The Tomb of Brothers

Article excerpt

BACK IN 1820 AN ENGLISH AMATEUR archeologist named James Burton was poking around the Nile engaged in his favorite pursuit, looking for ancient monuments. He came upon the entrance of a tomb and noticed a cartouche--an inscription--of one of Egypt's greatest pharaohs, Ramses II. Burton tunneled into the crypt but, apparently thwarted by the debris, stopped burrowing and left. Nearly a century later, around 1910, the archeologist Howard Carter had his workmen dig through the same entrance, but he also gave up after a few feet. He assumed the tomb was insignificant--so trivial that he covered the entrance with dirt from his other excavations.

Too bad they didn't push a little harder. Last week archeologists announced they had uncovered what appears to be the largest and most complex tomb ever found in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, making it the most significant find since Carter opened King Tut's spectacular chamber. The tomb, 3,200 years old, is a vast, elaborately designed mausoleum, containing at least 62 rooms, many laid side by side, and probably dozens more on a lower level. As one Egyptologist put it, reaching across the seas for a metaphor, "it's a kind of Levittown, Long Island" for mummies.

Why so big? Archeologists think the mausoleum, which is called Tomb 5, is a family crypt laid out by Ramses II, who certainly required a big one. He is said to have fathered more than 100 children, including 52 sons. But archeologists didn't know where any except for one were buried. Now Kent Weeks, the American Egyptologist who led the nearly decadelong dig, said he's confident at least four sons are buried in Tomb 5--which is only 100 feet away from Dad's separate resting place. And he suspects that nearly all of the other sons are buried in Tomb 5, too. Weeks theorizes that Ramses II built the tomb in preparation for his sons' deaths. Twelve died before he did.

Experts have long thought that it was rare for anyone but a pharaoh to be buried in the hallowed Valley of the Kings necropolis, about 300 miles south of Cairo. It's even conceivable, though doubtful, that Ramses II's daughters--at least 30 are known--are buried in Tomb 5 also. (His first wife, Queen Nefertari, is buried in the nearby Valley of the Queens. But no one knows where his half dozen other wives, and any number of concubines, are resting, though it's safe to speculate that they keeled over from exhaustion.) "Given the fact that no other pharaoh is known to have taken such great care over the burial of his sons," Weeks said, "it certainly shows him to be a very paternal fellow."

Egyptologists, often skeptical of supposed new finds, were elated at the discovery. They had no argument with Weeks's theory that Tomb 5 may be one humongous family plot--15 times the number of chambers as King Tut's. "It just seemed to go on and on," said Peter Dorman, a University of Chicago Egyptologist who visited the site in March. The tomb won't likely contain treasures similar to those found in King Tut's; it was plundered in ancient times, and besides, even loved princes don't get the treasures of a pharaoh. But its wall decorations, mummy fragments and statuary could reveal important details about the powerful Ramses II, who ruled Egypt for 67 years, from 1290 to 1224 B.C. In one respect the tomb's magnitude isn't surprising; Ramses II was the Robert Moses of his time, building temples or major additions at Abu Simbel, Thebes, Karnak and Luxor. Ramses II is traditionally said to have been pharaoh at the time of the Biblical exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

The discovery of the tomb came almost as an adjunct to Weeks's main job--mapping the monuments and tombs at the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes, which includes the Valley of the Kings. Since the 1970s, Weeks, a 53-year-old professor of Egyptology at The American University in Cairo, had done everything from flying in a hot-air balloon to slithering along the ground to chart the area's archeological features. …