By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 5/26/2006 6:41:53 PM ET 2006-05-26T22:41:53

Is it a royal Egyptian tomb, a glorified supply room for ancient embalmers, or something in between? A year after the discovery of a chamber that had lain hidden in the Valley of the Kings for millennia, archaeologists are still asking themselves exactly what they've found.

When the find was announced in February , it was portrayed as the first tomb to be uncovered in the pharaonic city of the dead since the discovery of King Tutankhamun's treasures in 1922. But a month later , top Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass said the chamber was merely a "room for mummification" rather than a royal resting place.

Now it looks as if neither of those claims was true. One scenario is that the chamber, known as KV-63, was originally created as a tomb, then ended up as a cache for sacred supplies. However, the head of the KV-63 expedition is still holding out the possibility that at least one mummy will be found among the chamber's seven coffins.

"Until we examine each coffin to some extent, we can’t draw a conclusion," University of Memphis archaeologist Otto Schaden told MSNBC.com. "We can draw one, but it might be wrong."

Schaden spoke via telephone from the Valley of the Kings, where he and his colleagues are continuing to remove artifacts from the chamber, including jars of mummification materials and the coffins labeled A through G. During the interview, he gave a progress report on the dig as well as a behind-the-scenes perspective on a TV show chronicling the find, "Egypt's New Tomb Revealed," which premieres June 4 on the Discovery Channel.

Professional Egyptologists, as well as legions of fans, are keeping a close eye on what Schaden and his team are up to, because it's so rare to find a completely new chamber in the thoroughly-explored Valley of the Kings.

Experts wondered whether the chamber might have contained royal mummies that were brought in from less secure sites to protect them from ancient grave robbers, said Mark Rose, executive editor and online editor of Archaeology magazine. Some even speculated that KV-63 was linked to ancient Egypt's biggest celebrities, such as Nefertiti, the wife of heretic pharaoh Akhenaten; or Ankesenamun, the wife of King Tut himself.

"We know Ankhesenamun survived Tut, but her ultimate fate and the whereabouts of her mummy are mysteries," Rose told MSNBC.com.

Now, however, reality has set in. Aidan Dodson, an Egyptologist at the University of Bristol, told MSNBC.com that the chamber appears to contain "not wonderful things, but interesting things."

"For those looking for the glitter of gold, or looking for famous names, they’re going to be disappointed," Dodson said. Five of KV-63's coffins are known to contain mummification materials rather than royalty, and Dodson said the two coffins yet to be opened are likely to hold more of the same.

officials stand in front of tomb opening
Aladin Abdel Naby  /  Reuters
Expedition leader Otto Schaden, left, and Egyptian chief of antiquities Zahi Hawass stand in front of the hole that opens into a newly discovered chamber in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.
But even if no actual mummies are found, the items within KV-63 will shed new light on the materials and rituals involved in making the mummies, he said. And, he added, "the fact that a previously unknown tomb has turned up [in the Valley of the Kings] suggests that there's still some mileage in that area."

Schaden, meanwhile, says there's lots of mileage left even in KV-63. He's particularly interested in those two as-yet-unopened coffins — as well as seals and inscriptions that could tell who the chamber and the mummification materials were meant for. According to the Discovery Channel, one seal appears to bear a reference to "pa-aten" — which is part of a name used by the mysterious Ankhesenamun (a.k.a. Ankhesenpaaten).

With those mysteries in mind, here are extended excerpts from Thursday's interview with Schaden:

MSNBC.com: What’s the latest about what’s happening at the site?

Schaden: Well, we’ve taken out some of the pillows from Coffin G. When we first found it, it was the one sitting on top, and it was slightly ajar, and we could see cloth. And so we assumed it was a shroud of a mummy. But once we got inside, we realized it’s not a mummy, it’s a bunch of pillows. So we started taking those out. ... We got most of them out in pretty good shape, considering their age and their position. They’ve been crammed into this coffin for over 3,000 years.

Q: So how many coffins are left, and what’s the status of the excavation? Are there some coffins in the back of the chamber that still have to be investigated?

A: Yes. Two are completely up, a third one has been excavated. It was literally filled with potsherds and natron [the salt used for mummification] and things, and we’re gradually reassembling all the broken pottery. There are a few pieces of that one which are ready to come up, so they’ll probably come up on Saturday. Then we can get to the next one. There are four left, and the next one doesn’t have as much stuff in it, so we hope that one will go quickly. That will give us access to this little infant’s coffin, which is near the back. So that will be a prime target sometime next week.

Q: Is there a sense that this may have been a tomb, or part of the ritual storage or safekeeping for the ingredients for mummification? Have you come to a conclusion on that question?

A: We can’t decide the tomb part until we know if there are any mummies in those last two coffins. They’re both closed. As for the other coffins, most of them had been damaged by termites, except the one on top. And those in the front, because they were filled with so much pottery and natron, they basically split open, so we could see what was in them. But the two in the back are still closed. So there’s a possibility that there was a burial. We can’t say for sure, but we’ll know soon. If there was no burial, then we can draw one conclusion. If there is a burial, then we have a mixed bag here, such as a burial plus embalming ingredients.

Until we examine each coffin to some extent, we can’t draw a conclusion. We can draw one, but it might be wrong. We’d rather draw one and be able to stick with it rather than keep coming up with a new one. If I say it’s all embalming and we find a body, then I have to change. I like to wait until we know, and then go from there, because we still have many unanswered questions. One bit of evidence one way or the other isn’t going to alter the long list of questions we still have.

Q: I realize you don’t have hours to do this, but I wonder if you could go through some of the top questions you’re trying to resolve.

A: Well, the top question is in part, was this KV-63 used as a tomb at any point? And then, if so, who was it meant for? Then, we know there’s embalming materials, so the question is, when did these date back to? It’s looking closer and closer that it has to fall right around the Tutankhamun era. We still have many jars to open, those big storage jars, so there’s always a chance that sooner or later we will come upon a cartouche, which will give us a definite bit of information. But the evidence is pointing to somewhere around Tutankhamun’s time when this thing was closed.

The origins of the tomb could go back some decades, so that’s another aspect that we have to work at. We know the tomb has been entered several times in antiquity. So we have a host of questions. We’d like to know for whom these coffins were made. Most of them are so poorly preserved and covered with resin that thus far we’ve had no inscriptions surviving.

Even if there are no mummies, if we knew who the coffins were made for, this of course would tell us a lot. But so far we’ve had no inscriptions in coffins. One in the back does have inscriptions, but it’s covered with this resin and dust, so we’re going to have to wait until we get there.

Q: Does it appear as if the inscription is on top of the resin, or is it being hidden by the resin?

A: No, it’s incised into the wood, and the resin covers it, so the resin fills it in. You can tell there’s something there but you can’t read it.

Q: When you mention that the tomb had been entered more than once in antiquity because of the placement of the stones there, are you tending to think that the tomb had been entered before these mummification supplies were put in, or after?

A: It’s possible it’s a combination of things, because we know that the tomb was cut at one point, and it may not have been used right away. And there’s rubble that developed in there, down in the shaft. And also what we call dauber wasps, they make these little nests, and the secretions are just like stones, they’re very hard. And these occur in the doorway and inside the tomb, so it was open for a while for these wasps to come in.

Then things apparently were brought in, and at some point the coffins were all piled up, storage jars brought in, and many of them may be filled down in the chamber. And then it’s possible that when the shaft was partly filled, they reopened it, cut a tunnel and went back in and maybe added something. They may have actually poured gypsum plaster on the jars to close them. ...

We have a lot of little things that we have to try and fit together. But if we can get a few names, especially royal names, it will be much easier to fill in the skeleton. It’s like trying to put something together without the bones. Once we get a few definite points to work with, then it’s easier to fill in the gaps.

Q: Are there any supplies that might shed light on the process or ritual surrounding mummification.

A: Well, the natron is the main ingredient in the embalming of the corpse, and then they use some wheat chaff as fill also. We find some of that. For some reason, they store a lot of pottery which they have to break to get into these storage jars, and they break it when they throw it into the coffins. For some reason, the things that they’ve used during the period [of mummification], they simply can’t throw it away, but they bury it away. Somehow, it’s sacred. You don’t put it in the tomb, but you can’t just throw it away. That’s another aspect that’s very strange.

Q: So there are lots of those ceramic containers that have to be explored, and I suppose this could keep you busy for a long time.

A: Oh, yeah, at least another season. And then the coffins that have been removed, and those that will be removed will still require some conservation and restoration work. A few of them can be restored to some extent. One of the coffins just needs a little bit of consolidation here and there, and cleaning, and it’s in good shape. They all require some work.

Q: Could you describe what the experience was like to come upon this chamber. I’m sure people can only imagine what the thrill was like.

A: Well, the most thrilling part was last year when we found it. We had been working on these crude stone structures that the ancient workmen used while they were building the royal tombs. Whenever they’d build a royal tomb, they would set up a little series of these huts right nearby. Sometimes they'd stay there and mix their ingredients, and work on their tools, and have their lunches, whatever. We ran into these in the front of the tomb of Amenmesse, KV-10. So we followed them.

They had a lot of interesting items: bits of notes and writings from the workmen, doodles on rock, plus pottery and foodstuffs, some tools. We followed this for a few seasons, and we were about to quit doing this last year because we were running out of walls, and the last corner we decided to check. Where we expected to find bedrock, we didn’t find bedrock. So this was late one morning, and I thought it was something unusual, but I didn’t want to let myself get too excited, because it could be just nothing.

But the next day we widened the search, and found a side to a pit, then found the other side, then we hit a corner. When we had that much, I realized we had hit the top of a tomb. So we informed the officials. Initially, the local ones weren’t too impressed. But they finally asked us to write special reports to Cairo, so we did, and we just went from there.

Since that was near the end of the season, we didn’t dare start anything brand new when we were ready to shut down. So we covered everything up and we saved it for this year.

Q: When you come back, I suppose it’s like looking forward to opening a Christmas present.

A: Well, yeah, in a way, because we had no idea what configuration it would be — if it was ever finished, if it was ever used. So we had all these possibilities lying in front of us. Eventually, we cleared everything down to where we were last year and started excavating the shaft until we finally hit the doorway to the tomb. And then of course once we got a good look inside, even just from the doorway, things looked very strange because there was such a cluster of coffins — you would think there would be a lot of mummies.

But we didn’t notice any of the usual funerary accessories: With that number of coffins, you would have expected a number of boxes for ushebtis [funerary dolls] and canopic jars and the extra ingredients that go into a normal Egyptian burial. But we didn’t see any of those things, so that was strange. We thought maybe there were little boxes between or behind the coffins, but they weren’t there.

The more we saw what was there, the more we saw that this was basically an embalmers’ cache, but until we examine those last two coffins, we can’t be sure if that’s all it is.

Q: Can you describe how things are going to go for the show? Are you going to open the last two coffins on live TV?

A: Not for this first segment, because they’ve basically finished the filming for this first segment. They’re out here right now. They’ve shot some interesting things the other day, but this will go into the next segment. Basically what we finished for the first segment, we brought up the infant’s coffin, the one who was on top. We did open it, they did get close-ups of the lid and the pillows inside. That’s basically where the first program will probably end. I’m not sure exactly what they’ll put in the last moments, but the things they’re shooting now will be in the next segment.

Q: How was it to conduct archaeology with a TV camera looking over your shoulder?

A: Generally no problem. It was a good group of guys. At one point, when they first made the agreement, Zahi told me, “If they do something you don’t like, just tell them to get out.” But we never even came close to that kind of a situation. … We don’t have any sort of staged situation, where we bury something and find it for the cameras. If we’re uncovering something, we are uncovering it at that moment. We’re not doing any funny business.

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