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Mere feet from the most celebrated Egyptian tomb-discovery of all time, a U of M archaeology team is making an international name of its own.

Passageway to Ancient Egypt
by Blair Dedrick

  Nichols

Sharon Nichols, a U of M graduate student, meticulously examines the contents of a storage jar found in the tomb. Pottery, seal impressions and exquisitely decorated pottery fragments have been found in the vessels.

Shortly after Dr. Lorelei Corcoran and a University of Memphis excavation team unearthed a mystery of Ancient Egyptian proportions, she left the door open for more drama to come.

"It is amazing to think that such a significant find lay beneath the feet of hundreds of thousands of visitors," says Corcoran, director of the U of M's Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology (IEAA). "Who knows what else remains to be found?"

Corcoran was referring to the monumental discovery of a tomb in the Valley of the Kings by U of M archaeologists — a find perhaps unrivaled since that of King Tutankhamun's in 1922. Given the fact that the discovery lies just 50 feet from Tutankhamun's, Egypt's top tourist destination after The Pyramids of Giza, just who does know what else might be found?

The discovery has propelled the U of M and the IEAA into the international spotlight — it has been detailed in newspapers throughout the United States and United Kingdom, including multiple articles in The New York Times, extensive coverage on BBC and CNN and a special that aired on the Discovery Channel June 4. The search-engine Google reported that the story was the most sought-after item the day after the find was announced in February.

Interestingly enough, if not for the tomb of another king, Amenmesse (1203-1200 B.C.), the discovery might never have occurred. In March 2005 as part of an 11-year-old project sponsored by the IEAA, Corcoran and U of M adjunct professor Dr. Otto Schaden were leading an excavation team charged with clearing and documenting Amenmesse's tomb. The group, working in collaboration with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, was excavating workmen's huts on the eastern side of Amenmesse's tomb when it found corners of a cut limestone shaft, evidence of another possible tomb. With the end of the season upon them, the archaeologists had to fill in the excavation and return home, not knowing what the future might hold.

The U of M team returned in December 2005 and Egyptian workmen began removing the fill. In late January of this year, the archaeologists began to dig into the shaft and in early February, about 22 feet below ground level, the sealed top of the doorway that led to the tomb chamber became visible. With the first glimpse inside, the archaeologists knew they had found something special.

Excavation team  

U of M student Sharon Nichols (at right, holding light), Dr. Lorelei Corcoran (far right) and other members of the excavation team sift through contents of the storage jars that were found in the tomb.

"While lying prone on the surface, shining a beam of a flashlight into the room, it was possible to discern shapes in the darkness: First a number of large pottery vessels and then a pale-colored face that was turned toward the door," says Corcoran. "It is difficult to describe the incredible feeling of elation shared by the team during those moments of recognition that indeed a new tomb had been found in the Valley of the Kings ..."

For Sharon Nichols, the only U of M student on the project, the feeling was intense.

"When we first looked in, all the storage jars were lined up, and we knew it hadn't been touched," says the MA candidate in Egyptian Art and Archaeology. "I was kind of numb. It's almost bittersweet because I didn't know how I should feel. It's really sacred."

Corcoran says there was much excitement leading up to actually entering the tomb, but that the mood changed once the time came.

"Everyone was anxious to see inside," she says, "and I imagined that entering that room would be similar to the experience of the first human to step foot on the face of the moon. But when the doorway was cleared, an incredible thing happened. It was as if there remained an invisible barrier that still separated the shaft from the sacred space of the chamber and unexpectedly the idea of entering the chamber seemed strangely disquieting.

"It was reassuring that the first individuals who worked in the tomb were conservators," Corcoran continues. "Somehow the antiseptic sight of them in their masks and gloves was comforting and reassuring that the material was first treated with professionalism and respect."

The team found seven anthropoid-shaped wooden coffins in the tomb, including a "coffinette" 18 inches in length. The coffins were all covered with black resin and some had yellow faces and painted or inlaid eyes. Termites had so ravaged the wood of the coffins that in some instances the wood had the consistency of cigarette ashes, making major conservation efforts necessary, Corcoran says.

"The coffins [don't contain] mummies, but this has not been a disappointment since the contents have proved equally intriguing," Corcoran says.

One of the coffins covered in black resin lay resting atop two others. Its contents: feather pillows covered in fine linen and an even bigger surprise.

"When the pillows were removed from the coffin ... a miniature anthropoid-shaped coffinette was seen to have been placed with its lid and trough separated at the foot-end of the coffin," Corcoran says. "The lid of the tiny coffinette was upside down so that at first one could only see the outline of the shape and the black resin that coated its underside.

  Schaden with confinette

U of M adjunct professor Dr. Otto Schaden (at left) revels in the moment after a gold coffinette was found in the tomb discovered by University archaeologists.

"When it was lifted out and turned right side up, everyone gasped to see that it was gilded," she says. "Amazingly, this moment was captured on film by the Discovery Channel as it happened!"

Although Nichols describes her job with the team as mostly sorting and cataloguing small items, she made one find Corcoran says is truly significant. While sorting through the contents of one of the storage jars, Nichols came across a small clump of mud and was able to identify it as an official seal. Corcoran was the first to read the hieroglyphs on it, which revealed the name of the sun god, Aten, who was worshipped during the Amarna period. This inscription securely dates the material to the late 18th Dynasty, she says, when Akhenaten (1351-1334 B.C.) and Tutankhamun (1333-1323 B.C.) ruled. Akhenaten created a new and controversial religion that revolved around the worship of the sun god as a single deity. After his death, a revolution occurred to revert to the old religious ways.

Labeling the tomb has been difficult as the find is unique. Early statements predicted it would be that of royalty and media reported incorrectly that all of the coffins contained mummies.

Now, Corcoran says, there are two distinct possibilities. "The first is that it represents the remains of an original burial that was for some reason desecrated and whatever bits that could be preserved were therefore repackaged and re-consecrated for burial," she says.

Another possibility is that the tomb is an embalming cache, like Tutankhamun's. For the ancient Egyptians, all embalming supplies, such as natron and cloth, had to be kept near the tomb because they were considered sacred, although unclean, and therefore not allowed inside the tomb. While the 12 opened jars have revealed contents similar to those found in the earlier cache, Corcoran says there are also significant differences.

"The most obvious is that this is housed in an exquisitely cut, although completely undecorated, chamber and that it contains beautifully carved and painted coffins," she notes.

For the remainder of this excavation season, members of the team still in Egypt will work to preserve the remaining items in the tomb. They also must map the tomb without any objects inside, take numerous photographs and finally fill it back in completely to end the work.

For Nichols, the opportunity to spend a semester in Egypt was an amazing experience — not to mention the impressive addition to her resume. She plans to finish her thesis this summer before returning to Egypt in the fall having been invited to work with an American excavation team at the Giza Plateau.

"I feel like I know the Valley of the Kings like a neighborhood," she says. "The tombs are all friends. You can look at it in books, but until you stand there and try to read the hieroglyphs for yourself, you don't understand."
IEAA-sponsored projects are funded by private donations and the State of Tennessee. For information on how to support IEAA outreach and scholarly programs, contact development director Patty Bladon at 901/678-4372 or pbladon@memphis.edu.

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