It all began with a goat. A local man, Ahmed Abd el-Rassul, was searching for his stray animal near the Deir el-Bahri cliffs when he heard bleating coming from the bottom of a steep shaft. Scrabbling down to rescue the goat, he found himself in a rock-cut corridor full of dusty wooden coffins.
It was only after a number of high-quality objects began appearing on the Luxor antiques market over the next few years that the authorities were alerted, in 1881, to the discovery. In the absence of the Director of the Service des Antiquités, Gaston Maspero, who was in France at the time, it fell to Émile Brugsch (an assistant at the Bulaq Museum) and Ahmed Kamal (the ‘first Egyptian Egyptologist’) to investigate. It quickly became clear that this was a finding of exceptional importance: a large burial cache including some of Egypt’s most important pharaohs.
Brugsch had to oversee the rapid clearance of the tomb (TT320 – formerly DB320) in just two days, with more than 50 mummies and nearly 6,000 funerary objects transported to the Bulaq Museum by steamer. Sadly, this haste led to considerable damage to some of the coffins and there was no time for the tomb to be documented. The cache of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Dynasty royal mummies included the bodies of Seqenenra Tao, Ahmose I, Ahmose-Nefertari, Amenhotep I, Thutmose I, II and III, Sety I, and Ramesses II and III, as well as the mummy of Pinedjem II, the Twenty-first Dynasty High Priest of Amun – and the original owner of the tomb (although some scholars believe it was first cut for Amenhotep I). Later research revealed that the original burials of these royals had been disturbed or looted during the late Ramesside Period, so the mummies were repeatedly moved around for their protection, finally ending up in TT320. A number of bodies were found in the wrong coffins, while the bandages of most had to be replaced after they had been ripped apart to find amulets and jewellery in the wrappings. It is possible in this period of severe economic decline that the removal of jewellery from the mummies may have been a state-sanctioned form of looting, carried out by the priests tasked with rewrapping the bodies.
The discovery of the Royal Cache was a key moment in the history of Egyptology. For the first time, archaeologists could put faces to names known only from monuments, statuary, and texts; now modern-day technical advances are gradually revealing more about the lives, health, and family relationships of these ancient kings.
TEXT: Sarah Griffiths