The Secret Tombs of Ancient Egypt

From the Lecture Series: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

Many aspects of ancient Egypt have been a mystery for thousands of years. Among them are the secret tombs, ordered and built in the Valley of the Kings by a pharaoh from a later dynasty to secure his predecessors’ remains. Let us try to learn about these tombs.

The tombs of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt.
The Valley of the Kings, situated near Luxor, is the location of the secret tombs of ancient Egypt. (Image: Anton Belo/Shutterstock)

The Need for the Secret Tombs

During one of those periods when Egypt was sliding again and wasn’t the great power it used to be, the Valley of the Kings where the royal tombs of many kings and queens were located was no longer being closely guarded. Hence, there were a series of tomb raids by thieves. 

A later king, from the 21st dynasty, ordered the damaged and defiled mummified remains of his predecessors from the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties to be reburied in a safe, secret, and hidden place. Secretly, he got a tomb constructed, and reburied the remains of his predecessors.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

An Opportunity for the Embalmers

This move also brought an exceptional opportunity for the embalmers of ancient Egypt to understand and improve upon the process of mummification. They were asked by the king from the 21st dynasty to repair the badly damaged bodies of his predecessors.

While repairing the bodies, they could see the quality of mummification done by their ancestors. They also had a chance to see how a mummy looked liked after two centuries.

The Discovery of the Secret Tombs

The tombs remained a secret for millennia. In the late 1870s, fantastic royal jewelry began appearing on the Egyptian antiquities market. People were puzzled and began to ask questions like where did it all come from?

Even beautiful papyri for kings and queens were being sold. People thought that perhaps modern tomb robbers had found a royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings

Thieves and the Hidden Tombs

The golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamun.
The modern tomb robbers used different strategies to discover the hidden tombs. (Image: Sean M Smith/Shutterstock)

The thieves were quite clever, sharp, and intelligent. Rainfall in Egypt is very infrequent, especially in the south where Luxor is located. The Valley of the Kings is situated near Luxor. However, when there was an occasional downpour, that is when they searched for the hidden tombs.

They looked to see where the water was running off, where it was disappearing into the ground. Moreover, they looked for stones that weren’t like the stones of the area.

When they spotted little fragments of pink granite, they knew they had found a hidden burial chamber. Pink granite did not belong to that part of Egypt and in ancient times had been brought there from other parts of the kingdom to cover the sarcophagus. 

 Learn more about the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.

The Rassul Family

Eventually, the Rassul family became the prime suspects. They lived in the town of Gourneh, right near the Valley of the Kings. The Rassul family were infamous in that region as being grave-robbers and tomb thieves dating back many generations.

The family members were harshly interrogated and tortured by the police before finally confessing and taking the authorities to the spot where they had found a secret tomb.

Émile Brugsch Inspects the Hidden Tomb

Now the tomb was more than anybody could have ever expected. Émile Brugsch, an inspector, was sent down to see this tomb. He was led up a mountain path at Deir el Bahri, near Hatshepsut’s temple. There was a pit going down a shaft, and he was lowered down through this shaft.

He found dozens of coffins in the passageway. As he walked through, he saw little servant statues on the floor that had been buried with these people. He found boxes for the women’s wigs. As he went by, there was another room and there were still more mummies.

 Learn more about the rise of the Old Kingdom.

The Deir el Bahri Mummy Cache

These were the mummies of the kings and queens of Egypt from different dynasties: Tuthmosis I, who had constructed the first tomb in the Valley of the Kings; Tuthmosis III, the great warrior king; Ramses the Great, who was from the next dynasty. He also found mummies of kings and queens of the 21st dynasty, still further into the future.

How could these mummies spanning such a period of time all come together? Brugsch was really puzzled. He had found the secret tomb that was constructed by the king from the 21st dynasty. This is what we know as the Deir el Bahri mummy cache.

The Shifting of Mummies

Brugsch had the responsibility of removing these mummies because the people of Gourneh had made their living by robbing tombs forever. He had to move them quickly to avoid further robberies.

So, all these mummies were brought up and placed on a steamer. They were going to be placed in the old Egyptian Museum which was then in Boulaq, a suburb of Cairo.

Common Questions about the Secret Tombs of Ancient Egypt

Q: What did the later king from the 21st dynasty do?

A later king, from the 21st dynasty, ordered the damaged and defiled mummified remains of his predecessors from the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties to be reburied in a safe, secret, and hidden place.

Q: How could robbers gain access to the tombs of kings?

During a period when ancient Egypt was in decline and no longer a great power, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were not closely guarded, allowing thieves and robbers easy access to the burial sites.

Q: How did people suspect that a secret tomb had been found?

Royal jewelry and other artifacts began appearing on the Egyptian antiquities market. This created quite a buzz among the people and they began to wonder whether a new royal tomb had been discovered in the Valley of the Kings.

Keep Reading
How Did Tutankhamun’s Mummy Remain Intact Inside the Tomb?
Finding Tutankhamun’s Tomb: A Historical Account
The Tomb of Tuthmosis III, Its Architecture, and Writings