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“An Ancient Flash Flood and Stratigraphy in the Valley of the Kings” Stephen Cross (EEG Meeting Talk)

On Sunday Stephen Cross came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about his work in the Valley of the Kings. The research he was telling us about was started to answer one question: why was Tutankhamun’s tomb (KV62) discovered intact? Nearly every other tomb discovered in the Valley of the Kings was robbed, so what was different about Tutankhamun’s tomb. He immediately ruled out man-made causes – if the ancient Egyptians had figured out a certain way to prevent robbers getting in then they would’ve done it to all the subsequent tombs too.

Of the potential natural causes a flash flood seemed the best candidate and so he investigated the geology of the Valley around KV62. What he found was that when he mapped the routes that flooding took through the Valley three different streams of water collided outside KV62. This creates the right conditions for the sediment that the water is carrying to be deposited in the area. When water is moving at speed it can carry along quite a lot of pieces of rock etc, but when the water stream loses speed the rocks and sediment are left behind. Three streams colliding will dramatically reduce the speed that the water in those streams is moving, hence depositing the sediment.

This theory is backed up by the archaeological evidence. Some of this comes from the discovery of KV55 in 1907. Whilst this tomb was not discovered intact when excavated the original entrance was underneath a layer of sediment that was cemented together by water – i.e. the sediment dumped by a flash flood. There is also evidence from Carter’s excavation of KV62. A photograph shortly before the tomb was discovered shows the area that we now know was above the entrance – and a flood layer is visible. Another photo taken after the tomb was discovered also shows this layer. As an aside at this point in the talk Cross told us about a photo he’d been given by the Griffith Institute which was indexed as the entrance to KV62 during the excavation. However when he & Dylan Bickerstaffe had a closer look at it it became clear that it wasn’t the right doorway – it turned out to be from an excavation of a completely different tomb in the West Valley that had somehow got mixed up with the KV62 photographs! The flood layer also covers over KV63 – this recently discovered “tomb” is probably an embalmers cache. It is in the same part of the Kings’ Valley as KV62 & KV55, and there is evidence that it dates to the same time period as those two (Amarna era).

Having established that a flash flood covered up Tutankhamun’s tomb and prevented extensive robbing Cross’s next question is when that flood occurred. In the photo of the spot where the entrance to KV62 was discovered are some workmen’s huts* built on top of the flood layer. After discovering KV62 and while waiting for Canarvon to arrive Carter excavated these huts and those nearby which link up with others further round the Valley. The huts are 18th Dynasty in style. In the 19th Dynasty the huts were better built and were intended to be re-used (a necessity when you’re burying as many people as all of the many sons of Ramesses II who are in tomb KV5). As these huts are on top of the flood layer if we can establish which 18th Dynasty Pharaoh’s burial they were in use during then we can put an upper bound on the time of the flooding. Clearly these are not the huts used for Tutankhamun’s burial, as the entrance to his tomb was underneath them. They are equally unlikely to’ve been used for Ay’s burial as he was buried in the West Valley and his workmen’s huts would be there. So that only leave Horemheb as a candidate, and indicates the flooding is likely to’ve taken place during Ay’s reign – a 5 year period.

*Workmen’s huts came up a couple of times later in the talk, and during the question session at the end. The name is a bit misleading, it’s just what the first archaeologists to describe the structures called them and the name has stuck. They don’t have doors, and are far too small for someone to sleep in. So they are unlikely to be places for workmen to live instead they are better described as storage bins for the precious materials used in the construction and decoration of the the tombs. Generally there are guard huts (bigger, with doors) near the clusters of “workmen’s huts” which does indicate their contents were important.

That’s already a pretty narrow time span for estimating the date of a flood around 3,500 years ago but Cross then went on to explain that he feels it can be narrowed down even further. KV62 is said to’ve been discovered “intact”, but this is not entirely true. It had been broken into (through the entrance) in antiquity and a small amount of stuff stolen – but the robbers must’ve been disturbed before they could make off with much and the tomb was resealed still almost entirely complete. Cross thinks that the reason no-one came back to do a better job at clearing out the tomb later was that the flood had happened and covered the entrance with 3 feet of cemented debris – probably an insurmountable obstacle for a prospective robber to get through (particularly as it would’ve disguised where precisely the entrance was).

So how quickly after burial did the robbery of Tutankhamun’s tomb happen? Cross explained two strands of evidence that suggest it was close to immediately after the tomb was sealed up in the first place. The first is to do with the nature of the items stolen which were oils & animal fats. In the heat of the tomb these would’ve gone off quickly and become worthless so the robbery must’ve happened fairly soon after the tomb was sealed.

This is backed up by evidence from the seals used on the door of the tomb. When the tomb was initially sealed the door was covered in plaster and there were seal impressions placed all over it so that you could see if it had been damaged and re-plastered. These seal impression come in 7 different sorts (designated A-G by Carter), and all of them have Tutankhamun’s name on them in some form. This isn’t what one might expect at first thought – after all, Tutankhamun is dead at this point. Cross thinks this means that Tutankhamun (or any other Pharaoh) was regarded as being the reigning king right up until the very end of the burial process. Since the tomb was broken into the plaster on the door had been broken and the damaged part subsequently re-plastered. The new plaster was covered in seal impressions just as the original plaster was but these seals are all of a different type – designated Type H by Carter. This seal is very similar to the Type E seal of the original set, with the key difference that there is no Pharaohs name to be found on it. Cross believes this means the seal was used between the end of Tutankhamun’s burial and Ay’s coronation, which would be a 2 week period. And then the flood probably happened shortly after that.

Cross next explained that he thinks we can tell who it was who was actually wielding the Type H seal all those millenia ago! My notes are sadly a bit confused for this part of the talk but I think the explanation was as follows: there is a piece of graffiti in a jar stand in the annexe of KV62 (left by the re-sealer) which is in the same handwriting as the famous piece of graffiti in Tutmosis IV’s tomb. The one in Tutmosis IV’s tomb names two different officials – it says the senior one, Maya, was ordered by Horemheb to restore the tomb. The junior one, Djehutymose is just named as his assistant. It has often been assumed that Maya wrote the graffiti, but Cross points out that there are factual errors in it that Maya wouldn’t make (and would’ve corrected had he been present). The graffiti names Maya as son of the noble Iawy and the Lady of the House Weret, and Djehutymose as the son of Hatiay and Iniuhe. Djehutymose’s parents are correct, but other records show that Weret wasn’t Maya’s mother but instead his second wife. Which is really not a mistake that Maya would make, but his assistant might well not know the parentage of his boss and just guess at a woman’s name he knows is associated with the family. So it seems reasonable to assume that Djehutymose was the man who looked after the restoration of Tutmosis IV’s tomb and did the resealing of Tutankhamun’s tomb after its robbery.

After our coffee break the second part of Cross’s talk was about how his work fits more generally into excavating and understanding the Valley of the Kings. One thing he talked about that I hadn’t thought about before is that the Valley was altered by the Pharaohs, landscaped so’s to speak. For instance when looking at the stratigraphy above Tutankhamun’s tomb (and the rest of that area) there are two more distinctive layers above the flood layer. These were man-made. Seti I had the floor of the Valley levelled out using the debris from his tomb – Cross speculated this was to make it easier to move in the alabaster coffin. And Ramesses II also had the Valley floor raised to the level of his tomb and of KV5. Which actually probably caused the water damage to his & his sons’ tombs – if the Valley floor had still been at the natural level (or at least Seti I’s level) the water would’ve rushed right past below the tomb entrances.

Some of the most exciting work he’s involved in is the search for new tombs. There is quite a big gap between where KV63 is and KV55, the whole of which area is covered by the same flood layer. So there is a possibility of another tomb buried under that layer! He was involved in an excavation that took place right next to KV63, which sadly didn’t find any signs of a tomb. It had been thought that the previous excavation in that site hadn’t gone right down to the bedrock, but it seems it had done. There are still other parts of this area to investigate and there are some tantalising hints that one of them has something interesting. The geo-physical scan done in 1999/2000 could only obtain readings down to 2m and as bedrock is 5m down in this region this wasn’t actually good enough to detect if there were tombs or not. Another scan has been done with more modern equipment that has shown signs of an artificially levelled region of bedrock (like that round KV62) and hints of a passageway under the bedrock level near there. So that’s potentially very exciting indeed, but it hasn’t yet been worked on.

Cross speculated a bit about whose tomb it could be (if it is indeed a tomb). Any tomb under that flood layer must be late 18th Dynasty at the latest, and the other tombs at that level in that area are all Amarna period burials. These were either original to the Kings’ Valley (KV62 and KV63) or moved from Amarna (KV55). In the original Royal Tomb at Amarna there is evidence that there were 5 people buried in the tomb – Cross says these were probably Akhenaten, his mother Tiye, his wife Nefertiti and two princesses (Bekhetaten and Meritaten). He says there are candidates for the bodies of Akhenaten, Tiye and Nefertiti found in tombs in the Valley of the Kings, which leaves Bekhetaten and Meritaten yet to be found – and possibly the occupants of this potential tomb.

As well as this work in the central area of the Valley, Cross has identified another area in the Valley where two water streams collide. This is also a potential place where flooding could’ve concealed tomb entrances, and so he’s hoping to get it scanned with more modern equipment as well.

This was a fascinating talk, which told me all sorts of things about the Valley of the Kings and Tutankhamun’s tomb which were new to me. With very interesting speculation at the end about where undiscovered (and potentially undisturbed) tombs might be!