A 3,200-year-old tomb in Egypt that was explored briefly and then sealed last century after scientists concluded that it held little of value is instead turning out to be a window onto the reign of one of the most powerful kings of ancient Egypt, Ramses II, who some scholars believe allowed Moses to flee with the Jews in search of the Promised Land.
The tomb was "rediscovered" earlier this year by a team of archeologists led by Kent Weeks of the University of California, Berkeley, but fumes from a nearby sewer line made the air in the ancient cave so foul that exploration had to be postponed until it could be ventilated.
Weeks returned to the area this summer and has just completed a preliminary survey of a small part of the tomb. He said in a recent interview that the tomb may be unique in that it appears to have been used for multiple burials of the sons of Ramses, heirs to the throne who died while he was still alive.
Ramses' 13th son became king when death ended his extraordinary reign of 67 years in 1223 BC, but no trace has ever been found of the 12 heirs who died before their father.
Weeks and his colleagues, aided by modern tools of geophysics that revealed such things as changes in the local magnetic field caused by subsurface excavations, relocated the tomb and dug out a large hillside last January to find the entryway. The tomb itself had filled with dirt and debris borne by countless floods over thousands of years, virtually filling the entire cavern.
But along the main tunnel that leads to what is left of a huge, 16-pillared room, they found two smaller chambers bisected by the tunnel, in effect creating four alcoves.
The level of debris in the tomb, which turned back explorers more than 100 years ago, confronted Weeks and his team with enormous hurdles, and so far they have had to be content with only superficial examination of one of the alcoves.
Name Found Under Dust
But already, Weeks has discovered, after meticulously brushing away the dirt that had built up along one wall, the name of Amon-Hir-Khopesh-El, one of the 12 sons of Ramses who died before the king. He was the eldest son of one of the Pharaoh's principal wives, and thus an heir to the throne.
On a second wall, Weeks found the name of a second son, also named Ramses.
Although the debris could not be cleared away from a third wall, it appears that yet another name is there, Weeks said.
"We think we have three names and we are certain of two of them," he said.
And of the two names that are certain, "it is clear from the historical record that we have a 30-year gap between their deaths," Weeks added.
That suggests that other names should be found, and what makes the discovery particularly exciting to Weeks is that additional biographical information seems to be included.
He also attaches significance to the fact that each of the two chambers has six walls.
"These two chambers together have 12 walls in them," Weeks said. "It's possible this could be the burial place for all 12."
That alone would make the tomb extraordinary, because tombs in the Valley of the Kings, which Weeks has studied for many years, were not used for the burial of more than one member of a royal family, he said.
Could it be that the 12 sons of Ramses died during the period when, according to Scripture, God called down floods and famine upon Egypt to win the freedom of the Jews?
Could it also be that the inscriptions on the walls will tell the story of a Pharaoh finally broken by the death of his 12th son?
Scholars for centuries have debated over which Pharaoh finally relented and allowed Moses to lead the Jews across the Red Sea. For many years, Ramses II was thought to have been the man, but within about the last 20 years experts have generally agreed that the exodus probably occurred before his reign.
Yet one of the world's foremost authorities on Ramses II has recently suggested that the earlier scholars may have been correct, that Ramses may indeed have been the king who allowed Moses to flee.
Kenneth Kitchen of the University of Liverpool, England, said in a telephone interview that he is leaning toward Ramses, "but it is not certain."
Kitchen, who is familiar with Weeks' work, described the discovery as "a pleasant surprise," but he said the tomb would resolve the controversy only if it refers to the exodus in an inscription describing the 12th son.
"That's the closest you're likely to get to it," he said.
"Perhaps," Weeks suggested, "the final unbearable burden was the death of his 12th son, and he said, 'All right Moses, take your people and go.' "
Ancient records indicate that the tomb, known today as "KV 5," was sealed about half a century after the death of Ramses II when several workers were charged with stealing its treasures.
Early in the 19th Century, archeologists found the tomb again, which presumably had been sealed for more than 3,000 years, but it had deteriorated to the point that they were quickly discouraged.