In the late 19th century objects belonging to ancient pharaonic tombs, appeared for sale on the antiquities market in Egypt and also made their way into private collections abroad. Gaston Maspero, Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, decided to investigate. Maspero’s inquiries led him to the village of Qurnah on the West Bank of the River Nile where he met a family who had previously discovered a royal tomb in the area and had been systematically looting it ever since. Information from the family led Maspero to the nearby temple and tomb complex of Deir el-Bahri (pron – Dear El Bahaaree) and the discovery and excavation of the tomb with spectacular results. The tomb revealed an incredible cache of over 40 royal mummies which included those of Tuthmosis I and his son Ramesses II. Later another cache of 153 mummies of high priests was found in another tomb at the site, and in March 1898, a further cache of royal mummies was discovered in the neighboring Valley of the Kings. Why had these mummies been removed from their individual tombs and gathered together in one place and who had put them there?
Deir el-Bahri (Arabic for "The Northern Monastery") is a complex of mortuary temples and tombs located on the west bank of the Nile, opposite the city of Luxor, close to the Valley of the Kings. It was in a tomb in a niche hidden in the cliffs behind these temples that the Deir el-Bahri cache of royal mummies was found.
Ahmed el-Rassul, who had been working as a guide and dealer in the area, told the story of how he had found the first mummy cache in 1871 while searching for a lost goat among the cliffs around Deir el-Bahri. Ahmed apparently found that his goat had fallen down one of the numerous vertical tomb shafts that peppered the cliffs. Ahmed clambered down the dark shaft after it until he reached a corridor where he lit a candle and was astounded to discover that he was surrounded by huge wooden coffins piled on top of one another. There were also various funerary articles such as shabtis (small funerary figurines) canopic jars and funerary papyri scattered all around. Since this discovery, the Abdou El-Rassul family had been living well by looting artefacts from the tomb and selling them off a few at a time.
This story is strangely reminiscent of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 by Bedouin goat-herders whilst searching the cliffs along Wadi Qumran near the Dead Sea for a lost goat. It is also just as false. What actually happened was that in 1871 the El-Rassul brothers, who by that time were already involved in looting and selling artefacts, discovered the tomb shaft by accident. Having entered the tomb and realized its vast wealth the brothers decided on a method of keeping other tomb robbers away from their find. Exploiting the Arabic myth of the ‘afrit’, an enormous winged fire-creature said to inhabit underground ruins, the brothers told other villagers that there was a terrible odour coming from the newly discovered tomb, proof that there was an afrit living inside it. Indeed, when villagers ventured near the shaft there was no mistaking the rank odour emanating from the tomb. Was this proof of the reality of the afrit? Not exactly. What the brothers had actually done was to kill a donkey and throw its corpse into the tomb, natural decay doing the rest.
When Mohammed el-Rassul led Emile Brugsch (pron – browsh) and officials from the Egyptian Antiquities Service to the tomb they found that although many of the funerary goods were long gone and the gold sarcophagi had been melted down, the royal mummies themselves appeared to be intact. With the threat of further looting by local villagers now a dangerous reality that the location of the tomb was known the Antiquities Service decided to act quickly. Within five days of its official discovery Brugsch had organized the excavation of the tomb, and with the help of 300 workers had the remarkable mummies and over 6,000 artefacts removed and shipped down the Nile to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Unfortunately, due to time limitations, Brugsch had not taken a single photograph of the mummies or funerary goods in situ, nor had he drawn up a precise plan of the tomb or made a list of the finds.
Primarily because of his inside knowledge of the local antiquities black market Mohammed el-Rassul was subsequently given a job as foreman for the Egyptian Antiquities Society. This appointment was to pay off in a big way when in 1891 Mohammed led one of the Society’s inspectors to another tomb at Deir el-Bahri which contained the mummies of 160 high priests of Amun. However, the Society soon discovered that el-Rassul had known about this cache for some time before he revealed the location to the authorities and he was subsequently fired from his job.
A further cache of mummies was discovered in March 1898, this time in the nearby Valley of the Kings, by French archaeologist Victor Loret. Known as KV35, this tomb belonged to Amenhotep II (who reigned from 1427 to 1401 BC) but also contained a number of other corpses scattered around and a few interred in side chambers of the tomb. There were thirteen mummies in all, most of them belonging to Egyptian royalty, some of these were without coffins and had been stripped of their bandages. The mummies in the side chamber all had a large hole in their skulls, and their breasts had been split open, the result of the activities of tomb robbers in a hurry to remove jewellery and amulets from the bandages.
On November 24 1901, the night-guards in the Valley of the Kings claimed that they were overpowered by more than a dozen attackers who then proceeded to rifle the contents of KV35. Amenhotep II’s mummy was cut open and his amulets and jewels stolen, the body being removed from the sarcophagus and damaged in the process. The attack was investigated by the Chief Inspector of Antiquities for Upper Egypt, Howard Carter (of future Tutankhamun fame) who believed that the robbery had been an ‘inside job’ and, after examining footprints at the site, concluded that there had not been more than one or two people in the tomb. Carter’s chief suspect in the looting of KV35 was none other than our old friend Mohamed el-Rassul, though the case against him was dropped due to insufficient evidence. Carter subsequently resigned from the Antiquities Service in 1903.
Of all the mummy caches, Tomb DB320 has probably the most remarkable of collection of Egyptian royalty. Included in the cache were mummies of Ramesses II and III, Amenhotep I, Tuthmosis I, II and III, Seti I, Ahmose I, and Pinudjem I and II. It is believed that the tomb itself was the family vault of the Theban high priest Pinudjem II, though this is by no means certain.
The mummy cache from tomb KV35 included the mummies of Thutmose IV, Amenhotep III, Ramses IV, V, and VI, and Seti II. There were also two female mummies, one of which was revealed in 2010 to be that of Queen Tye (c1398 BC – 1338). Queen Tye was the Great Royal Wife of the pharaoh Amenhotep III and was also Tutankhamun’s grandmother.
The other female mummy in the cache was given the title the ‘Younger Lady’. Test revealed her to have been 5 ft. 2 in height, and no older than 25 years old at the time of death. There was significant damage to the mummy, which was thought to have been caused by ancient tomb robbers. However, the large wound in the left side of the mummy's mouth and cheek, is now believed to have been inflicted prior to death and to have been a lethal injury, indicating that the lady was in fact murdered. DNA testing of the Younger Lady revealed the mummy to be female and probably both the sister and wife of Akhenaten, and also the mother of Tutankhamun.
But why had so many royal mummies been found collected together in these caches? The story really begins with the decline of the New Kingdom after the assassination of Ramesses III around 1156 BC. With the rise of new foreign powers Egypt began losing grip on its Empire in Asia, then came droughts, famine, severe official corruption, and internal strife caused primarily by the increase in power of the priesthood of Amun at Thebes. Indeed, the High Priests wielded such political power and influence that they became essentially the rulers of Upper Egypt from 1080 to c.943 BC. Two of these High Priests were Pinudjem I and Pinudjem II.
During this chaotic time in Egypt’s history the looting of royal tombs had increased to epidemic proportions. In an attempt to rescue the royal mummies from the sacrilege of tomb looting it was the powerful High Priests of Amun who organized the removal of the mummies from their original tombs in the Valley of the Kings to a more secure location in the cliffs around Deir el-Bahri. Before removing the mummies both Pinudjem I and Pinudjem II identified and relabelled them, and also replaced some of the coffins that had grown weak with age. Text written in ink on some of the mummies and labels on a number of coffins show that the mummies were moved around more than once, travelling from tomb to tomb before arriving at their final resting places.
With the numerous reburials in various tombs many of the rich grave goods which had originally accompanied the Egyptian royal dead disappeared. Although Gaston Maspero believed that New Kingdom tomb-robbers were probably responsible for looting these artefacts, modern Egyptologists are of the opinion that it was the Theban high-priests themselves who appropriated most of the valuable funerary equipment either for their own personal use, or more likely to help bolster an increasingly unstable economy. Whatever happened to these valuable grave goods, it is clear that if the High Priests of Amun had not responded to the threat of tomb robbing in the way they did, our knowledge of Pharaonic Egypt would be much the poorer.
By Brian Haughton