Fifty Sons of Ramses

Shanti Menon

In 1922, while Egyptologist Howard Carter was uncovering the archeological find of the century, he instructed his workmen to dump debris from King Tutankhamen's tomb on top of the entrance to another tomb, which he felt was insignificant. "He actually buried the thing under another ten feet of limestone chips and sand," says archeologist Kent Weeks of the American University in Cairo. In 1995, Weeks found out just how wrong Carter had been. The tomb he so cavalierly covered may be the burial place of the sons of Pharaoh Ramses II--the one Moses supposedly went up against- -and the largest tomb ever found in Egypt.

The tomb's hillside entrance is marked on nineteenth-century maps of the Valley of the Kings, the final resting place of many of Egypt's pharaohs, located on the Nile's west bank across from the city of Luxor. But early excavators couldn't see much inside the tomb--debris washed in by heavy rains had completely filled the first small rooms--and so they dismissed it as unimportant. Weeks located the tomb again in 1989 when he realized that plans to widen a road for a bus turnaround might damage it. After exposing a wall in the first chamber and seeing the name of a son of Ramses II written on the wall, Weeks realized the tomb merited closer examination.

For six years he and his team meticulously cleaned the first two small rooms of the tomb, uncovering thousands of fragments of pottery, jewelry, statues, and bones. As they exposed more walls, they exposed more hieroglyphics bearing more names of Ramses' sons. But they had no idea of the tomb's true size until early in 1995, when they moved into the third chamber, a great hall supported by 16 pillars, each three feet square. On the back wall was a doorway that had been blocked for millennia by a large fallen stone, which had prevented debris from clogging the passageway. "On February 2, we went through the door," Weeks recalls, "and found ourselves not in a completely choked, debris-filled chamber, but in a corridor more than 100 feet long." Off the corridor were 20 doors, and at the end, carved into the back wall, was a five-foot-high statue of Osiris. There were two more corridors, one to the right and one to the left, each tunneling about 80 feet through the limestone, and each with 16 doorways leading to other chambers.

The 3,000-year-old tomb is unique in size, plan, and function. It contains some 80 chambers, and Weeks has found what he thinks are staircases to a lower level, where he suspects the burial chambers are located. So far he and his colleagues have found only fragments of mummies, all young men. Hieroglyphics suggest that Ramses II, who ruled for 67 years, buried as many as 50 of his 52 sons here, in a sort of family mausoleum. "We don't have any other sites like this--usually it's one tomb, one body," Weeks says. "And that's intriguing because religion is a very conservative element in many cultures. You don't just go and suddenly make changes in plans of tombs, particularly tombs of crown princes."

Because robbers looted the tomb in ancient times, the material wealth it yields may be insignificant compared with Tutankhamen's. But its artifacts and inscriptions will help archeologists learn more about Egyptian history and culture, and the tomb also presents a unique opportunity to examine the role of royal children. Almost nothing is known of any of Ramses' 100 offspring. "This is probably the best opportunity an Egyptologist has ever been presented with to study the structure of the Egyptian royal family," Weeks says.


Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Discover Magazine and can also be found in their online archives.


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