The East and West Valleys of the Kings, to use the more correct names, were the burial places for the pharaohs of Egypt's eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth dynasties and for a small number of New Kingdom officials, priests, and royal family members. The East Valley of the Kings (abbreviated KV) is the better known of the two areas; the West Valley (abbreviated WV) contains only three royal tombs (WV 22, Amenhotpe III; WV 23, Ay; and WV 25, intended for a late eighteenth dynasty pharaoh), and perhaps four others. KV lies at 25°44′ north latitude, 32°36′ east longitude. It was called in antiquity “The Great, Noble Necropolis of Millions of Years of Pharaoh”; the name “Valley of the Kings” is a translation of its Arabic designation, Wadi el-Biban el-Mouluk, “The Valley of the Gates of the Kings.”

The East Valley is a small wadi, or ravine, cut millions of years ago by rainfall and water runoff, defined by steep cliffs and, above them, by hill slopes that rise to nearly 500 meters (1,600 feet) above sea level. (Its floor lies at about 160 meters [500 feet] above sea level, and the cultivable land of the Nile Valley 1 kilometer [0.62 mile] east at about 80 meters [250 feet].) In plan, KV resembles a hand with fingers splayed: in the center of the palm lies the tomb of Tutankhamun (KV 62); most of the tombs lie along the edges of the low-lying paths that form the fingers. In total, the KV floor covers only about two hectares. Within this small area was dug so extensive an array of tombs that, in several instances, later tombs inadvertently ran into earlier ones—an indication that there was no “master plan” of KV available to ancient architects. This particular wadi was probably chosen as the place of royal burials from among the many wadis that lie on the western bank of the Nile because of its good-quality limestone bedrock, convenient location, and well-defined, easily protected topography, and perhaps because a mountain (called the Qurn in Arabic, meaning “horn” or “crown of the head”) lying immediately south of KV looks from here very much like a pyramid, a form associated with the solar deity Re.

The KV tombs have fascinated travelers since dynastic times, but not until the eighteenth century did a few visitors record what they saw. There are a few graffiti of dynastic times, more than two thousand Greek graffiti left on cliff faces and tomb walls by ancient travelers, and several Coptic graffiti dating from the fourth through seventh centuries CE. None of these, however, offers much information except to indicate which parts of which KV tombs were accessible to visitors two millennia ago. From about the seventh century until 1739 CE, there are no records whatever of the East Valley. During the next century, the number of visitors increased greatly, and hundreds of nineteenth-century accounts reveal in considerable detail the condition of accessible tombs, the nature of their decoration, and their contents.

The disadvantage of this interest, of course, was that many visitors were anxious to rob KV tombs, not to study them. Pieces of decorated walls were carted off to European museums; thieves, both local and foreign, hacked through debris in frantic searches for gold; material, even if inscribed and of potentially great historical importance, was thrown away if it did not appear to have cash value. The result has been that most KV tombs have been hacked through and poorly studied; many, thought by thieves and early archaeologists to be unimportant pit tombs that contained no objects of value, have been left undug and unprotected. Only a handful of KV tombs have been adequately published; many are still only partially excavated; and none has yet received the conservation and protection that it deserves and, with increasing urgency, requires. Only recently have systematic studies of KV tombs and their condition been undertaken: the Theban Mapping Project is preparing a detailed database of KV and its tombs, and Erik Hornung is continuing an extensive study of their decoration. The publication by Elizabeth Thomas, The Royal Necropoleis of Thebes (Princeton, 1966), remains today, after three decades, still the most comprehensive and useful study available.

The condition of the KV tombs varies greatly. Some have been virtually destroyed by flash floods that occur every few decades, caused by torrential rains that strike the hills above the valley and pour thousands of tons of water and debris into low-lying tombs. The tomb of Bay (KV 13) was destroyed by such a flood in 1994, in a storm that also caused flooding in the tombs of Tawosret/Setnakhte (KV 14), Amenhotpe II (KV 35), and Horemheb (KV 57). Even Tutankhamun's tomb suffered water damage. Plans for the construction of flood barriers on the hillsides have not yet materialized. Theft is no longer a problem, but tourism has taken its toll in some KV tombs, and vandalism and changing environmental conditions continue to be problems. Only two KV tombs have been found largely unplundered: KV 47, Yuya and Thuya, and KV 62, Tutankhamun; all others were vandalized in antiquity.



Tomb No. Tomb Owner Type History and Excavation
Eighteenth Dynasty Tombs
KV 39 uncertain odd Loret, 1899 , J. Rose, 1989–1992
KV 20 Thutmose I and Hatshepsut odd open at least 2 centuries; Burton, 1824 , Carter, 1903–1904
KV 38 Thutmose I (reburial) Loret, 1899
KV 34 Thutmose III I Loret, 1898
KV 35 Amenhotpe II I Loret, 1898 ; used in antiquity as a cache of royal mummies
KV 42 Hatshepsut-Merytre , wife of Thutmose III (not used by her) I Loret, 1898 ; Carter, 1900
KV 43 Thutmose IV I Carter, 1903
WV 22 Amenhotpe III I Carter, 1915
KV 46 Yuya and Thuya Davis, 1905; substantial number of artifacts
KV 55 uncertain, perhaps from Amarna period Ayrton, 1907
KV 62 Tutankhamun Carter, 1922
WV 23 Ay III Belzoni, 1816 ; Schaden, 1972
KV 57 Horemheb IV Ayrton, 1908
Nineteenth Dynasty Tombs
KV 16 Ramesses I III Belzoni, 1817
KV 17 Sety I IV Belzoni, 1817
KV 7 Ramesses II II open since antiquity, now being studied by French mission
KV 5 sons of Ramesses II Burton, 1825; Weeks, 1989 on
KV 8 Merenptah III accessible since antiquity
KV 10 Amenmesse III accessible since antiquity; Schaden, 1992 on
KV 15 Sety II III accessible since antiquity; Carter, 1902–1904
KV 47 Siptah III Ayrton, 1905
KV 14 Tawosret and Sethnakhte accessible since antiquity; Altenmüller, 1983–1987
Twentieth Dynasty Tombs
KV 11 Sethnakhte / Ramesses III III accessible since antiquity; called “Bruce's Tomb” from his drawing of 1790
KV 2 Ramesses IV III accessible since antiquity; Ayrton, 1905 ; Carter, 1920
KV 9 Ramesses V and VI III accessible since antiquity, Burton, 1820s; Daressy, 1888
KV 1 Ramesses VII III open since antiquity; Brock, 1983
KV 6 Ramesses IX III open since antiquity; Daressy, 1888
KV 19 Montuherkhepeshef, son of Ramesses IX III Belzoni, 1817 ; Ayrton, 1905
KV 4 Ramesses XI III accessible since antiquity; Brooklyn Museum, 1980

There are sixty-two numbered tombs in the East and West Valleys, plus another twenty unfinished pits and shafts designated A–T (WV and KV share a single numbering system). The first twenty-one tomb numbers were assigned by John Gardner Wilkinson in 1827. His system numbered tombs from the entrance of KV southward, then from west to east. Since then, tomb numbers 22 to 62 have been assigned in the approximate order of discovery, with KV 62 (the tomb of Tutankhamun) being the most recently found.

Until late in the nineteenth century, most digging in the East Valley was illicit and incompetent. There were a few exceptions; one of the best known was the work of Giovanni Belzoni, who dug there in 1816. By modern standards, his work was poor, but it was significantly better than that of his colleagues. One of the tombs he uncovered was among the most spectacular ever found in the valley: KV 17, the nineteenth dynasty tomb of Sety I. The announcement of that discovery made headlines throughout Europe and encouraged an increasing number of Egyptological projects there and, indeed, throughout Egypt. The elaborate records published by Jean-François Champollion, Karl Richard Lepsius, and Ippolito Rosellini are among the prime examples. Except for Belzoni, however, most KV projects continued to be amateurish and damaging to the monuments. It was not until 1883 that a systematic attempt was made (by Eugene Lefebure) epigraphically to record the KV tombs, and not until 1898 that excavations were undertaken (by Victor Loret, in KV 33–38) and their results published.

Valley of the Kings

Valley of the Kings. Plan of the Valley of the Kings.

The most extensive and careful work in the East Valley was that conducted from about 1900 to 1922 by Howard Carter, first while he was an inspector of antiquities, then, after 1907, as director of archaeological excavations funded by Lord Carnarvon. It was Carter who in 1922 discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun (KV 62), but before that he was responsible for extensive exploration of the valley floor and for the discovery and recording of several KV and WV tombs.

It appears likely that every New Kingdom pharaoh at least began a tomb for himself in the Valley of the Kings, but not all tombs there can be assigned with certainty to individual rulers. The first pharaoh to have a KV tomb may have been Thutmose I (probably KV 20, later usurped by Hatshepsut); the last was Ramesses XI. Many tombs are uninscribed and can be roughly dated only by their architectural features; many others contain ambiguous inscriptions that make attribution difficult.

Broadly speaking, the KV royal tombs fall into four architectural and topographical categories which have only rough chronological significance, although there are many variations and alternative plans as well. One of the earliest types (I) consists of a level or sloping corridor that often makes one or two 90-degree turns to the left before reaching the burial chamber. These tombs are invariably cut into the base of the sheer cliffs that surround and define the East Valley. They date to the eighteenth dynasty. A second type (II) has a corridor that turns 90 degrees to the right and, in a chamber preceding the turn, has a pit cut into the floor, apparently meant to serve as a symbolic tomb of Sokar (not simply, as once was thought, as a device to prevent tomb robbery or keep floodborne debris from reaching the burial chamber). These tombs are not associated with any particular topographic features. They date to the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties. A third type of royal tomb (III) is much larger than either types I or II; it consists of a long series of corridors that extend deeply into the hillside. Some of these tombs are dug along a single axis; others (type IV), including KV 57 (Horemheb) and KV 17 (Sety I), have a jog in their axis about halfway down their length. The long, relatively straight plan of this type of tomb caused early Greek travelers to label them syringes. The entrances of these tombs lie at the base of the Eastern Valley's sloping, debris-covered hillsides; they date to the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties.

Much is known about the techniques of digging and decorating the royal tombs. We have extensive documentation from Deir el-Medina, the nearby village in which the New Kingdom quarrymen and artisans lived. In such tombs as KV 57 (Horemheb), we find the decoration of chambers left in every conceivable stage of completeness, allowing a reconstruction of the cutting and decorative processes. Most commonly, the chamber walls are covered with scenes and texts from the principal religious texts, today collectively called the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead). There are several such texts—the Book of That Which Is in the Underworld, the Litany of Re, the Book of Gates, and the books of Caverns, Heavens, and Earth—the last three of which are found only in the twentieth dynasty, but the first three in tombs throughout the New Kingdom.

The following is a table of the principal tombs in KV and WV, arranged in roughly chronological order. The name of the tomb owner, the tomb type, and the names and dates of excavators are given. Tombs not included here may be assumed to be small, unfinished, undecorated pits or other tombs of relatively minor interest.

See also THEBAN NECROPOLIS; and VALLEY OF THE QUEENS.

Bibliography

  • Hornung, Erik. Das Grab des Haremhab in Tal der Könige. Bern, 1971.
  • Hornung, Erik. Tal der Könige. Die Ruhestatte der Pharaonen. Zurich and Munich, 1982.
  • Hornung, Erik. The Tomb of Pharaoh Seti I/Das Grab Sethos' I. Zurich, 1991.
  • Reeves, Nicholas. The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, The Tomb, The Royal Treasure. Cairo, 1990.
  • Romer, John. Valley of the Kings. London, 1981.
  • Thomas, Elizabeth. The Royal Necropoleis of Thebes. Princeton, 1966.
  • Weeks, Kent R. “Recent Work in the Valley of the Kings.” Egyptian Archaeology, Bulletin of the Egypt Exploration Society 4 (1994), 23–26.
  • Wilkinson, Richard H., and Nicholas Reeves. The Complete Valley of the Kings, Tombs and Treasures of Egypt's Greatest Pharaohs. London, 1996.

Kent R. Weeks