A Mystery Fit For A Pharaoh

The first tomb to be discovered in the Valley of the Kings since King Tut's is raising new questions for archaeologists about ancient Egypt's burial practices

The entrance to the new found tomb was hidden for more than 3,000 years beneath the remains of ancient workmen's huts. (Discovery Channel)
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One morning in March 2005, a workman probing beneath the floor of one of the huts discovered chips of rock instead of bedrock. Schaden was summoned. Trying to contain his excitement, he began taking photographs, while the excavators watched him, puzzled. "They thought I was crazy because there are white rock chips here everywhere," he says. But the archaeologist had a hunch that these rock chips filled a shaft—maybe even a tomb. By the next day, the workmen had indeed found the entrance to a shaft, roughly six feet by five feet. But it wasn't perfectly rectangular; one corner was jagged. Schaden quickly grasped the significance: two other 18th-dynasty valley tombs have similar corners, likely intended to fool robbers looking for a smoothly carved tomb entrance.

Schaden immediately halted work on the shaft to inform Egyptian antiquities officials of the discovery. He was reluctant to proceed any further because the digging season was nearly at an end, money was running low and his team was tired. The officials gave him approval to refill the shaft. Waiting from March until the next season began in December to find out where the shaft led may seem like a perverse form of self-denial, but Schaden also needed time to prepare for what he knew was coming. Had he rushed through the dig and found the underground chamber, he says, "things could have gotten out of hand. I didn't want to risk anything getting blown out of proportion."

Otto Schaden is clearly not a man who likes things to get out of hand. He seems, in fact, to model himself more on 19th-century gentlemen explorers than 21st-century scientists. A scrapbook he keeps shows him wearing a pith helmet and a tan outfit, looking like a 19th-century British explorer. "I'm basically a Victorian with a mobile phone," he likes to say.

As a child, Schaden had been fascinated by the mummies in Chicago's Field Museum. He studied Egyptology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and made his first trek to Egypt as a student in the 1960s, stopping in Vienna to buy a fluegelhorn, which he played on the boat to Alexandria. In the 1960s and '70s, he worked at sites from Sudan to Giza, but he never landed a full-time academic position in the small and competitive world of Egyptologists. For the past decade, the University of Memphis provided administrative support and an occasional student to help him dig, but no money. He has raised his own funds from private donors and relies heavily on volunteers who often pay their own way. He gets by on Social Security and earnings from gigs with his Bohemian music band. His tastes are simple. Says his longtime colleague and friend Earl Ertman, a University of Akron art historian: "Otto likes bread and beer."

On Christmas Day 2005, Schaden and his team were back in the valley clearing away the fill they had piled over the shaft nine months before. As they dug down, they could tell from layers of sediment that the shaft had been cut and filled sometime before the construction of the workers' huts. By February 5, the ancient shaft was almost clear; stones and rubble still blocked the entrance to a chamber, but there was a small opening at the top, "so tiny you could barely get a flashlight in," Schaden recalls. Peeking through the opening, Heather Alexander, a team photographer, thought she spotted a coffin. Alistair Dickey, an Irish archaeologist, also took a look. "I see pots!" he shouted. "I see pots!"

The February 10, 2006, announcement by Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council on Antiquities, of the find made headlines around the world, shattering Schaden's calm. Within days, he had enlarged the hole, revealing coffins and many jars—though none of the boxes or chests typical of unplundered royal tombs, nor royal insignias. Unlike Tut's tomb nearby, this one held no gold mask, no gilded furniture, no delicate statues.

On February 13, Schaden picked his way across a rubble-littered chamber floor to get his first close-up look at the coffins. Four had been badly eaten by termites, but three appeared to be in good condition. All were covered in black resin ; on four of them, yellow faces had been painted and one featured glass-inlaid eyes and eyebrows.

After clearing the rubble away and collecting all loose artifacts, the crew jury-rigged a pulley system to hoist the 28 massive jars, each of which weighed 100 to 150 pounds, 18 feet to the surface. The first dozen jars to be opened contained a mix of pottery, mud seals, wood, cloth and natron. ("Very strange," says Schaden.)

Over several months, Egyptian conservators consolidated the artifacts and removed some of the seven coffins from the tomb. Researchers used small spoons to remove the natron. Pottery fragments and rock were wrapped in cloth for future study. Some of the coffins looked nearly new. Because the team has to excavate and document the coffins one at a time, one remains sealed. "The wood of that one is in good shape," Schaden says. "I even knocked on it when I could get close enough."

Some clues link the cache to Tut's time. One jar held wine residue similar to that found in the boy-king's tomb. "Either the material is from his burial, or it is from someone buried soon before or soon after or during his reign," Schaden says. And some of it looks remarkably similar to about 20 jars found by Davis in 1906 in pit KV-54; they held pottery, cloth, natron and other materials believed to have been used to embalm Tutankhamen. "If I didn't know that KV-63 had been sealed since the 19th dynasty," says Schaden, "I'd have sworn that Davis dumped some of the material from the pit here."


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