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Egyptology  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
20 Oct 1998

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NPR Radio Expeditions
Egyptology
Kent Weeks/ Don Smith

DS
00:00:22 Tell me who you are and how you like to be identified. 00:00:24

KW
00:00:25 Well, I¿m Kent Weeks, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo and calling me Kent is perfectly fine.

DS
00:00:32 Newspaper reporter once identified you as the only living celebrity, what does that mean exactly? ¿ you need to say Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers and disregard the last question¿.

Mic adjustment

DS
00:01:24 A newspaper reporter identified you as the only living celebrity, what was that? 00:01:31

KW
00:01:32 I¿m not sure, I think the only living celebrity in the Valley of the Kings, or something like that. I think it was an AP story.

DS
00:01:38 Well how does that feel being a person a lot of people would consider the most famous Egyptologist or archeologist in the world? 00:01:47

KW
00:01:48 Well, in many ways it¿s very flattering. I¿m not quite sure why people feel that way. I admit that we¿ve made some wonderful discoveries in the Valley of the Kings and I would like to think that our project is a very important one but always amazes me is the popularity of Egyptology among a very large general audience. Whoever heard of a Mesopotamian archeologist going on talk shows or somebody interested in the Neolithic of Northern Europe doing that? There¿s something magic about Egypt that attracts people from all walks of life and from all over the world.

DS
00:02:22How do you account for that?00:02:23

KW
00:02:24 I¿ve tried to account for it. I¿m not sure how. I think first of all, it¿s a combination. Egyptology has in one way everything that is magical and mystical. We¿ve got mummies, of course, and I think that there¿s a little bit of necrophilia, I suspect, in all of us. We¿ve got pyramids and temples of such size that for thousands of years Europeans could not believe that ordinary mortals could ever have constructed them. They had to be the work of superhuman beings or, well more recently, creatures from outer space. We¿ve got gold and jewels and the excitement of exploration, the thrill of the chase and all these things. And, of course, this is added to by Indiana Jones films, the mummy¿s curse the story of Tutankammen, it¿s got a little bit of everything in there and it really does appeal to a lot of people.

DS
00:03:11What first attracted you to it? 00:03:12

KW
00:03:13 I¿ve tried to figure that out, I know that I became interested in Egyptology when I was eight years old and I know that I was fortunate enough to have school teacher, one after the other that not only encouraged the interest but actually had, in their possession a few books on Egyptology that they would lend me. But what the initial impetus was, I don¿t know. Abbott and Costello meet the mummy reading a book about Howard Carter¿s discoveries. I haven¿t a clue, but I know that it was very specific, it wasn¿t archeology, it was ancient Egypt that I was interested in.

DS
00:03:43 And it¿s led to you spending quite a few years in Egypt. How many years have you spent in Egypt? 00:03:47

KW
00:03:48 I first went there in the fall of 1963 and have been there ever since on at least an annual month for a month or two. More recently, my wife and I have lived there, well, for the past fifteen years more or less straight through.

DS
00:04:01Now I¿ve heard that you sunburn easily. Is that a problem?00:04:05

KW
00:04:07 Strangely enough, it¿s not, if I go to the seashore, yes, it¿s a terrible problem. I¿ve got very light complexion and red hair and I will burn in a matter of two minutes. But it is so dry in Luxor, the humidity is so low that I really don¿t have to worry about it all that much. I think that¿s one of the reasons that got me interested in Egyptology so much because I was born and raised just outside Seattle and by the age of eight I¿d had my fill of rain.00:04:30

DS
00:04:33 Let¿s talk about the field of Egyptology and particularly your work. In 1966 you became somewhat of a media phenomenon. You got so many requests for interviews that you actually had to hire and agent. Can you talk about that experience. Is there a little Indiana Jones in you or is all this boring, hard, glamourless work? 00:05:06

KW
00:05:07 Well, I don¿t think that there¿s anything glamourless about it however mundane and plodding the archeological work is. I mean, archeology, is like everything else, for every 5 or 10 minutes of true excitement that you experience there are days, weeks, months of slogging through library references or trying to glue pieces of pottery back together or scraping away the mud from a stone floor. But even that is exciting, even that is fun.

DS
00:05:36 Not to mention being there inside a tomb. How is it? It¿s hot, it¿s airless. What¿s it like? 00:05:45

KW
00:05:46 Well, it¿s all of the above. KV-5 is a tomb that was filled literally to the ceiling with debris washed in by torrential rains that hit the Valley of the Kings, perhaps, once every hundred years. It doesn¿t sound like a lot but that¿s thirty times over the last three millennia. And that debris when it washed into the tomb, dried to the consistency of concrete. So way have the problem of excavating with pick axes through this incredibly hard matrix and at the same time trying to salvage small, very delicate, friable (?) pieces of painted plaster that have fallen off the wall. Because if we look at those small fragments of plaster and note where in the room they lie, in what relation to the walls, we often, at least on paper can reconstruct the scenes they¿re part of.

DS
00:06:32 It¿s it like¿ put us by your side in one of these rooms. What¿s it like? 00:06:41

KW
00:06:42 A typical day might involve now going to work and looking at a tomb chamber perhaps two or three hundred feet inside the tomb, away from the front door. To get there, because we have dug only a small part of the tomb so far, you have to crawl through the space between the debris and the ceiling which is often no more that 12 or 18 inches high. And you are crawling on your belly pushing yourself forward with your fingers and your toes and the temperature is near 100 degrees, the humidity is almost a perfect 100% your glasses have fogged and water is streaming down the lenses. The cameras have to sit for two, three hours in the environment before the fog disperses and you can actually take a photograph. It¿s dusty, the smell is unpleasant in part because of bats that have lived in there at various times, in part because of the deterioration of materials inside. The air is not particularly good. It¿s not dangerous but it isn¿t pleasant and all in all it¿s a very uncomfortable experience.

DS
00:07:44 Is it a place for claustrophobics? 00:07:46

KW
00:07:47 It certainly isn¿t a place for claustrophobics. I had one attack of claustrophobia in there. Thank God I¿m not prone to it more but on one occasion crawling through the debris and then crawling down into a hole in order to go under the lintel of a doorway and up on the debris beyond it, I was practically bent like a paper clip, in half and I got stuck and I couldn¿t pull myself forward and I couldn¿t back up and I started flailing around in a panic and fortunately one of our workmen, a particularly strong workmen, grabbed me and pulled me out. I was cut from the limestone chips and a filthy mess when he pulled me out but believe me, to get out of that predicament was one of the most pleasant experiences of my life.

DS
00:08:29You run into wildlife here every so often. 00:08:32

KW
00:08:33 Every once in a while, we get a lot of scorpions in and around the tomb, they like that area. We¿ve killed an average of probably two dozen a year. We¿ve had a few snakes in the area, not many. The Valley of the Kings is largely free of snakes because there are so many tourists around cobras and horned vipers are particularly shy. But if you¿re in a tomb heading back toward the entrance and discover that between you and the only doorway out you see a snake moving it¿s not a very pleasant experience either.

DS
00:09:03 Go back to more general¿In the last century there have been a lot of plundering of sites in the name of archeology what was early Egyptology like and what do we know about Egyptology now that we didn¿t know say at the beginning of the twentieth century? 00:09:29

KW
00:09:30 Early Egyptology and by early I mean until around the 1920¿s was basically pot hunting or treasure hunting. You went into a site and you hired three or four hundred workmen. You retired to your tent and you said,¿ Gentlemen at the end of the day bring me the golden jewels you have found and I¿ll pay you. A bonus if it¿s a nice piece and that was it. No records were kept. The goal was to get museum quality objects, period. It wasn¿t until much more recently that we began to realize that the archeological content was equally as just the objects. To know where they came from and what they were associated with told you a great deal more about the monument, about Ancient Egypt that you could learn from the objects themselves. But I think that the single most important thing that we have learned in recent years, and it¿s been a long time coming, has been the realization that that Egypt provides hundreds of thousand of archeological treasure, yes, but this is not an archeological cornucopia. This is not a treasure trove that will continue to supply materials. It¿s a very finite resource and we have finally come to realize that if we don¿t take care of it, if we don¿t protect it, if we don¿t conserve it, it¿s simply not going to be around in a couple more generations. We are much more careful today about choosing the sites we dig, because archeology is in a sense destruction, controlled destruction, yes, but once you¿ve dug a site you can never put it back together. And we try to extract as much information as possible from the data that we are looking at.

DS
00:11:02 How much more do we know now than we did in the 1920¿s, 1910¿s?
00:11:13

KW
00:11:14 Well we know a lot more because of more refined methods of dating, we know more because we have been able to correlate Ancient Egyptian culture much more accurately with other cultures in the ancient Near East and we have begun to realize that the simple reading of a hieroglyphic text is necessarily all that simple. If you see a drawing of a house and you translate that word as house, you may be missing the boat because if you look more closely of that drawing of a house in, say 500 different contexts it may suddenly pop out at you that it doesn¿t really mean house, it means condo or apartment, something much more refined and as we begin looking more carefully at materials, both archeologically and textual we¿re beginning to finally refine our picture of ancient Egypt and get closer to, if there is such a thing as historical truth, get closer to what the ancient Egyptians were actually doing.

DS
00:12:09 Talk about the Valley of the Kings, where, name origin, what does it look like¿ 00:12:24

KW
00:12:25 Well, the Valley of the Kings lies about an hour¿s plane ride south of Cairo. The area is known in modern terms as Luxor, anciently, it¿s Thebes. It lies on the west bank of the Nile at the edge of the cultivable plain. It¿s a small waddy (?) or valley or, I guess more correctly, arroyo that looks in plan like the drawing of a hand with fingers spread. In this small area, the floor of the valley only covers a few acres, were carved, we believe, about 62 tombs of belonging to kings of Egypt¿s new kingdom. Now that¿s, the New Kingdom is dynasties, 18, 19 and 20. It¿s a 500 year stretch that runs roughly from 1500 BC to 1000 BC and during that period, one of the great periods in Egyptian history, all the kings of the 18th, 19th, 20th dynasty were buried there. The tombs in which they were buried vary a bit although they start out basically the same plan. The ancient Greeks called these tombs syringes because that, in a way is what they look like, long pipes cut straight into the hillside. Through time they would change slightly in plan but generally they followed this syringe-like layout. Which is one of the things that makes our tombs so unusual.

DS
00:13:43 It must have been an incredible construction project each one of those.00:13:47

KW
00:13:48 They probably were, although cut into limestone cliffs and using flint hand axes as their only tool, the work would not actually would not have been that time consuming. We know a fair amount about it because the workmen who for five hundred years, dug these tombs lived in a village nearby called Dar el Medina and we know from the rubbish that they left behind when finally that site was abandoned, we know about the length of their day, their holidays, when they took vacations, how they did the work, who was a foreman, who was a worker, how various specialties operated with one another, what kind of gangs of laborers they used in digging the tomb. It¿s remarkable in fact the amount of information we¿ve been able to glean.

DS
00:14:28 It is amazing it¿s it? ¿ Do you suppose the Valley looks like it did 3 or 4 thousand years ago?00:14:39

KW
00:14:40 No, I think there have been some very serious change, significant changes , some of it brought about by the flooding that I¿ve mentioned, which has happened about thirty times and some if it brought about by archeological excavation. Excavators in the last century and even early this century, when they were digging a tomb simply dumped the debris on a convenient adjacent hillside sometimes burying other tombs under the rubbish that they were digging out. That¿s what happened to KB-5. Howard Carter buried under about ten feet of limestone chips when he was digging King Tut¿s tomb. But in addition, the valley floor has changed. The valley is v-shaped in cross section and the bottom part of the v has been deliberately filled up with limestone chips in order to make a wider and increasingly wider footpath for the tourists who now come to the Valley in greater and greater numbers.

DS
00:15:29 So it must not have flooded when it was originally being filled in with tombs.00:15:34

KW
00:15:35 Well I think it probably did flood at least some of the tombs. KV-5, for example, we have records of probably twelve floods over the last 3,000 years that have hit the tomb and deposited virtually twelve feet of rubbish.

DS
00:15:49 Most people tend to think of pyramids when they think of ancient Egyptian tombs. What¿s the difference between the Valley and the Great Pyramids?00:15:57

KW
00:15:58 Well, first of all chronology, the Valley of the Kings was used as a burial site in the New Kingdom. Pyramids were used prior to that in what are know as Old and Middle Kingdoms from around 2800-1800 BC. There¿s a difference in the religious underpinnings that govern the design. Rock cut tombs were built in Thebes at a time when the Old Kingdom solar cults were being dramatically transformed and when other Gods were coming into increasing prominence so the pyramidal form itself was not as significant during this time.

DS
00:16:35 Ramses¿s tomb¿ He was one of the world¿s greatest kings. He fathered more that 100 sons. Is that right? 00:16:53

KW
00:16:54 Well probably more than that. We know from inscriptions on temple walls that he had about thirty sons by his principal wives. That doesn¿t count the number of children he had by minor wives and concubines and women in the harem. And he had an equal number of daughters, as well.

DS
00:17:11 He built a lot of things as well.00:17:13

KW
00:17:13 He was a prodigious builder. If he wasn¿t remodeling other people¿s earlier monuments he was adding his own and these are enormous structures that range all the way from the Mediterranean seacoast of Egypt, south well into the modern Sudan, into Nubia.

DS
00:17:28 He was generally a great leader and military strategist?00:17:31

KW
00:17:31 Well, now that¿s another matter. He says he was. He talks in very prideful terms about his military prowess and yet we know that some of the battles for which he took credit and said ¿ I was the only person who had any sense, who knew what to do, I was the hero on the battlefield and this sort of thing. In actual fact the battle was a total route. It was an absolute disaster because it was led by somebody who was utterly inept. And how we can balance the posturing that we see in the text that Ramses¿s wrote with what we know from other sources about the actuality of the battle is something that Egypt is still having trouble coming to grips with.

DS
00:18:11 Never the less he was a remarkable leader of ancient Egypt.00:08:15

KW
00:18:15 Oh he certainly was. He certainly was one of the greatest if only because of his longevity.

DS
00:18:19 Talk about original discovery of February 1995. Moment of realization about what you had.00:18:33

KW
00:18:34 Well we had known, of course, that the tomb existed, that A tomb existed in this spot because we had records of a 19th century traveler who had shown on a sketch map of the valley a little black dot that indicated the presence of a tomb. We had no idea what that tomb was all about but we knew that tomb was there. And over a period of years we re-excavated along the base of the hill uncovered the entrance to the tomb and went inside. We spent about 6 years clearing out the first two small rooms. And by small I mean just that . They¿re only about 14x14 feet square and probably 11, 12 feet high. We had to go slowing because of the cement-like matrix that we were digging through. But in 1995 we moved farther into the tomb and we wanted to see if the tomb went beyond the two chambers, the three chambers that this 19th century traveler had shown on his sketch plan. And sure enough we found a doorway in the back wall of the chamber, cut through the doorway and were able to peer inside. Our flashlight beams, we though would hit a wall maybe three or four feet ahead of us. It would be another small room. But in actual fact, our flashlight beams just shone in the darkness and petered out. The room kept going. And we crawled through the doorway, a workmen, a student and I and began crawling down this corridor, again slithering on our bellies using our hands and toes to move forward. Everywhere we looked, to our right and to our left we found other doorways, leading into still more corridors and other room and we kept going on and on, more than a hundred feet until suddenly in front of us we found a status of the God of Cyrus, almost life-size if you can say a God statue is life-size, carved into the wall and to his left and to his right, two additional corridors, each of them going another 100 feet into the hillside. And again more lined with more doorways leading into more chambers and more corridors. We had at this point instead of the four or five or six chambers that we thought KV-5 contained. Suddenly, we were confronted with a tomb that had 67 rooms. And we knew immediately that we had stumbled upon something remarkable. Not just because of it¿s size but because of it¿s plan. The work that we have done subsequent to that has found, we¿ve found even more rooms, more corridors going off in other directions.

DS
00:21:01 What was your reaction when you realized the scale of what you¿d found? 00:21:05

KW
00:21:05 The first reaction was for all of us, ¿My God, I don¿t believe it, it can¿t be!¿ This is like nothing we had ever seen before. There was no tomb, to our knowledge, anywhere in Egypt that had this plan and certainly there was no tomb in Egypt that seemed to be as big as this . We were in a daze for the next several hours. I remember going outside the tomb and turning to my wife who was sorting some pottery and saying ¿ I think we¿re going to be digging this tomb for the rest of our lives. It just goes on and on. And indeed that¿s what¿s happened. At that point in 95 we had found 67 rooms. Today we¿re up to 110 corridors and chambers and because of the symmetry of parts of the plan of the tomb that by the end of our spring season next year, January, February, March, we probably are going to hit 150 rooms and corridors and it wouldn¿t surprise me if ultimately we get beyond 200. They¿re just seems no end to this labyrinthine plan.

DS
00:22:04 These are the sons of Ramses¿s.00:22:08

KW
00:22:09 Exactly, these are the sons of Ramses¿s the second. We know that in various lists in various temples he listed about 30 principle sons. Sons who because of their mother and her genetic background, her heredity, genealogical background is what I¿m trying to say, could be heirs apparent to the throne. How many of those sons are buried in KV-5, we don¿t know. So far we have found four names and we¿ve also found four mummies but we have in addition found another 20 some representations of sons on the walls of the tomb. Whether these are different sons or whether they are repetitions of the same group I don¿t know.

DS
00:22:49 The first born son is special.00:22:53

KW
00:22:54 He¿s very interesting. His name is Amanhere Hepasheph (?). He is the first born son by a principle wife, followed by Ramses the second and he¿s sort of special because, of course, in the story of the exodus, the first born of Egypt were supposed to have been put to death. The question therefore is, was there an exodus, was Ramses the second pharaoh at the time and was A.H. truly his first born son. And all of these questions are a little bit difficult to answer. They¿re are theologians, there are biblical scholars who believe that the story of the exodus is more like the story of Camelot, a representation of an earlier tradition but not a story of an actual historical event. Part of the problem is that the only sources we have for the story of the exodus are the Old Testament and the Koran. We have no references to it in any Egyptian texts at all. Some would say, why would the Egyptians have ever made mention of something that was so humiliating. Others would say the fact that they didn¿t make mention of it indicates that it never happened.

DS
00:23:56 Have you found this first born son.00:23:59

KW
00:23:59 Well, we have, we think we have. If we assume there was an exodus. If we assume that Ramses the second was it¿s pharaoh, the pharaoh at the time, then A.H. is indeed the first one on the list and I think we have found his mummy in the tomb. We won¿t know that for sure until we do some DNA testing so we can compare this mummy with the remains of Ramses the second, his father, Sette (?) the first, another one of his sons Merneptah. We have a large number of family member s with which we can compare A.H. But I think it¿s pretty likely this is him.

DS
00:24:32 Will you know how he died? 00:24:34

KW
00:24:37 I don¿t know that we can and even if we could, what would indicate that he had died in some very special and unusual way? I mean, short of finding a lightening bolt still embedded in his sternum I¿m not sure if we could say that this is an unusual death.
The other problem is that #1 not everybody thinks that Ramses the second was the pharaoh of the Exodus. Some date it 150 years before him. Some date it 30 years after him. Even if he were the pharaoh of the Exodus A.H. is the first born by a principle wife, but he could very easily have other sons by secondary wives. This is the first born crown prince heir apparent but not necessarily the first born.

DS
00:25:23 What happens now? There are people that think there is nothing left to be discovered. You don¿t think that. 00:25:40

KW
00:25:41 Obviously I don¿t. Not just in the Valley of the Kings, I¿m sure there are other tombs to be found in the Valley of the Kings but at Thebes for example in the six sq. miles at this Archeological World Heritage site we have probably, if you were to make a count, we probably could tally up 6 or 7 thousand tombs in the area. Of those, fewer than 300 have ever been dug and of those about 200 have ever been published. The rest of them are still there and still untouched.

DS
00:26:15 There are lots of common tombs in the area aren¿t there? 00:26:18

KW
00:26:19 Lots, I wouldn¿t call them common tombs. They are tombs of commoners in the sense that they are court officials or minor priests but they are uncommonly beautiful because although they may be small they are very elegantly decorated with scenes of daily life and religious scenes painted on the walls and in many cases they are filled with grave goods, pottery, alabaster statuettes, jewelry and other things that went into an Egyptian grave.

DS
00:26:45 Some of the people in this are build their houses over Egyptian tombs? 00:26:48

KW
00:26:49 They do indeed, have been doing it for about 200 years when a group of people immigrated into the area from Southern Saudi Arabia and settled here and not in the agricultural land because they had no agricultural tradition and they began using the tomb as a source of revenue. Going down into their basements, in a sense, getting objects and then selling them to tourists.

DS
00:27:13 Future of Egyptology? 00:27:30

KW
00:27:31 Well, the focus of our work in the Theban mapping project is to continue digging KV-5 and to leave the tomb in as good safe, sound condition as possible when we finish. But let me add, I don¿t intend to excavate the whole tomb, I think that would be bad archeology. We want to leave parts of the tomb undug because future archeologists are going come along with a whole host of new techniques of analysis that we can only dream about today and they¿re going to be asking different questions then we have asked. For example, 30 years ago, no one asked what was the role of women in Ancient Egypt. Today there are more than a dozen books written on this subject. I want to leave part of the tomb so that future generations can bring new techniques and ask new questions of it. But, in addition, we have come to realize that as I said earlier, this is a very fragile resource, one that demands constant monitoring and protection and as part of our broader work we are making an archeological database of Thebes that we hope with maps, plans, historical photographs, conservation data and so forth, will make it possible to allocate meager resources to conservation of the monuments. It¿s not only important for humankind that the monuments of Thebes remain and that future generations can enjoy them but it¿s also crucial to the economy of Egypt that these be around after all their tourist industry depends upon it.

DS
00:28:57 The industry has gotten a shot in the arm as a result of some of your work.00:29:03

KW
00:29:04 I think it has, I think that a lot of the publicity that has been generated by KV-5 has truly encouraged people to come and visit.

DS
00:29:13 Thank you.

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