The excavation of the tomb

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 16 May 2023

The excavation of the tomb
The excavation of the tomb


There are several reasons why the tomb of Ramses II may not fully express the status of its owner.

Perhaps the first lies in the location of the tomb. The main entrance to the Valley of the Kings was chosen to dig the tomb in a modest rocky mound, and the entrance to the tomb was made at a low level from its base.

This is strange as during the digging and preparation of the tomb the architect in charge seems to have realised how bad the location of the tomb was as well as the poor condition of the limestone, which forced the sculptors to cover the walls with thick layers of plaster in order to implement the tomb’s pictorial programme.

The most important question is why didn’t the king give up this bad location? Why did he not move his tomb to another place? In fact, some scholars still believe that the king actually did build another tomb that has not yet been discovered. However, I believe that Ramses II insisted on this site for his tomb. He purposefully chose this site because of the location of the symbolic cenotaph of his children, KV5, which is located directly on the opposite side of his tomb.

This is important in understanding my desire to conduct an Egyptian mission inside the tomb of Ramses II beginning in January 2021 to uncover the secrets of this tomb. My challenging excavation of the tunnel inside the tomb of Seti I, KV17, from 2008 until 2010, made me believe that there is a good chance that Ramses II also planned a tunnel inside his tomb like his father.

My excavation inside KV17 was able to uncover a 174 metre descending tunnel from the floor of the burial chamber ending in a dead end due to the sudden death of Seti I who only reigned for 12 years. Unlike his father, Ramses II ruled for long enough to finish his tomb.

The tomb of Ramses II was looted at the end of the Ramesside period. For several centuries thereafter, the tomb was shrouded in silence, and we hear nothing about it. The tomb reappeared in the Graeco-Roman period through the names of visitors that are recorded in ancient graffiti on the walls of the first corridor.

There is reason to believe that the king’s tomb has remained open since then. However, it is not certain when or how it began to suffer from floods, until it reached the point that it was almost completely sealed off by the debris and deposits washed in by them.

The tomb was first excavated partially by British consul Henry Salt in 1817. Salt began clearing the descending corridors of the tomb. But at a distance of about 60 metres, his work was interrupted. The French-Tuscan Expedition led by Champollion and Rosellini resumed the clearance of the tomb in 1829. They were hardly able to reach the side chamber with its four pillars by crawling over the debris.

Richard Lepsius was able, also by crawling, to reach the end of the tomb in 1844-45, exploring the accessible rooms and mapping the underground complex, the walls of which, he noted, had been badly damaged by silt and gravel. As a result of his work, Lepsius provided the first precise plan of the tomb of Ramses II.

Lepsius’s plan of KV7 was in use until the team of the Theban Mapping Project of the University of Berkeley updated and revised it at the end of the last century.

Harry Burton, funded by Theodore Davis, undertook excavations of the tomb between 1913-14, then Howard Carter resumed the work between 1917-21. Burton and Carter’s work did not add anything new to the ground plan of the tomb made by Lepsius, but the first remains of the royal funerary furniture were uncovered and are now in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the British Museum in London.

Thanks to the Theban Mapping Project, the most accurate plan of the tomb of Ramses II was made and still is in use today. The project is considered to be one of the most important archaeological projects conducted in the Valley of the Kings. It started in 1978 and continued for almost three decades.  

After several decades of neglect, since 1991 the tomb of Ramses II has been the focus of a combined French research project attempting to carry out the first systematic excavation to fully uncover the architecture of the tomb. The excavation is attempting to remove the accumulated flood debris and to restore both the architectural elements of the tomb and the reliefs on the walls of the tomb that surprisingly can still be seen and can still be saved.

Between 1993 and 2003, 10 excavation working seasons were carried out by the French archaeological mission in Thebes led by Christian Leblanc to fully clear the tomb and to fully uncover its pictorial programme. It was during these years that the first attempts to consolidate and restore the burial chamber were carried out with the help of French engineers working on the Cairo Metro project.

Many metal anchors were fixed into the ceiling of the burial chamber. Thanks to the dedicated work of Leblanc, much of the subterranean structure including the burial chamber and its side chambers were excavated and cleared of flood debris. Much of the pictorial programme of KV7 was published. The work of Leblanc was then interrupted and stopped for several years. It resumed in 2016-17, before it was stopped again.

It is unfortunate that more than 200 years since the first attempt made by Salt in 1817, the tomb of Ramses II has still not been excavated completely. The well chamber and the pillared chamber with its side chambers were still fully covered by debris in 2020.

The previously excavated areas of the tomb were also in a bad state of preservation. The scenes, especially in the inner parts, were turning into powder. Dangerous cracks and sometimes gaps between the rocks of the walls were left without restoration and consolidation.

Therefore, in 2020 the Egyptian expedition led by the author was granted permission from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to fully excavate and restore the tomb of Ramses II. I began my excavation inside the tomb in January 2021 and ended the first season in July 2021. Our second season began in September 2021 and ended by the end of March 2022.

Over the course of two seasons of work inside the tomb, I managed for the first time since the first excavation of the tomb to achieve important results excavating and uncovering the entire F passage, in addition to the two side chambers. My team was able for the first time to reveal the architecture of this important part of the tomb, together with its pictorial programme, cleaning the tomb completely for the first time by removing all the accumulated gravel and the flood debris.

Our work concentrated on the areas of the C and D passages and the side chamber and on excavating and uncovering the E shaft of the tomb. We implemented an extensive restoration programme on the newly uncovered walls and reliefs. Reconstructing the pillars in the F passage and side chamber and revealing new scenes and inscriptions allowed us to produce a complete version of the pictorial programme of the tomb.

A version of this article appears in print in the 18 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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