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Detail of panel with adoration to Aten.

A Pharaoh Thrice Buried? The Mystery of the Tombs of Pharaoh Akhenaten

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Pharaoh Akhenaten is one of the most mysterious kings of Ancient Egypt. Researchers have discovered three tombs dedicated to him - all full of even more secrets. These tombs do, however, provide fascinating hints about the enigmatic pharaoh’s life.

Akhenaten was the successor of his father Amenhotep III, one of the most successful pharaohs of the New Kingdom Period. However, he wasn't the crown prince of his father's dreams. He had a weak body and was a dreamer and a poet – not exactly an iconic candidate to become a pharaoh. Despite these apparent short-comings, his reign became one of the most meaningful periods in the entire history of Egypt.

This pharaoh’s home was in Thebes, but later he created his own city called the “Horizon of Aten” - now known as Tell-el-Amarna. Akhenaten believed that this city would also be his eternal home, his final destination, and a monument which would make him famous forever. Unfortunately for him, his fame is more connected with the beauty of his wife and the tomb of his son – Tutankhamun.

A colossal statue of Akhenaten from his Aten Temple at Karnak. Egyptian Museum of Cairo.

A colossal statue of Akhenaten from his Aten Temple at Karnak. Egyptian Museum of Cairo. (Gérard Ducher/CC BY SA 2.5)

Tomb WV25

The tomb WV25 was discovered in 1817 by Giovanni Batista Belzoni, an adventurer and traveler. He went to Egypt at the beginning of the 19th century and cleaned the sands out of many ancient places. Belzoni supposed that this tomb belonged to the Third Intermediate Period. He may have discovered a burial of people from this period inside. The description of the burial depicted coffins characteristic to the times of the 21 – 26 dynasties.

Many decades after its discovery, Otto Schaden's team cleared the tomb and identified it as possibly the tomb of Akhenaten. According to the results of their work, it was prepared for a monarch who reigned between Amenhotep III and Ay. It was created with a plan characteristic to the 18th dynasty. However, in this place it's hard to find evidence related to Akhenaten. Only an analysis and dating of the tomb allows one to suggest that it was made for Akhenaten.

Isometric, plan and elevation images of WV25 taken from a 3d model.

Isometric, plan and elevation images of WV25 taken from a 3d model. (R.F.Morgan/CC BY SA 3.0)

The Mystery of KV55

The completely damaged tomb KV55 was discovered on January 3, 1907 by Edward Russell Ayron, and excavator from Theodore Davis’ team. It is located a few meters to the west of the tomb of Ramesses IX (KV6). Although it's very corroded, nowadays it is one of the most famous tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

The tomb was evidently looted and damaged in ancient times, but it still contained treasures which overwhelmed the researchers who found it. The list of findings is impressive. According to Nicolas Reeves and Richard H. Wilkinson, it contained: a shrine and shrine fittings (wood, gilded, and bronze), pall rossettes (gold, bronze), bier fragments (gold), coffin and coffin fittings, uraeus from the statue, statue socle (wood), bes figures, earring fasteners, a vulture collar (gold), a floral collar (gold – inlaid), necklace ornaments, plaques, amulets, beads, foil fragments, canopic jars (calcite), the silver head of a goose, boxes and furniture fragments, a wood hieratic label, tools and fragments of tools, bricks, knives, boomerangs, grapes, papyrus rolls, boxes, pebbles and some small ritual items, and an ostracon with a plan.

Ancient Egyptian royal vulture pectoral and an Egyptian alabaster canopic Jar depicting a likeness of an Amarna-era Queen, from tomb KV55

Ancient Egyptian royal vulture pectoral (Ulises Muñiz/CC BY SA 2.0) and an Egyptian alabaster canopic Jar depicting a likeness of an Amarna-era Queen, from tomb KV55. (Keith Schengili-Roberts/CC BY SA 2.5)

Some of these items belonged to Akhenaten’s second wife Kiya, known as the Great Beloved Wife, to his father Amenhotep III, or to his mother Tiye. One of the clay seals contains the name of his son Tutankhamun.

The most important discovery of all was the skeleton of very badly mummified man. After years of debate, most researchers agree that the remains belong to the pharaoh Akhenaten. According to DNA tests, the man discovered in KV55 was the father of Tutankhamen.

The body lay in the coffin under a representation of a pharaoh without a face suggesting the priests’ punished Akhenaten. In the ancient Egyptian belief system, a person whose portraits and inscriptions of their name were destroyed lived an eternal life without knowing their identity.

The desecrated royal coffin found in Tomb KV55.

The desecrated royal coffin found in Tomb KV55. (Hans Ollermann/CC BY 2.0)

The Eternal House of Amarna

The tomb associated with Akhenaten that was located in his city was discovered by locals around 1887-88. The tomb was badly destroyed after the death of the king and some of the reliefs were damaged, but many others survived. One of the chambers was perhaps dedicated to his mother, queen Tiye, another to his daughter Maketaten.

The funerary equipment discovered inside the tomb was very fragmentary. During their explorations researchers found fragments of vessels, a red granite sarcophagus of Akhenaten, a canopic chest, a lion bier, a model boat (wood), furniture fragments, a sculptor's model, a limestone stela, uraeus heads, inlays, ostraca, jewelry, a knife, pieces of textile, a throwstick, and some other pieces of artifacts. The researchers also found some bones – which have not been unidentified. They perhaps belonged to a human.

The decoration of the tomb was destroyed after Akhenaten’s death, however, some of the most famous depictions of the royal family survived. The best known is the one which shows Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their five daughters within a temple court making offerings to Aten. There is also a depiction of Maketaten and a nurse showing a royal infant. All of the reliefs are in the characteristic style of Akhenaten's times.

A house altar showing Akhenaten, Nefertiti and three of their daughters. 18th dynasty, reign of Akhenaten.

A house altar showing Akhenaten, Nefertiti and three of their daughters. 18th dynasty, reign of Akhenaten. (Public Domain)

The Shadow of a King

Akhenaten is still a very mysterious person for researchers. There are still many gaps in his biography. However, his three tombs brought lots of information about life during his times, and they remain some of the most ''magical'' places in Egypt.

Top Image: Detail of panel with adoration to Aten. Source: Public Domain

By Natalia Klimczak


Dodson A., Amarna Sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, and the Egyptian Counter-Reformation, 2009

Reeves N., Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet, 2005

Aldred, C.,  Akhenaten: King of Egypt, 1991. 

Reeves N., Wilkinson R.H., The Complete Valley of the Kings, 2008.



Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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