Egypt: KV55 in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at Luxor

KV55 in the Valley of the Kings

on the West Bank at Luxor

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

Tomb KV55 (possibly belonging to Akhenaten, Tiy or Smenkhkare) is not open to the public, yet it has been said that more has been written about KV55, a tomb in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at Luxor (ancient Thebes), than any of the others located in that area. Whether this remains so today is questionable, but it is still a mystery tomb with many important secrets, that if given up, could answer important questions about the 18th Dynasty.

Excavation History

KV55 in the Valley of the Kings

The tomb was discovered by Edward Ayrton (an American lawyer turned Egyptologist), while working as an excavator for Theodore Davis, on January 6th, 1907. He had been working west of the tomb of Ramesses IX (KV6) on a pottery jar cache when he accidentally uncovered the entrance to KV55. The tomb was partially sealed by its original door and plastered, which was then stamped with the "jackal and nine captives" stamp, the same seal found on the tomb of Tutankhamun. Apparently that barrier had been breached, and later the corridor was filled with limestone rubble, to within a meter of the ceiling, that flowed out into the single chamber and once again blocked off with a roughly built wall of limestone over the remains of the original barrier. This probably occurred during the 20th Dynasty, when other tombs in the area were also resealed. However, even this barrier, which was situated atop rubble rather than the bedrock, did not last but it appears that when the tomb of Ramesses IX was cut the chips and debris spilled over the entrance, effectively sealing it once more. We are told that the rough limestone barrier should have been better investigated, but that Ayton perhaps was more interested in the treasure that might lie within.In fact, it is rather clear that the tomb was excavated somewhat hurriedly, as well as haphazardly.

KV55 in the Valley of the Kings

There was considerable water damage within the tomb from a leak above the doorway that continued down into the tomb. This crack was repaired in ancient times. By 1908, the objects discovered thus far in the tomb had all been removed and a steel door erected at the entrance. Most of the items taken from the tomb ended up in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo, while a few miscellaneous objects also found their way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A few other objects also went to European museums such as the RMO in Leiden. These artifacts all date from the time of Amenhotep III to the reign of Tutankhamun and those that are inscribed have the names of Queen Tiy, Amenhotep III or Tutankhamun. However, soon after Davis finished excavation, a number of items turned up missing, apparently stolen by workmen. Gold bands that once encircled the base of the coffin were taken, and only recently returned. Most of the other items were "ransomed" early on by Davis. In about 1922, Howard Carter found a few items from the tomb in a cleft in the rock at the tomb entrance. Afterwards, Harry Burton who was working for Howard Carter, in 1923 set up a darkroom within the tomb to develop photographs of the finds taken from the tomb of Tutankhamun. During this period the steel door to the tomb entrance went missing and was replaced by stones. Yet by 1944, this barrier too collapsed and the tomb began to fill with debris. In 1959, Elisabeth Thomas drew a sketch of the tomb plan, and recently the tomb was further investigated by Lyla Pinch Brock, who turned up a few additional items while clearing the tomb in 1993. Later, in 1996, she repaired the plaster in the burial chamber and restored the broken stairway.

Burial chamber before cleanup

Burial chamber after cleanup

Burial chamber before and after cleanup Tomb Layout and Design

Tomb Layout and Design

This tomb likely started out as a private tomb, and was then reworked partially as a royal tomb, but at some point its construction was interrupted so that its size and form more closely resembles a private tomb still. The entrance stairs, consisting of 21 steps, are cut fairly deep into the overhang of the rock, like royal tombs, but beyond, there is only a corridor, measuring 1.8 meters wide and about 2.5 meters high, and one chamber. This burial chamber measures about seven meters long by five meters wide by four meters high. However, black vertical masons' marks indicate that another room on the east side of the burial chamber was also intended. Furthermore, an ostracon, discovered fairly recently by Brock and painted with what appears to have been the tomb plan, along with masons' marks on the walls near the entrance indicate that the entrance was enlarged, the ceiling raised and the number of stairs increased, and at some point, also lowered. These would all evidence the intention of turning what was a private tomb into a royal tomb. The sloping passage and burial chamber resemble the design elements of Tutankhamun's tomb, which itself was originally meant to be a private tomb, as well as the tomb of Yuya and Tuya, which indeed is a private tomb. Furthermore, current excavators such as Kent Weeks believe all three tombs were probably cut at the same time. Also, the entrance cutting seems to have been duplicated in WV23, belonging to Ay and WV25.


The walls of the tomb were plastered, but never decorated which further suggests the intent to make a royal tomb out of what was to originally be a private tomb. This plaster work appears to have been done some years after the tomb was originally quarried. However, it is interesting that most of the plaster on the north wall had already been lost by the time of the actual burials.

Discoveries within the Tomb

The perplexity of this tomb began when it was originally entered, for on top of the fill in the corridor lay a door leaf and a large panel that turned out to be from a large gilded wooden shrine prepared by Akhenaten, the heretic king, for his mother's (Tyi, Tiye) burial in el-Amarna. This was his new city established to honor the king's love affair with Aten, the sun disk. As the excavators crawled and burrowed atop the fill to the burial chamber, they encountered more bits and pieces of the shrine. However, as with most of the objects left behind by this king, his (we believe) figure and cartouche had been erased during ancient times from the remains of this artifact.

Top - A seal with throne name of Amenhotep III; Bottom: A magic brick inscribed with the throne name of Akhenaten

Top - A seal with throne name of Amenhotep III; Bottom: A magic brick inscribed with the throne name of Akhenaten

Within the burial chamber itself was found a somewhat decayed wooden coffin, obviously of royal origins with the crook and flail visible, as well as an uninscribed bronze uraeus. Here too, however, the cartouches had been cut out and the bottom part of the gold face mask viscously torn away. Within the coffin lay a mummy wearing a gold vulture pectoral. Approximately in three corners of the burial chamber were fragments from four mud "magical bricks" (with one under the coffin) along with a variety of broken funerary equipment consisting of fragments of wooden furniture, hematite and blue glazed vases, boxes and ritual implements. Within a large niche on the south wall, probably begun as an entrance to another side room, lay four, unused calcite canopic jars. The coffin and canopic jars seem to have been originally prepared for a woman but adapted for the use of a male.

More recent finds within the tomb by Brock include pieces of granite and quartzite, several beads, the Ostracon mentioned above, fragments from the original plaster door sealing that were stamped with mostly illegible impressions, blue painted pottery fragments and a hieratic docket and mud seal related to an estate in the Sinai and another estate belonging to Sitamun, a daughter and wife of Amenhotep III.

The coffin missing part of the gold in the face mask

The coffin missing part of the gold in the face mask

Regrettable, some small, but perhaps very important objects from this tomb were scattered about. Of late, considerable attention has been given to a "coffin basin" and gold foil sheets found within the coffin. These were some of the items that turned up missing from the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, those some of it may never have made it that far. There is considerable debate concerning how these various items turned up, and how they turned up, but what appears to be the most important aspect of their "modern discovery" is that at least some of the items appear to have been inscribed. Yet, even considering the importance that many amateur and professional Egyptologists assign to this tomb, it is perhaps surprising that even some of the visible inscriptions have not been fully analyzed. While we will not go into the long stories involved with the history of these objects, it does appear probable that the name of Smenkhkare, a probable successor (or predecessor) to Tutankhamun, does appear on a few of them. On the other hand, an official of Germany's Munich Museum is reportedly said that inscriptions on the coffin basin would "surprise many Egyptologists". We suppose someday this statement will be clarified.

Who's Tomb and Who's Burial

Who this tomb was originally built for is most likely lost to us. Davis was convinced that the tomb was redone for Queen Tiy, and he apparently rejected any other explanation. He believed that the head snapped off of the canopic jars were of this Queen, and indeed, the haircut given the human heads was popular for both men and women of this period. He also believed that the vulture pectoral bent about the mummy was the queen's crown, and of course there was also the shrine that was clearly hers.

the gold pectoral

The gold pectoral

Weigall, who representative the antiquities service, however, thought that the bones could not be those of Queen Tiye. He thought they belonged to a man, perhaps Akhenaten and this tomb was the result of his mummy being quickly removed from el-Amarn. To support his theory Weigall pointed to everywhere in the tomb where a name had been erased, and especially on the coffin, the gold mummy bands which had encircled the body and the ripped apart gold portrait mask. He also thought that the gold pectoral vulture was not a queen's crown but the 'vulture collar' of pharanoic burials.

To Davis' credit, he invited both a European physician from Luxor and a prominent American obstetrician who was visiting Thebes to examine the body while it was still in the tomb in order to decide its sex. Apparently both surgeons, after examining the pelvis of the mummy (which was quite visible due to the wrappings having decayed), instantly agreed that it was the pelvis of a woman. Today, we know that the physicians erred, perhaps because of the post-mortem damage done on the skeleton that resulted in the separation of the hip bones from the sacrum. Since then, a number of experts have re-examined the mummy with the conclusion that it is in fact that of a male.

Canopic Jars from the tomb

Canopic Jars from the tomb

However, now feeling vindicated, Davis went on to publish his account of the excavations as "The Tomb of Queen Tiye" (Tiy). Then, in 1907, the mummy was sent to Elliot Smith who was a Professor of Anatomy in Cairo. He was apparently, to Davis' dismay, the first to identify the mummy as that of a male. However, he further concluded that the bones were that of a young male in his mid-twenties. Smith thought that the bones were those of Akhenaten, but of course Egyptologists immediately disagreed. Akhenaten obviously lived a much longer life, given all of the events that transpired during his reign.

It was Norman de Garis Davies who first thought that the bones might be those of the other missing ruler of that time, Smenkhkare. However, Elliot Smith later thought of a new theory. He reasoned that the bones were thought to belong to a man in his mid-twenties because of a medical condition called Frohlich Syndrome.

KV55 in the Valley of the Kings

With this medical condition the bones of an older person may in fact appear much younger. Smith offered the example of a 36 year old man whose bones appeared to be those of a 22-23 year old. To back his theory Elliot Smith also noted another effect of Frohlich Syndrome. Those afflicted with the decease have an enlargement of the skull and an overgrowth of the mandible, attributes found in many of the depictions of Akhenaten. It was the perfect answer to both the identity of the mummy in the tomb and the strange appearance of Akhenaten. Yet this theory also lacks creditability. Another symptom of the syndrome is that men are unable to father any children, and it is known that Akhenaten had at least five daughters. Also all the royal family at the time were represented with the strange bodies, which could represent a new style of depicting the Pharaoh during this period. Now, almost a century after the tomb's discovery, the issue of who's mummy was found in the tomb and who the tomb was modified for is still hotly debated. There are three major sets of evidence that sponsor the debate. One set consists of the shrine and a number of minor items of furniture that are associated with the burial of Queen Tiy. These objects seem to indicate that she was buried in this tomb, though her mummy and most of her funerary equipment were absent. It could have been removed when workmen quarrying the tomb of Ramesses IX (KV6) above it stumbled upon this tomb. The absence of her mummy bears little light on the matter, for it was discovered along with others in the Amenhotep II cache in that king's tomb (KV35). It, along with others, were removed for safe keeping during antiquity, but from what tomb we are uncertain.

An inlay from which a cartouche has been removed, most probably the name of Akhenaten

An inlay from which a cartouche has been removed, most probably the name of Akhenaten

Another set of evidence includes the mummy, coffin, canopic jars and magic bricks. These items were perhaps originally prepared for a secondary wife of Akhenaten named Kiya. However, we believe she fell out of grace with that king in year eleven of his reign, and sometime afterwards were redesigned for a male, and probably a king. But of course, most of the cartouches and other references to this king had been removed from the items, or were never inscribed in the first place.

Finally, we should take into account the multiple openings and closings of this tomb, as evidenced by the evolution of barriers erected during ancient times. We may not simply assume that that all of these were the result of robberies, though it has been suggested that the tomb could have been reentered in order to remove the cartouches of Akhenaten.

Some Egyptologists believe that Akhenaten and his mother were most likely originally entombed at el-Amarna and that they were both later moved to the West Bank at Thebes by Tutankhamun, who was (almost certainly) Akhenaten's son. It had become obvious that the priesthood would not allow Akhenaten's new religion after his death, so his old capital was abandoned.

Modern analysis provided some evidence that the body was, in fact, that of Akhenaten, though it has also proven problematic. As Arthur Weigall states:

"The body was lying in a coffin inscribed with Akhenaton's name; it was bound around with ribbons inscribed with his name; it had the physical characteristics of the portraits of Akhenaton; it had the idiosyncracies of a religious reformer such as he was; it was that of a man of Akhenaton's age as deduced from the monuments; it lay in the tomb of Akhenaton's mother; those who erased the names must have thought it to be Akhenaton's body, unless one supposes an utter chaos of cross-purposes in their actions; and finally, there is nobody else who, with any degree of probability, it could be."

Unfortunately, the latest estimates of the mummy's age range between 20 and 26 years, which conflicts with the archaeological analysis. However, it should be noted that this analysis was made based on wisdom teeth from the mummy, which may not yield a completely accurate age. Furthermore, the burial of both Tiy and and Akhenaten at the same time in this tomb does not provide a reason for the multiple openings and closing of the tomb. One possible explanation suggested by some is that the mummy of Akenaten was later removed from the tomb and replaced with another mummy, possibly that of Akhenaten's favored son-in-law. A number of other theories seem to float around Egyptology circles, but few seem to meet all the criteria of the evidence.

Gold foil reported to have the cartouche of Smenkhkare

Gold foil reported to have the cartouche of Smenkhkare

One theory suggests that the burial was actually that of Smenkhkare, a Pharaoh who may have followed Tutankhamun, but soon perished and was subjected to a hastily arranged burial. This theory holds that his funerary equipment was gathered from various sources (much as items in the tomb of Tutankhamun were "borrowed" from others). It appears that a recently discovered piece of gold foil bearing the cartouche of Smenkhkare may lend some support to this theory.

Others believe that Queen Tiy was originally buried in WV22 along with her husband, Amenhotep III, and Akhenaten was originally buried at el-Amarna. Then, during the reign of Tutankhamen, Tiy was reburied in KV55 and, perhaps several years later, Akhenaten was also buried there in a coffin that had been altered for him. However, it seems somewhat odd that Tutankhamen would remove his grandmother from his grandfather's tomb. Furthermore, there are indications that Tiy outlived her husband by a number of years, and was never buried with him in the first place.

So the riddle continues, and may never be answered. Time and advances in technology may eventually tell us whether the body found in KV55 is indeed that of the heretic king, Akhenaten, or some other, but it may never reveal the whole story behind this mystery tomb, even though it is clear that all the evidence is not even available to us that exists.

General Site Information

  • Structure: KV 55
  • Location: Valley of the Kings, East Valley, Thebes West Bank, Thebes
  • Owner: Tiye (?) or Akhenaten (?)
  • Other designations:
  • Site type: Tomb


  • Axis in degrees: 92.25
  • Axis orientation: East

Site Location

  • Latitude: 25.44 N
  • Longitude: 32.36 E
  • Elevation: 171.23 msl
  • North: 99,597.776
  • East: 94,079.536
  • JOG map reference: NG 36-10
  • Modern governorate: Qena (Qina)
  • Ancient nome: 4th Upper Egypt
  • Surveyed by TMP: Yes


  • Maximum height: 3.93 m
  • Mininum width: 1.34 m
  • Maximum width: 6.63 m
  • Total length: 27.61 m
  • Total area: 84.3 m
  • Total volume: 185.25 m

Additional Tomb Information

  • Entrance location: Valley floor
  • Owner type: Unknown, possibly royal
  • Entrance type: Staircase
  • Interior layout: Corridor and chambers
  • Axis type: Straight

Categories of Objects Recovered

  • Accessories
  • Carpenters' and sculptors' tools
  • Furniture
  • Human mummies
  • Jewellery
  • Models
  • Scarabs and seals
  • Sculpture
  • Tomb equipment
  • Vessel stands
  • Vessels
  • Warfare and hunting equipment
  • Written documents


History of Exploration

  • Ayrton, Edward Russell (1907): Discovery (made for Theodore M. Davis)
  • Ayrton, Edward Russell (1907-1908): Excavation (conducted for Theodore M. Davis)
  • Brock, Lyla Pinch (1992-1993): Excavation


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Chronicle of the Pharaohs (The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt) Clayton, Peter A. 1994 Thames and Hudson Ltd ISBN 0-500-05074-0
Complete Valley of the Kings, The (Tombs and Treasures of Egypt's Greatest Pharaohs) Reeves, Nicholas; Wilkinson, Richard H. 1966 Thames and Hudson Ltd IBSN 0-500-05080-5
Mummies Myth and Magic El Mahdy, Christine 1989 Thames and Hudson Ltd ISBN 0-500-27579-3
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2

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