Thu, Jun 01, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Egyptologists crack open coffins to reveal -- pillows

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , VALLEY OF THE KINGS, EGYPT

Egyptologist Otto Schaden, left, examines the top portion of a coffin as Elise van Rooij looks over a coffin found to be stuffed with pillows in a chamber in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt last Wednesday.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

It had been 84 years since a tomb was unearthed here in the scorching desert burial ground for pharaohs, and the hope, of course, was for mummies. What else could be inside the seven coffins, at the bottom of a shaft that until February had been sealed off from all but termites for more than three millenniums?

Very nice pillows, for starters.

"No idea, I'm sorry," Elsie van Rooij, an expert on ancient textiles, said, when asked why it was that some burial worker had stuffed five pillows into the child-size coffin she was examining.

Coffins usually hold bodies. She had never seen anything like it. Naturally, that pleased her.

"A tomb should be mysterious," she said.

After three months of long and painstaking work since the February discovery, with five of the coffins opened, no mummies have been found. So there is a chance that this is not a tomb at all, but rather a cache for used embalming materials.

But there is one big coffin left to open -- the most tantalizing one, sealed, wedged into the back of the space and supported by pillows at its head and feet, with the kind of care that could suggest that someone important is inside.

The US Egyptologists who are working here plan to open it, hoping not only for a mummy but to solve the many mysteries of the new find. They may also shatter a long-held belief that there is nothing important left to find in the Valley of the Kings.

"If it will be a mummy, it will be a big discovery," said Mansour Boraik, the Egyptian government's head of antiquities at Luxor.

The theory that there might be a mummy in the last coffin got a boost on May 24: A small gilded sarcophagus, of a quality that could suggest royalty, was found under the pillows in the small coffin she was examining.

If there is a mummy, Boraik has a best-case scenario of who it might be: Ankhesenpaaten, King Tutankhamen's widow. One of the few pieces of writing found at the bottom of the shaft, on a broken seal, is a part of her name.

"What happened to this widow, we don't know," he said.

Hopes aside, there has never been any suggestion that the new discovery, called KV-63, has anywhere near the significance of KV-62, the last tomb uncovered, in 1922. That one, famously, held the mummy of Tutankhamen and one of the greatest troves of Egyptian artifacts ever found. The valley had given up nothing major since.

The new find is only a few feet away from King Tut's. But it is just one small and unadorned room, at the bottom of a shaft that the US team, led by Otto Schaden, an American Egyptologist who leads a project with the University of Memphis, discovered last year.

He had been digging around some ancient workmen's huts near the tomb of the pharaoh Ay, the last king of the 18th dynasty and the life's work of Schaden. On the last day of the dig, in the last possible place, he came across what he now calls "an unusual situation."

"Lo and behold, there was a dark layer where there should have been bedrock," said Schaden, 68, who smokes a pipe, wears a goatee, has lots of pens in his dusty vest and so looks very satisfyingly like an Egyptologist.

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