Offering hopes for tracing the family secrets of the ancient pharaohs, more than 50 royal mummies have emerged in Egypt's Valley of the Kings from a tomb long sealed by rubble and little suspected of harboring royalty. (Related: "Valley of the Kings—Gateway to Afterlife Provides Window on the Past.")
Egyptian antiquities officials, working with archaeologists from Switzerland's University of Basel, reported this week that the royal mummies date from the reigns of the pharaohs Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III in the 14th century B.C. Both pharaohs were members of the 18th dynasty, which included the famous King Tutankhamen, or King Tut, who was buried nearby. (Related: "Replica of King Tut's Tomb to Open in Egypt.")
"They were the royal sons and daughters buried over several decades in this tomb," said Egyptologist Susanne Bickel of the University of Basel's Kings' Valley Project.
The find points to the history, and surprises, still buried in the ancient tombs of Egypt's long-gone rulers, who reigned during one of the high points of the realm's influence and power. (Related: "Tomb of Ancient Egyptian Physician Discovered.")
"It really was a golden age for ancient Egypt," says Egyptologist Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo. "They had a huge empire that stretched from Syria to Nubia. They were not just a military power but an arbiter of culture."
The Egyptian and Swiss team reopened the boulder-choked tomb in 2011. Over the past three years they've dug a 20-foot-long (6 meter) shaft and revealed five rooms.
The rooms were littered with smashed and broken mummies, grave goods, coffins, and funeral materials. The main room and three of the side rooms held the scattered remains of the mummies, including some infants.
Inscribed pottery identified more than 30 of the dead by name. Although the site was long considered unlikely to hold royal remains, it harbored at least eight royal princesses and four princes, as well as foreigners to the court of the long-vanished pharaohs.
The remains of pharaohs of the era have also been discovered in other tombs, and analysis of their ancient DNA may reveal family relations among the royal children.
"They are not just names and fragments now, but real people who we can see lived and we can feel a connection to," Ikram said. The discovery should shed light on social distinctions and mummification practices for the royal of that era.
The archaeologists weren't the first visitors to the tomb. Members of a priestly family from the 9th century B.C. were also buried in the tomb.
But the smashed remains attest to looters sacking the tomb in antiquity and later in the 19th century, Bickel says. The tomb walls and much of its contents have a heavy coating of soot, which was probably left by the torches of grave robbers.
"For us, the excavations are done. Our work is ahead in the lab," Bickel says. "It actually wasn't the mummies themselves that interested us, as much as the materials and inscriptions that we found with them."
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