The Valley Of The Kings Essays

Established in 1906, the Metropolitan Museum’s Egyptian Expedition conducted excavations at several sites, including western Thebes (MC 39), opposite the modern city of Luxor. One of the richest archaeological sites in the world, the Theban necropolis contains hundreds of decorated tombs, and the expedition’s Graphic Section was created to record them, first in facsimile paintings and eventually in photographs.

In 1914, Harry Burton was hired as a member of the Graphic Section, initially to photograph tomb interiors and later to record the work of the Museum’s excavation team (M10C 49). Burton rapidly gained a reputation as the finest archaeological photographer of his time. Thus, when Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, he promptly asked the Metropolitan for the loan of Burton’s services (TAA 678; TAA 55). For the next eight years, Burton divided his time between Tutankhamun and the Egyptian Expedition.

Between 1914 and his death in 1940, Burton produced and printed more than 14,000 glass negatives; the majority of those negatives and prints are in the archives of the Department of Egyptian Art. To Egyptologists, Harry Burton’s photographs are among the great treasures of the department. For the art historian, he has left a complete photographic record of dozens of decorated tombs as they were preserved in the early twentieth century. For the archaeologist and the historian, he has left an invaluable record of the Museum’s excavations (7A 17; 6A 123). Since archaeology is a process of removal and destruction, Burton’s stage-by-stage documentation of work in progress allows us to re-create the context of objects that are now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, and in New York (6A 80; M16C 106, 107, 352–354). Burton’s photographs of the tomb of Tutankhamun, much better known than his work for the Museum, give the same thorough record of each new discovery within that tomb (TAA 242).

Far more than dry scientific records, Burton’s photographs also inspire a sense of wonder because of his ability to tell a story—to convey the atmosphere of a tomb unopened for more than three millennia (8A 291; M8C 205a), the poignancy of a floral offering left at the foot of a coffin (M6C 480), or the anticipation of an excavator confronted by a sealed door (TAA 622). Burton was a superb archaeological photographer with a knack for producing clear and informative photographs under the most difficult circumstances. In carrying out his documentary mission, he often set up his camera and lights with a sense of artistry as well as practicality and created pictures we find beautiful, exciting, or mysterious. The modern viewer may also find unintended associations in his work. Just as we might admire an ancient alabaster vase in part because its design seems “so modern,” some of Burton’s pictures remind us of photographs made in the seventy or eighty years that followed (TAA 1175). That connection is not altogether accidental. Many artists from the 1920s to the present have tried to apprehend the world by using their cameras to gather and classify an archive of faces, natural forms, or manmade constructions—to examine our own civilization as a future archaeologist might, borrowing from photographers like Burton the strategies of exhaustive documentation and deadpan presentation (M6C 62).

Early Life
Harry Burton was born in 1879 in Stamford, Lincolnshire, England, the son of a cabinetmaker. The fifth of eleven children, Burton went to live with Robert Cust, a local gentleman of independent means who saw to his education. Cust was a scholar of Italian Renaissance art and eventually moved to Florence, taking Burton along as his secretary. It was in Florence that Burton developed his skill with a camera, becoming known as a talented photographer of paintings; it was also there that he met Theodore M. Davis, a wealthy American who held the concession to excavate in the Valley of the Kings, the famous royal cemetery of Egypt’s New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 B.C.). Eventually Davis hired Burton as his photographer and later as the director of his excavations. When Davis gave up his concession in 1914, Burton was hired as photographer for the Metropolitan’s Egyptian Expedition, remaining in the post until his death in 1940.

A pharaoh of minor historical importance, Tutankhamun reigned fewer than ten years (ca. 1336–1327 B.C.) and probably died at the age of eighteen (TAA 368). Within a few decades, his makeshift tomb was twice robbed, then resealed and forgotten. Realizing that this one royal tomb remained unaccounted for, Howard Carter, with the backing of his patron Lord Carnarvon, searched the Valley of the Kings for Tutankhamun’s elusive resting place. As hope faded after five years of futile work, Carter discovered the tomb’s entrance stairway and, on November 26, 1922, first glimpsed the “wonderful things” within (TAA 18). Painstaking examination, documentation, and clearing of the tomb took eight years. Despite Tutankhamun’s relative insignificance and minor looting by robbers shortly after his burial, his tomb was essentially intact and remains the richest such discovery ever made. The unfolding of this discovery is preserved for us in Burton’s masterful photographs (TAA 364).

Motion Pictures and the Egyptian Expedition
Believing that the latest technology could be useful in presenting the Museum’s excavations to the public, Trustee Edward S. Harkness bought a hand-cranked movie camera for the Egyptian Expedition in 1921. It arrived in Luxor in early 1922. Although Burton had hoped for instruction from a professional motion-picture photographer, none was available; instead, he taught himself to operate the camera—tentatively at first, but with growing confidence as time passed.

A second camera was purchased the following year, and Burton traveled to Hollywood in 1924 to see how the major film studios dealt with problems of lighting; in fact, conditions in Egypt were so different from those in Hollywood that studio methods were hardly applicable. On Burton’s recommendation, the Museum did purchase two arc lamps, which proved useful for shooting tomb interiors when a reliable source of electricity could be found, but for the most part he filmed outside in bright desert sunlight.

In addition to footage of archaeological subjects, Albert M. Lythgoe, head of the Department of Egyptian Art, thought that scenes of contemporary life in Egypt would be valuable for lectures and for the department’s photographic archive, and he too learned to operate the movie cameras. The Museum preserves more than thirteen hours of rare, remarkable film footage shot by Burton and Lythgoe between 1922 and 1925.

Catharine H. Roehrig
Department of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Malcolm Daniel
Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

January 2009

The Valley of the Kings was the royal cemetery for 62 Pharaohs and is located on the west bank at Luxor. The only entrance to this place was a long narrow winding path. This was a secret place, where sentries were placed at the entrance of the Valley, as well as along the top of the hills, in the hopes of discouraging tomb robbers, who had in the past plundered all royal tombs, including the treasures of the Pyramids! Some thefts were probably carefully planned, but others were spur of the moment, as when an earlier tomb was accidentally discovered while cutting a new one and workmen took advantage of the opportunity. This may have happened when KV 46 was found during the cutting of KV 4 or KV 3 nearby. The tombs in the Valley range from a simple pit (e.g. KV 54), to a tomb with over 121 chambers and corridors ( KV 5)


John Gardiner Wilkinson first established the present numbering system, in 1827, as part of his preparation of a map of Thebes. Wilkinson painted the numbers 1 through 21 at the entrances of the tombs that were then visible. The numbers were assigned geographically, from the entrance to the Valley southward. Since Wilkinson's day, tomb numbers have been assigned in chronological order of discovery, KV 62 (Tutankhamen) being the most recent. Wilkinson's is not the only system of tomb designation that has been used in the Valley though. Several explorers assigned numbers, letters or descriptive labels to the tombs, as the accompanying chart indicates, but Wilkinson's is the only system that is still in use. There are two main wings to the Valley of the Kings, west and east! You will find that eastern side has the majority of the tombs, the western part having very few, but including the tombs of Amenhotep III and Ay.

The earliest known tomb of the New Kingdom within the Valley of the Kings, is that of Tuthmoses I, who started to use the valley as a royal burial site. It is located in a desolate part of the valley, which is supposed to add greater protection as it was small enough to be closely guarded. The good quality of the stones gave the ancient Egyptians the chance to cut many tombs close to each other.

Most of the tombs were found already plundered! A few, like the tomb of Tutankhamen (KV 62) or that of Yuya and Thuyu (KV 46), contained thousands of precious artifacts. Some tombs have been accessiblesince antiquity, as Greek and Latin graffiti will attest. Some were used as dwellings, or as churches during the Greco-Roman and Byzantine Periods. Most of them have been discovered in the past two hundred years.

Some tombs, like KV 5, had been "lost," and their locations only recently rediscovered. The very well known Egyptologist, Kent Weeks, who is still working in the valley, on many projects, among them the Theban mapping project, Mr. Kent weeks (Shown with the site author in the picture a bove) spent more than 6 years exploring and trying to uncoverthe secrets of this massive tomb. KV5 is the largest tomb ever found in the valley! Re-excavated in 1995, it contains at least 121 chambers andcorridors! Mr. Weeks believes that it was built for the children of Ramses II. On your way to the inner side of the valley,You can see KV5's entrance location (currently closed to the public)
Since 1922, and Howard Carter's discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen (KV 62), there had been no new tombs discovered in the valley until, on February 9, 2006, the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt announced the discovery of a new tomb. Designated the number KV63, it was discovered by a joint effort between the University of Memphis (USA) and the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt.This is one of the smaller tombs that have been found, consisting of a vertical shaft with an adjacent chamber at the bottom. Some artefacts have been found, but as this is an ongoing project, the details are still to be released
Presently, there are several archaeological projects currently at work in the Valley of the Kings.

Tomb Building - Tools

Before the actual creation of the tombs is discussed, it is important that the tools, which the workers used, are examined, as well as the actual work crews. Though they are over three thousand years old, many of these tools have survived and in many cases are similar to tools used in construction today.

The first of these tools are the mallet and chisel, a pair of which were discovered and are now in the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada. The mallet is made from acacia wood and is well used, the chisel also being well used and constructed of bronze. Though they were not found in either Deir El-Medina or the Valley of the Kings, they have been dated to the 18th-20th Dynasties and so it can be safely assumed that they are the same type of tool that the tomb makers would have used. Many different types of chisel were used during tomb construction, from pointed tips to flat, broad tips, depending on the type of cut required.

Boning rods were an integral part of ensuring that horizontal surfaces were kept as straight as possible. A set of these were found with the two items above, and are also in the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada. Two workers would hold the boning rods with one of them also holding an identical piece of wood in his other hand. As he moves the piece of wood along the string, any protruding pieces of rock will be seen and can be cut away.

A vast assortment of other tools were used by the tomb makers; triangular level and plumb bobs, plumbs, squares, square levels, and drills, each with their very own specific piece of work to do. Measurement was made by cubits, though whether they were "small cubits" or "Royal cubits" is not always clear (A cubit was a forearm length divided into 6 palms or 24 fingers. The Royal cubit was divided into 7 palms or 28 fingers which corresponds with 20.9 inches per Royal cubit, 3 inches per palm, and ¾ inch per finger)

Pounders were usually made from dolerite, though gneiss or granodiorite could also be used, and tended to be shaped between round and oval, varying in size and weight. Often showing signs of battering and chipping, they were generally used for less precise work.

Polishers tended to be round, oval or flat with a smooth surface. They were produced from a variety of rock, including sandstone, flint, chert or basalt. Used for the final finishing of surfaces they often show signs of polish or abrasion from constant use.

Tomb Building - Work Crews

The workers in the Valley of the Kings were all housed at Deir El-Medina, though they would often spend nights in the small enclave of huts built about halfway between the village and their workplace and some workers may even have spent their nights in one of the small huts which were scattered throughout the valley. Each workman had his own task to perform, whether they were stonemasons, draughtsmen, chisel-bearers, carpenters, artists or any one of the other trades which was represented within this community. From an ancient papyrus (Papyrus Salt 124) we know that work crews were separated into two different gangs, a right side and a left side, with a chief workman in charge of each "side".

During the Ramesside Period the workmen were known as the "Servants in the Place of Truth" and also the "Men of the Gang", a name which had come from the Egyptian military and navy referring to the Egyptian term "ist" which means gang or crew. The size of these gangs ranged from thirty to about one hundred and twenty, depending on the tomb being cut.

Work in the tombs depended on the length of time it took an oil filled lamp to burn and die, which was usually about four hours. This meant that the working day was divided into two shifts of four hours each, with a break for lunch and/or rest in between. The lamps were often in the shape of a bowl with a central jar made from one piece of clay. The central jar holds the twisted wick used in oil lamps, which was probably made out of linen coated with oil or animal fat to last longer and to provide light. Forget the illumination of tombs by reflected light off polished surfaces, as seen in the movie "The Mummy", as experiments have shown that this does not work. Also, the theory that says that the tombs would soon run out of air is a non-starter due to the tombs always being open; they were never closed until the Pharaoh was interred.

Scribes accounted for everything that went on in the valley, from the issuing of oil for the lamps to the visit of the vizier, as well as keeping an inventory of tools issued and returned, and these reports were periodically sent to the vizier so he would know what progress was being made. One particular scribe, Qenherkhepeshef, collected a library of reports and other important documents, and it is through him that many facts about life in Deir El-Medina, and the Valley of the Kings, is known. He, and his descendants, amassed a huge collection of papyri which included religious texts, official letters, poetry, stories, and magical and medical texts. They were discovered by French archaeologists at Deir El-Medina in 1928.

Tomb Building - Cutting and Construction

Once the King, vizier, architects and chief stonemasons had decided on a suitable site, work on cutting the tomb could commence. The workmen would be issued with the required tools, with this transaction being recorded by the scribe, who would also record its return. Large spike-like chisels would be hit with a mallet to break the rock, debris being removed by workers using leather or wicker baskets: limestone is a relatively soft stone and so work would have progressed at a reasonable pace, unless flint became an obstacle. The entrance doorway was shaped as soon as the workers had cut a space large enough for this operation to be conducted. Once sufficient depth into the mountain was achieved, a red line was painted on the ceiling to ensure that the stone cutters could follow a straight path, as well as it being used as a central point for measurements to be taken from, which could be used to make certain that all the walls were parallel to one another, angles of corners were correct and doorways were perpendicular. These red lines can still be seen inside some of the tombs today. The cutting of a tomb was a matter of great skill as the tombs had to run straight, unless a bend or corner was planned, and any aids which builders of external constructions could not be employed here.

Once work was progressing inside the passageway, smaller chisels were used to shape the corridors, leaving a rough surface for the pounders and polishers to finish. Because many tombs were finished at varying stages of completion, due to the death of the Pharaoh, it is easy to see how these workmen did their tasks. The rock was cut out in small blocks, leaving steps that would allow the stone cutters to work at a greater height without the need for scaffolding. Beyond the stepped portion the cutters continued to dig deeper into the mountain, shaping the ceiling as they dug deeper. Quite often niches were cut, and finished, at the same time as the corridor to save the following workers from having to use scaffolding.

In larger rooms pillars were created to support the ceiling. These were left rough at first, but axial lines were painted on them to assist in the final cutting and smoothing. These rooms also allowed for many workers to complete their tasks at the same time. The burial chamber of Hatshepsut-Meryet-Ra (KV42) revealed that plasters and painters were performing their tasks at the same time as the finishers and smoothers, due to the painted walls and yet the unfinished pillar and ceiling. This could be due to the sudden death of Hatshepsut-Meryet-Ra, and the seventy days in which they had to complete their work, but it does show that the workers would all work together if, and when, required.

When finishing the corridors one thing that had to be ensured was that the walls were not only parallel, but also perpendicular, and the tomb of Thutmose IV (KV43) has left the answer to how this was performed. Thutmose IV was an 18th Dynasty Pharaoh and the archaeological evidence shows that the work patterns, techniques and strategies that the work crews used, throughout the history of the Valley of the Kings and at Akhetaten, changed very little during this period. This tomb shows how plaster blobs were fixed to the walls to serve as plumb line pins.

Once the cutting crew had levelled the surfaces, getting the rock smoothed down to a smooth finish, the work of the cutting crew was complete. These finished surfaces could be extremely smooth allowing for careful studies to be made of the chisel marks left on the walls of tombs in order to determine the sizes and shapes of the implements.

Tomb Collisions

As mentioned earlier, some tomb collisions did occur, which would have surely been avoided had some type of map been available to later workers. During the New Kingdom only three tombs accidentally encroached upon others, and it is surprising that this did not happen more often, especially when one considers how many tombs are in the valley.

The tomb of Siptah (KV47) broke into the tomb of Tia'a (KV32) and the design of the tomb was immediately altered, the intended burial chamber becoming another corridor. The ancient Egyptians simply repaired this accidental intrusion with large stone slabs.

Setnakhte's workers (KV11) broke into the tomb of Amenmeses (KV10) and abandoned work in this tomb. Ramesses III took over ( KV11), the workers changing its direction without further problems.

Whilst cutting (KV9) for Ramesses VI, the workers collided with (KV12)(an unknown occupant) and had to change their design to finish this tomb. This collision was repaired with a simple stone patch.

Other Tombs:


A list of the KV's discovered (so far!)



From the many tombs at Deir El-Medina it can be seen that the workers also created tombs apart from those in the Valley of the Kings. Many Egyptologists state that the tombs in the Valley of the Queens were also constructed by these workers, which is understandable when one sees the tomb of Nefertari and the great work produced there. It is also quite feasible to believe that the nearby Tombs of the Nobles were also created by the same artisans.

"It is one of the ironies of history that we know more about the humble workmen who cut the New Kingdom royal tombs than we do about the god-kings for whom the tombs were made".

Travel tips :

To visit the Valley of the Kings you should be aware of the following:

Your entrance ticket to the valley costs (120 EGP )

(The ticket office is located at the outer entrance to the valley, at the end of the car park after the visitors centre

This ticket should give you access to three tombs only of your choice.

Cameras and Video cameras are not allowed into the valley at all!

 You will have to check-in your camera at the entrance.

Lecturing into the tombs is not allowed either.

 Your Egyptologist tourist guide will have to give your tombs inof from the outside and may also recommend which tombs to visit.

If you wish to go inside the tomb of King Tutankhamen (KV62), you will need to buy separate ticket (100 EGP)

While on visit to these tombs Please don't touch the wall.

Recommended Tombs to Visit:

Tomb of Amonhotep II (KV35) (Open Now)

It is considered as one of the best-completed tombs in the valley. The tomb is full of religious scenes depicting full chapter so the Egyptian book of the dead. Victor Loret discovered the tomb when he was antiquities director in 1897; it was the only tomb beside the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamen where we found the mummy of king intact in its sarcophagus. Back in 1897 We have discovered into the tomb, a cache of another 11 mummies of kings and queens together with many funerary objects. Upon the discovery of these mummies, many were taken to the Egyptian museum and three unknown mummies where left behind together with many funerary objects. Unfortunately later some of these pieces have disappeared or perhaps stolen! Among these pieces where a 3500 years old boat made of cedar wood and it was 4 M long! No one knows what happen to it!

Tomb of Seti I (KV 17) (currently Closed)

It is considered the longest tomb in the valley as it extends to more than 120 M inside the solid rock. The tomb was discovered by Giovanni Belzoni n 1817. It has a complete record of the book of the dead and characterized by it is bas-relief on the walls and the amazing painting of high quality especially at the burial chamber. The tomb consists of seven corridors and ten champers all painted and decorated with the Litany of Ra (Book of the Dead, Im-dwat, Book of Gates Opening of the Mouth ritual, astronomical scenes). There we found many Tomb equipment including, writing equipment and Vessels etc.

Into the burial chamber a magnificent sarcophagus made of the finest alabaster was found, it was later transferred by Giovanni Belzoni to the U.K and was sold to the Sir John Sonne at the sum of 2000 English pounds. Today you can still see it in Sir John Sonne museum in London.  

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