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Disturbing the Dead

THE LOST TOMB.\o7 By Kent R. Weeks (William Morrow: 330 pp., $27.50)\f7

October 25, 1998|BRIAN FAGAN | Brian Fagan is the author of numerous books, including "The Rape of the Nile." His latest book, "Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nin~o and the Collapse of Civilizations," will be published by Basic Books in January. He is professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara

Egypt's Valley of Kings has been a hunting ground for Egyptologists, grave robbers and treasure hunters for 3,000 years. Here the ancient Egyptians buried their most illustrious pharaohs and, among them, the little-known Tutankhamun, whose undisturbed tomb first dazzled the world three-quarters of a century ago. Three millenniums of digging, curious tourists and rare floods or torrential rains have created an archeological nightmare, a jumble of ravaged tombs and lost burial places.

No accurate map of the valley's many sepulchers exists. Kent Weeks and a small team of Egyptologists have been working for years to compile an inventory of the royal necropolis. Their unspectacular, slow-moving and arduous project requires archeological detective skills of a high order and infinite patience. Weeks, a maestro of this demanding work, labored for years far from the public spotlight until he investigated an obscure tomb labeled KV 5 near the entrance to the valley. To his surprise, KV 5, neglected for 3,000 years, was the sepulcher of Ramesses II's sons, the most sensational find in the valley since Tutankhamun.

"The Lost Tomb" is part biography, part detective story and part adventure story, woven into an engrossing narrative. Weeks decided to become an Egyptologist at age 8 and first worked on excavations in the 1960s. He started the Theban Mapping Project in 1973, an ambitious attempt to map the entire five-square-mile necropolis on the west bank of the Nile. Such a map would allow monitoring of the condition of known tombs and help relocate now-lost sepulchers visited by earlier archeologists.

Weeks tells of his experiments with aerial photographs, conventional surveying and a hot-air balloon. He is one of those rare scholars with the gift of a fluent pen and the ability to turn months of laborious survey work into an engrossing account of Egyptology, late 20th century style. Early on, he began an architectural survey of the royal tombs in the Valley of Kings. He thought this would be a straightforward task, but the burial places turned out to be dauntingly complex. The mapping soon gave him a healthy respect for ancient Egyptian workers and for the accuracy of their engineers. His story moves effortlessly from survey work in a hot tomb to a discussion of a papyrus in Turin that contains a scribe's plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV. Then we pass smoothly from the Turin papyrus into a vivid account of the digging of a royal tomb. We learn of the care the ancient engineers exercised in choosing a tomb site, sometimes where flood waters would cause rubble to cascade over the entrance to hide it from robbers. We learn of foundation rituals, of the "House of Gold" where the royal sarcophagus lay and of the other chambers and passages that were constant elements in sepulcher design.

Weeks reminds us constantly of the inexorable deterioration of the finest valley tombs. He writes, for instance, of the flamboyant circus strongman-turned-archeologist Giovanni Belzoni, who located the great pharaoh Seti I's tomb in 1817. As much showman as digger, Belzoni found Seti's magnificent alabaster sarcophagus and made crude copies of the elaborate wall paintings. He mounted a highly profitable exhibition of the tomb in London in 1821. The original paintings are still in the tomb and will soon be lost forever if they are not stabilized. "The Lost Tomb" makes a passionate case for conservation of the royal tombs. Weeks reminds us that if nothing is done, little will remain for tourists a century from now.

By the end of 1988, Weeks had completed the valley survey, a harrowing task involving often claustrophobic work in temperatures as high as 120 degrees. He decided to devote one more season to locating 13 "lost" tombs visited by early travelers or archeologists, then buried again. KV 5, a tomb near the entrance to the valley, intrigued Weeks the most. When magnetometer probes failed, Weeks dug through flood detritus and rubble until he located the entrance in July 1989. He entered through a narrow tunnel cut by traveler James Burton in 1825. Burton described the interior as "all in a state of ruin" and did not investigate its numerous small rooms. In contrast, Weeks spent five years clearing most of the first two chambers. His team even recorded the layering of the flood waters that had periodically flooded the chambers as they searched for food offerings and diagnostic pottery forms. Weeks found seven phases of human activity in the chambers. The latest layer covers the past 80 years, when the tomb was heavily damaged, not least by Howard Carter's dumping rubble from his Tutankhamun search on a slope above the entrance. During the 19th century, the entrance was partially visible, but no one took any notice of it. Two earlier phases take us back to Ramesses II's time, approximately 1279 to 1212 BC, when the sepulcher was rarely visited but was devastated by occasional floods.

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