The Discovery of the Valley of the Mummies
by Dr. Zahi Hawass, Director of the Giza Pyramids and Saqqara,
Undersecretary of the State for the Giza Monuments
The Rediscovery of Three Tombs
The sandstone walls crumbled at my touch, a I crouched down to crawl through a passage into the first burial chamber of Ta-Nefret-Bastet, one of a group of Twenty-sixth Dynasty tombs that we had uncovered in a residential area just outside El Bawiti. Roman mummies were stashed in side rooms and were now blackened from resin, the linen flaking away from their bodies like ash to reveal their bones. That day in October 1999 was no different than any other day of digging. I had arrived at the site earlier than usual, while the air was still cool, in order to assess what needed to be done that day, and I noticed a space under one of the walls that I had not seen before. My heart started to race.
When Fakhry found these tombs in 1947, he was eager to move on, hoping to explore as much ground as he could in a short time. So he described the tombs only briefly and left them unexcavated. At that time, a revolution was brewing (one that would result in Egypt's becoming a democratic republic), and the rules pertaining to antiquities changed as quickly as the government bureaucrats and archaeological research foundered. The desert's shifting sand reburied several sites, as it had done repeatedly during political transitions for thousands of years. New people filled positions without knowing what excavation work had been in progress, and important sites were forgotten about.
Because of these conditions, I realized that there might very likely be more to this particular set of tombs than we had originally suspected of the basis of the reports filed by Fakhry fifty years earlier. It was apparent from the substantial space beneath the wall I was looking at that it was not made of solid rock. We had already excavated everything Fakhry had referred to in his work on Bahariya Oasis, so I concluded that there must be another, undiscovered room on the other side of the wall. If so, it would be one that had not been investigated since antiquity -- perhaps, if I was lucky again, an intact tomb.
It is amazing that unknown ancient tombs can still exist in such populated areas, but it is not hard to understand why. No Antiquities Inspectorate had stayed on this site in El Bawiti after Fakhry left in 1950, so the people of the village quickly built homes right on top of the three tombs, perhaps hoping to unearth their own treasures and sell them to support their families during a very difficult economic time. These buildings went up over the ancient site without consequence, since no antiquities laws existed to protect monuments until 1951, and even after that, no inspectors were onsite to enforce them. The tombs had been hidden ever since.
In September 1999, everything was quiet as usual in El Bawiti, when a resident told Ashry Shaker that five local young men were planing to get married. They each needed a house but had no money, so someone in the village suggested that if they dug under the homes near the cenotaph, they might be able to find artifacts they could sell for "marriage money." Ashry Shaker rewarded the man who came to him with this information then promptly related it to me. I told him to have one of his inspectors hide behind the houses to catch the boys when they dug into the earth near the cenotaph. Every night for two weeks Shaker and his assistant waited there, but the boys, who must have been alerted, never showed up. So we began to excavate the area ourselves. About twenty feet down we found the three tombs Fakhry had mentioned: the tombs of Ped-Ashtar, Thaty, and Ta-Nefret-Bastet. The tombs showed evidence of having already been robbed and reused in Roman times, and any remaining artifacts would have been of little value. It was lucky the boys didn't make their way into the tombs, not because there was nothing of value in them, but because if they had been caught, they would not be living in new marriage houses now. They would have been put in jail for more than five years. In any case, we are fortunate that this incident in 1999 led us to rediscover the site.