Secret tunnels and ancient mysteries
Although nearly 200 years have elapsed since the discovery of the tomb of Pharaoh Seti I, there is still much more to learn about it. Nevine El-Aref looks at the latest revelations
When the famous explorer Giovanni Battista Belzoni discovered the tomb of Pharaoh Seti I in 1817, he knew that it represented a very developed example of a New Kingdom royal tomb. Not only was it the longest, deepest and most completed tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings, but its walls were painted with fine scenes in full colour featuring the great pharaoh in various positions before the gods and with his family. Inside the burial chamber Belzoni found a calcite anthropoid sarcophagus and a fragment of a canopic chest that used to hold the internal organs, and is now on display at Sir John Soane's Museum in London.
Not only is the architectural design of the tomb very distinguished, but so too are the scenes that decorate the burial chamber. The tomb is comprised mainly of a long corridor with seven unidirectional passageways connecting several decorative chambers. It has a special chamber dedicated to the god Osiris and another to the ritual of the opening of the mouth. The vaulted burial chamber has a painted ceiling featuring astronomical scenes.
The most mysterious feature in the tomb, and one that has perplexed Egyptologists until today, is the long passageway found underneath Seti I's marble sarcophagus.
Why did the ancient Egyptians dig such a tunnel beneath the Pharaoh's sarcophagus? Was it to his treasure, or for religious purposes, or as a security precaution? What was the real purpose of the tunnel? And what did it lead to?
Belzoni and his team tried hard to answer these questions, but they concluded that the tunnel ran down to a depth of 100 metres into the bedrock. It was also theorised that the tunnel was an attempt to link the Pharaoh's burial chamber with the groundwater. This conjecture stemmed from the existence of a natural spring at the Osirion in the Temple of Seti I at Abydos, which provided a pool of water within the structure to symbolise the primaeval waters of creation.
In 1961 a local man, Sheikh Ali Abdel-Rasoul, began to excavate inside the tunnel. He had learnt of its existence from his grandfather, who had worked with European archaeologists at the turn of the 20th century. Abdel-Rasoul, who financed the excavation work himself, believed the tunnel would lead to Seti I's real burial chamber where his treasure could be found. Abdel-Rasoul thought that the burial chamber previously discovered was a decoy to hide the real chamber from tomb robbers. However, he not only ran out of money but the permit he had obtained from the antiquities service was rescinded, so Abdel-Rasoul was forced to tell his 22 labourers to stop digging only few months after it began.
"My grandfather was the first Egyptian to explore the Valley of the Kings," Abdel-Rasoul's grandson Sayed told Al-Ahram Weekly. He said the government of that time had awarded him by issuing a golden medal bearing his name and had appointed him chief inspector of the archaeological area on Luxor's west bank.
"We are not tomb raiders as some claim; on the contrary, we were the first to protect the treasures of our ancestors the Pharaohs," Sayed insists. He said Mohamed Abdel-Rassoul, the founder of that branch of the family, who died at the age of 88, was the one responsible for leading the authorities to the huge cache of royal mummies at Deir Al-Bahari in 1871.
"They never hid some of the mummies to sell for themselves as some history books say," Abdel-Rasoul said. He insisted that his family had not commandeered the treasure of tomb number 320 and sold it to a woman named Hapi, as some claimed. Rather they had found it in 1871 and led the authorities to it. The cache contained 40 royal mummies of some of the most famous Pharaohs in Egyptian history including those of Ahmose; Amenhotep I, II, and III; and Ramses I, II, III and VIIII. In 1891 he led the authorities to a second cache as well as to another tomb near the tomb of Queen Nefro, at the foot of the hill. The tomb housed 153 unidentified sarcophagi, among them the sarcophagus of Princess Neskhnso, wife of the high priest Binozem II as well as 110 boxes containing a number of ushabti (model servant) figurines and 77 osirian (mummiform) statuettes that are now on display at the Egyptian Museum.
Abdel-Rasoul's excavation did not lead to anything except revealing that the tunnel was 136 metres long, not 100 as Belzoni had suggested, and it did not solve any of the questions raised by archaeologists.
In 2007, Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), led an Egyptian archaeological team who excavated several areas in the Valley of the Kings, among them Seti I's secret tunnel.
Egyptian excavators cleaning the corridor under Seti I's tomb unearthed a quartzite ushabti figure and the cartouche of the Pharaoh, the second ruler of the 19th Dynasty who reigned from 1314 to 1304 BC.
Hawass said the team that made the discovery was the first Egyptian mission ever to work in the Valley of the Kings, where excavations were monopolised by foreigners for two centuries. He further stated that a number of clay vessels were also unearthed, along with fragments of the tomb's wall paintings that may have become dislodged and fallen off after discovery.
During the cleaning process the length of the corridor was measured and found to confirm Abdel-Rasoul's measurement of 136 metres, not the 100 metres recorded in the original report of the tomb's discoverer, Belzoni.
Tareq El-Awadi, deputy field-director of the mission, told the Weekly that geological studies revealed the corridor was not carved inside the tomb as one single piece but was formed of separate parts, each with its own architectural features, as if it were a gate leading towards the afterlife. El-Awadi added that tools used by Abdel-Rasoul and his team were found in the dust. Among these were a tea caddy, cigarette packets and a manasha (a cane fly swat with a horse's tail).
"These objects have been collected and cleaned so they can be put on display at Beit Al-Gourna in Gourna," El-Awadi said.
The mission also worked in the area north and east of the tomb of Seti I, where they found traces of cutting in the bedrock underneath the modern rest house which may lead to a previously unknown tomb. Unfortunately, as Hawass pointed out, it would be necessary to remove the entire building in order to explore this area, so it will not be done in the immediate future.
A radar survey of the central valley was recently conducted that identified a number of areas of interest, and further analysis of the data may reveal features that warrant archaeological investigation.
Hundreds of graffiti, most of them previously unknown, have been uncovered. One unique example tells that the vizier Userhat built a tomb for his father, the vizier Amonnakht, in the place known as set-maat, or "place of truth". Also found was an inscription mentioning a previously unknown queen, the first part of whose name reads "Weret". This woman bore the title of "the god's wife", an important religious office held by royal women beginning in the early 18th Dynasty. A beautifully painted ostracon showing a queen presenting offerings was also discovered, in addition to inscriptions of the cartouches of Ramses II and Seti I. Pieces of beautiful painted pottery dating to the New Kingdom were also unearthed.
To preserve such an important tomb, a plan to protect it along with the tombs of Pharaoh Tutankhamun and Queen Nefertiti was now being implemented in collaboration with the British artist and conservator Adam Lowe and his organisation Factun Arte. The plan is to create identical replicas of these tombs by making detailed high- resolution copies of the burial chambers, paintings and sarcophagi using laser scanners. After the replicas have been constructed they will be installed on the cliff side of the Valley of the Kings, to be called "The Replica Valley". Here visitors can experience their beauty with the knowledge that the ancient paintings are being preserved.
Hawass points out that missing fragments from these tombs now held in foreign museums will be scanned and added to the overall reconstruction to give a complete picture of each tomb.