Egypt: Royal Caches at Deir el-Bahri

Royal Caches at Deir el-Bahri

by Marie Parsons

Marie Parsons

ancient egyptian coffin in a tomb

When the Antiquities Society was formed in Cairo by Auguste Mariette in 1858, for the first time, controls were placed on excavations and exports of discovered artifacts. Anyone planning to dig had to first obtain a signed agreement from the Society, and inspectors thereafter had to be allowed on site any time. No tomb could b entered without an inspector present, and the contents of any violated tomb had to be first presented to the new Egyptian Museum. After the Museum made its selections from amongst the artifacts, the rest would belong to the excavator. Contents of unviolated, or intact, tombs would remain the property of the Egyptian government.

But illicit excavations continued. Amelia Edwards, one of the travelers to Egypt in the late 19th century, who recorded her observations and perceptions, herself witnessed such a dig, and was able to see a coffin brought to light, carved with hieroglyphics and the Four Sons of Horus (so she wrote.) She further recorded that "Objects of great rarity and antiquity were being brought to Europe every season by travelers who had purchased them from native dealers living on the spot; and many of these objects were historically traceable to certain Royal dynasties which made Thebes their royal cityAt length, suspicion became certainty."

What was this suspicion all about?

In 1874, Gaston Maspero, the head of the Antiquities Service in Cairo, noticed that on the antiquities market, figures bearing royal names from the 21st Dynasty, a wooden tablet inscribed in scribal ink, a papyrus belonging to Queen Nedjmet, and other artifacts were being sold. Other important objects like papyri, shabti-figurines, bronze vessels, inscribed wrapping, and perhaps even at least one mummy (that of the missing Ramesses I?), were also leaking out onto the Luxor antiquities market. Maspero knew these came from no licensed excavation, yet, they had to have come from somewhere.

Maspero sent investigators but they learned nothing for years, while antiquities continued to appear. Finally in 1881 Maspero enlisted the aid of Charles Wilbour, a wealthy American collector, who was known to be willing to pay high prices for authentic antiquities. Within a few days of his arrival in Luxor, Wilbour made contact with a local guide who brought him to the village of Qurnah and the house of Ahmed Abd el Rassul. Wilbour was shown a quantity of red leather, looking as fresh as if it had just been opened, and stamped with the titles of an 18th Dynasty king. Wilbour immediately telegraphed Maspero.

Since the apparent culprits for the illegal sales were three brothers of the family of Abd el Rasul, Maspero issued warrants for the arrests of Ahmed and Hussein el-Rassul. Mustapha Agha Ayat, the consular agent for Britain, Belgium, and Russia, stationed in Luxor, was also implicated. The governor of Qurnah gave Maspero permission to interrogate Ahmed el Rasul. But Ahmed refused to confess, and the mayor and leading townspeople of Qurna testified to his honesty on his behalf. Hussein was never heard of again however. Shortly thereafter, the authorities heard that quarrels had sprung up between the brothers: Ahmed insisted upon taking a half-share in profits from the treasure trove, as compensation for his jail time.

Mohammed el-Rassul, the eldest brother, then turned informer, and went to the authorities to divulge the location of the hidden tomb. The story Mohammed told of the discovery of the tomb was this: One day, years before, a goat belonging to Ahmed had strayed from its herd on the cliffs in the bay of Deir el-Bahri. When Ahmed investigated and followed the bleating of his animal, he found that it had fallen down one of the vertical tomb-shafts, which honeycombed the cliffs. As he cursed the goat, he descended after it and found himself in a cramped corridor, cluttered with dark shapes. After he lit a candle, he saw that the shapes were a collection of dusty wooden coffins, stretching as far as he could see, heaped one upon another. Ahmed could see the occasional uraeus, the royal cobra, and several cartouches inscribed on the coffin lids. He also found shabtis, shabti-boxes, canopic jars, and other funerary paraphernalia. Ahmeds eyes must have widened, as he realized that this was a royal find.

The el-Rassul family lived comfortably off the proceeds of their tomb, until, in the mid-1870s, the growing number of important funerary papyri reaching the west, as well as other objects in circulation on the local antiquities market gave the game away.

Mohammed then took the officials of the Antiquities Society to Deir el Bahri. He showed them the actual tomb chamber, which contained coffins of some of ancient Egypts greatest Kings of the New Kingdom. The funerary trappings had disappeared, the gold sarcophagi had been melted down, and the mummies had even been re-wrapped. But there they lay, beside the mummies of non-royal mummies.

Since Gaston Maspero was in France by this time, Emile Brugsch, an assistant at the museum in Bulaq, was called in to investigate the find. As he lowered himself into the shaft, Brugsch saw a low corridor piled high with "cases of porcelain funerary offerings, metal and alabaster vessels, draperies, trinkets, and then around a passage, a cluster of mummy casesin such numbers"

The mummies of kings that were found in this cache were Seqenenre-Taa, who had fought the Hyksos and bore a great head wound as apparent evidence, Ahmose I, the founder of the New Kingdom, Amenhotep I, the first three Tutmosids, Seti I, Ramesses II, III and IX, and the coffin of Ramesses I. Within a matter of days, the tomb was emptied, and its occupants, in excess of 50 kings, princes, and courtiers, with almost 6,000 accompanying objects, were sent to Bulaq.

mummy of Ramesses II

Prior to this find, it was already clear that each king was buried separately and independently of his predecessor(s). And each burial certainly had beautiful coffins, and funerary objects lain to rest with them. So why this jumbled collection? And why were some of the coffins in such poor condition, not truly suited to their royal tenants.

One indication of the reason for this reburial was the following text written in ink on the bandages of the mummy of Ramesses II:

"Year 15, 3rd month of Akhet, Day 6: Day of bringing the Osiris king Usermaatre-setepenre (Ramesses II), Life! Prosperity! And Health!, to renew him and to bury him in the tomb of the Osiris king Menmaatre-Seti (I) Life! Prosperity! Health! By the high priest of Pinudjem."

So apparently the mummy of Ramesses II had been removed from his tomb, and re-buried in the tomb of Seti I, and then both those mummies and that of Ramesses I, had been removed and reburied within the tomb of Queen Inhapy. With these movements, the kings had lost most of their original burial equipment along the way. Gaston Maspero speculated that these constant moves were prompted by the attentions of tomb-robbers at the end of the New Kingdom. However, experts today believe that the stripping of the dead had not been done by local robbers, but by the state itself, hungry for gold at a time of economic decline. Evidence for this theory comes from the discovery of the funerary equipment and jewels for these earlier kings turning up, reused, in the burials at Tanis of their 21st and 22nd Dynasty successors.

Maspero decided that the mummies fell into two groups, one, dating from the Second Intermediate and New Kingdom periods, poorly coffined, and the second, better equipped and dating from the later Third Intermediate Period.

The final royal resting-place at Deir el-Bahri where these 50+ coffins were found was the family vault of the Theban high priest Pinudjem II, whose relations had occupied the end chamber of the tomb. Several decades later, after Year 11 of Shoshenq I in the 22nd Dynasty, the priestly family was joined by these battered royal mummies.

royal tombs and Antiquities

Mohammed el-Rassul meanwhile took on a job as foreman for the Antiquities Society. In 1891 he led an inspector to yet another site in Deir el Bahri, where bodies of almost 160 successive high priests from Karnak, lay at rest. Since it was suspected that Mohammed had known for quite a while about this cache, he was dismissed from the Society.

But the cache of royal mummies found at Deir el-Bahri was not the only one of its kind. In 1898 Victor Loret, excavating in the Valley of the Kings, not only discovered the tomb of Amenhotep II, but another royal cache in the tomb itself. Thirteen mummies, including those of Amenhotep II, Seti II, and Siptah, lay in this second cache.

In the same room with the magnificent royal sarcophagus, Loret found other corpses, scattered everywhere. The first, thought to be King Sethnakht of the 20th Dynasty, had been laid out on the battered hull of one of Amenhotep IIs wooden model boats, left in the antechamber to the tomb. Three further mummies were found, without coffins, and stripped of their bandages. They were neatly placed in a side-room leading off the burial chamber. The first had long flowing hair and a thick veil on her forehead and left eye. This was the mummy later called "The Elder Lady." The second mummy was that of a young boy, his head shaved except on the right temple, where the sidelock of youth flowed. The third mummy was that of a youthful woman, whose face showed evidence of a dislocated jaw. All three corpses had had their skulls pierced with a large hole, and the breast of each was opened. Experts studying the corpses believe this happened when the bodies were robbed, in order to unwrap the bandages faster and take the amulets and jewelry.

Amenhotep II's tomb

The second side chamber contained nine more bodies, with their wrappings intact, but placed in a variety of ramshackle coffins. Loret soon discovered cartouches on the coffins, and realized that he had found yet another royal cache. He determined that the mummies had been re-buried into the tomb of Amenhotep II at the turn of the 2nd millennium BCE. At that time, Amenhotep II himself had also been "restored." However, everything of any value had been stripped from the coffins.

Amenhotep II was there, of course, in his red quartzite sarcophagus but placed in a coffin inscribed for the much later king Ramesses III, and covered with a lid inscribed for Seti II; Tuthmosis IV was there, and Merenptah in the lower part of a coffin inscribed for Setnakht, Seti II, Siptah, Ramesses IV, Ramesses V and Ramesses VI. The last of these mummies was an anonymous female lying on the upturned lid of a coffin inscribed for Setnakht. The heads of Siptah, Seti II, Ramesses IV, Ramesses VI and possibly even Ramesses V all bore similar cranial holes to those found on the bodies of Siptah and the others.

In early 1901, the guards watching over this tomb were overpowered, and the tomb itself rifled once again. The mummy that had been laid in the boat vanished, and the mummy of Amenhotep II itself was unwrapped, the amulets and jewels stolen and one arm even torn off.

A footnote to all this: The inspector who had traced the robberies of Amenhotep IIs cache was Howard Carter. He resigned from the Antiquities Service in 1903, but remained in Luxor. Here he met Lord Carnarvon, and four years later they formed a partnership to begin digging. Sources:

Tutankhamen, Life of a Pharaoh, by Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt
Mummies, Myth and Magic by Christine el Mahdy
The Complete Valley of the Kings by Nicholas Reeves
World of the Pharaohs by Christine Hobson
Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries by Nicholas Reeves

Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to

last updated: June 8th, 2011