Collage of Egyptian Art, design by Anand Balaji; Deriv.

The Magic, Mystery and Madness of Tomb 55: Saga of a Botched Excavation–Part II

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The entire Amarna epoch and those who strutted upon its stage have always presented a conundrum for Egyptologists. In early 1907, one of the most valuable finds – Tomb 55 – promised to finally lift the veil, however partially, off the many perplexities surrounding the last days of ancient Egypt’s most bizarre period. But, poor documentation and a brand of irreverent archeology scuttled the opportunity to definitively further our knowledge on the subject.

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Around 3,300 years ago, sometime after the reviled Amarna interlude—when the boy-king Nebkheperure Tutankhaten (who by Regnal Year 3 had restored the supremacy of the Amun cult and changed his nomen to Tutankhamun) ascended the throne, abandoned the Sun City and moved the court back to Thebes—the royal dead too were re-interred in the Valley of the Kings. Among the exhumed bodies from Akhetaten would be: Akhenaten, Queen Tiye, Nefertiti, Meritaten, Kiya, Smenkhkare, Neferneferure and Setepenre.

Inlaid ‘Tutankhaten’ cartouche from the right outer arm of the Golden Throne discovered in KV62 by Howard Carter in 1922. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Inlaid ‘Tutankhaten’ cartouche from the right outer arm of the Golden Throne discovered in KV62 by Howard Carter in 1922. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

The mortal remains of Tiye - and possibly Akhenaten - found their way into the enigmatic Tomb 55 (KV55) in the central part of the Valley of the Kings, located a few meters to the west of the tomb of Ramesses IX. More than a hundred years after its discovery by the English archeologist, Edward Russell Ayrton, on 6 January, 1907 – this tomb continues to stoke enormous controversy and remains as puzzling as ever.

An overall view of the central Valley of the Kings, with locations of tombs marked. KV55 is indicated by a red arrow, at bottom left, across the path from Tutankhamun’s tomb (KV62).

An overall view of the central Valley of the Kings, with locations of tombs marked. KV55 is indicated by a red arrow, at bottom left, across the path from Tutankhamun’s tomb (KV62).

Two years earlier, Ayrton became the first excavator to be retained by Theodore M. Davis, the wealthy American lawyer and financier, described by one contemporary as ‘an eccentric, brusque little man, but a good friend to people he liked’. Up until then, he had worked with Sir Flinders Petrie in Abydos. In fact, it was not until 1902, following a chance meeting with Howard Carter who was then the Inspector-General of Antiquities for Upper Egypt, that Davis himself evinced an interest in digging in the Valley of the Kings.

English Egyptologist and journalist, Arthur Weigall, beside a statue of Horus at the temple of Edfu in 1913 or shortly before.

English Egyptologist and journalist, Arthur Weigall, beside a statue of Horus at the temple of Edfu in 1913 or shortly before. (N. Macnaghten/ Public Domain )

As the excavation in Tomb 55 progressed, it became pretty clear to Ayrton that Davis was a very difficult man to work with. Frustrated, he threw in the towel in the far end of 1908, which prompted Davis to make a sarcastic mention of developments to Arthur Weigall, the English Egyptologist and journalist: ‘The disturbing element has passed away, doubtless the sky will be brighter.’ The next person to suffer the highhandedness of Davis, the Welsh artist Harold Jones, noted: ‘The pleasure of excavating is spoilt by Davis’ interference - generally ignorant inexperience of the nature of things and of the workmen. He is old and I might almost say stupid at times through his stubborn arrogance. What gives me less trouble, and pleases him most, is to give in to him and let the work suffer ....’

This composite image shows the entrance to the enigmatic Tomb 55 and (Inset) Edward Ayrton its discoverer

This composite image shows the entrance to the enigmatic Tomb 55 and (Inset) Edward Ayrton its discoverer ( Public Domain )

And suffer the work undoubtedly did. In the case of Tomb 55, Davis’s ‘interference’ and ‘stubborn arrogance’ was to affect not only the excavation, recording and publication of the find, but compromise every subsequent interpretation of it. Dr Nicholas Reeves makes a fair assessment of Davis’s manifold contributions: “Egyptology owes Davis an immense debt of gratitude for sponsoring these explorations, at no small expense and, on the whole, with little regard to personal reward.” By the time the old man had completed his stint in the Valley in 1914, he had earned a reputation as ‘the man who found a new tomb every season’.

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