the long-unified Egyptian state broke apart. The valley, once constantly policed, was looted repeatedly over nearly three millennia. No known tomb survived completely unscathed. Even Tut's was rifled more than once before the volatile British archaeologist Howard Carter entered it in 1922, climaxing an obsessive, two-decade search for the young monarch's resting place.
Unlike Carter, Otto Schaden had not been on a search for some spectacular discovery. Starting in the early 1990s, he had labored quietly, exploring the tomb built for a Pharaoh named Amenmesse, who reigned briefly around 1200 b.c. Like most of the others, Amenmesse's tomb had been looted over the centuries, and flash floods eventually filled its passages with debris; it was one of the first in the valley to be explored, in the early 1800s, by European travelers. When Schaden began working on it in 1992, "you had to crawl in on your stomach," recalls Lorelei Corcoran, who directs the Egyptian institute at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, the project's institutional sponsor.
Once most of the tomb was cleaned out, Schaden turned his attention to the area surrounding it. In 2001, he excavated a collection of workmen's huts dating roughly to Amenmesse's time. For three seasons, his team sifted through broken pottery, flint tools and the remains of date palm fruits enjoyed by workers in the makeshift village. But Schaden and his colleagues were not the first to explore the huts. Among the artifacts, they found an empty bottle of Chablis and a New York Times dated February 5, 1907, no doubt left by wealthy American archaeologist Theodore Davis who had worked with Carter. Davis had looked under the floors of the easternmost huts for Tut's tomb, but finding only bedrock, he had given up.
But one small area close to the entrance of Amenmesse's tomb had escaped their attention. "People don't normally look a few yards from one tomb to find another," Schaden explains. "You never know what might be tucked away here," he says, gesturing around the narrow, craggy valley.