NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
29 Apr 1999
Stereo=1; Dual-Channel Mono
NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
Kent Weeks Segment
Douglas Preston interview
April 29, 1999
Well this is Doug Preston and I write about archeology for the New Yorker magazine and I also write novels.
Now you spent some time with Kent Weeks for this New Yorker profile you did of him. How much time did you actually spend with him?
Well I was in Egypt for about two weeks, in the Valley of the Kings.
Well what's it like there, how hot is it?
When I was there it wasn't that hot, it was during the Egyptian winter there. I was hotter in the tomb than I was outside. I think in the tomb it was 100 degrees with a 100% humidity, brutal. So it was very nice to get outside in the Egyptian sun after being in the tomb.
It gets hot, though, in other parts of the year.
It does, it can get extremely hot, up into the 110-120 degrees quite often.
In two weeks you got to know Kent Weeks fairly well?
Yes, I spent pretty much every day with him. We'd go into the tomb early in the morning, the workman started very early in the morning and then quit around noon so we had a lot of fun together. We even stayed in the same hotel for a while.
Is he a fun kind of person, what kind of person is he?
He's an outrageously fun kind of person. He's very different from the tweedy, respectable archeologist that you might think he is. He's a wonderful raconteur, he's much beloved by his Egyptian workmen, he's got a terrific boyish sense of humor, he loves to tell off color stories, sometimes they're quite obscene, and he's very outspoken about his colleagues, both his friends and his foes.
What does he look like?
Well he's, let's see, how can I describe him, he wears a tilly hat, he's uh oh let's see...he's somewhat...I'm sorry, I'm having a little bit of trouble....he's got a face that's somewhat reddened by the sun, he's got a jovial manner, not a terrible excess of hair but he normally wears his tilly hat. He dresses perhaps a little bit like an explorer, in khakis. He's in his fifties, a physically fit person. He likes a glass of wine in the evening. What else can I say, he's a delightful person, he's great company.
The first thing that people notice about Kent Weeks is that he's a celebrity....can you talk a little bit about the aspect of his fame, about the media coverage that he's received.
Well he was, for most of his life, like most Egyptologists, an archeologist who absolutely loved his work and never saw any kind of fame. And I think when he discovered KV5 the uproar that ensued was bewildering and somewhat off-putting to him. And at one point he banned the press from KV5 because he wasn't getting any work done. He used to say that all the excitement was, I'm trying to remember the Arabic phrase, a lot of empty talk. He just didn't quite believe that the fame and the interest in KV5 would be enduring. But I think later he came to realize that one of the great problems with KV5 is that it's an absolutely gigantic tomb, it's the largest tomb discovered in Egypt, it's 5-6 feet deep in debris. And the cost of excavating that is astronomical, 100s and 1000s of dollars over a year for maybe 10 or 20 years will be necessary to clear the tomb out and so I think he saw that his fame was a great way to convert into money for pursuing this wonderful project which will last him the rest of his life, I have no doubt.
The day that he actually found the tomb...he really knew right then that he was onto something.
Well there were two stages, the first stage was the discovery of the entrance of the tomb. And in fact the tomb had been discovered in 1825, the front part of it by an explorer in the valley of the kings. He crawled into a few rooms and decided that it wasn't very interesting. In fact the tomb was so boring looking that Howard Carter dumped all of the debris from excavating King Tut's tomb over the entrance, so that's how it was lost. Kent Weeks discovered it in the mid 80s when he was doing a survey because the Egyptians wanted to build a bus turnaround and so he was digging around to make sure that they weren't going to disturb anything and he found the entrance to this tomb. And he worked in the first few rooms for the first three years. But it was after three years that he discovered that there was a little gap in the back of the third room and one day he decided spontaneously with an Egyptian to crawl in there and see what was in there. And so they crawled in with these flashlights where their batteries were dying on them, they didn't think they'd find anything, and suddenly they found themselves in this unbelievable corridor stretching 100 feet with rooms branching off of it and a marvelous statue of Assyrus at the end. And he realized this was a stunning tomb, it was like nothing else in the Valley of the Kings. That was the real discovery, that was his true genuine discovery, not the tomb itself, but the fact that it was not just this boring three room tomb but it was actually this gigantic thing that now appears to have 100 rooms in it.
And that very night he said to his wife that indicated he had some idea what the significance of it was.
Yes he realized his life was changed, he said "our lives are never going to be the same after this."
Now the media attention that came upon him thereafter was focused a lot on the supposed biblical connection, this was the pharaoh of the bible.
Ramses the Great or Ramses II was the pharaoh for the exodus of the Jews from Egypt....
we all know the biblical story, the first born was supposedly killed in an epidemic, so it was hoped that if they found his body in this tomb which was apparently built for more than 50 of Ramses' sons, that it could, using modern DNA analysis...that they might be able to determine how this first son died, if he indeed die of an epidemic, so it might have some interesting bearing on the story of exodus.
But you picked up that Kent Weeks was somewhat impatient over the talk of a biblical connection, is that correct?
Well yes, he was, first of all he had grave doubts that anything in the tomb would be found that would bear anything on the exodus story. He also says that the exodus story is somewhat fantastical, that you can't take it literally. I mean did the rivers really turn to blood and that sort of thing. And it's connection with the actual events might be very tenuous. And so basically he doubts that the tomb will shed any light on the exodus story at all. But it's such a sexy idea for the media anyway that they picked it up and ran quite a far distance perhaps more than they should have.
He, obviously is a serious scientist and isn't fond of this biblical connection, but nevertheless he's dealing with great mysteries. You said in your article that the Egyptian religion was a great bargain with death, what does that mean?
Well, everything that we see in Egypt today that's most spectacular...it was all a way for the Egyptians to confront that ultimate mystery that lies in the center of all our lives, and that is death, and how does one survive death and what is the meaning of death. All of the beautiful reliefs that you see in the Egyptian tombs and all of the hieroglyphics, all deal with this terrifying subject. And despite centuries of study, really the ultimate Egyptian religion still remains opaque to us, it's very mysterious, we haven't quite figured it out. The inscriptions were often very repetitive, they were copied from copy books, the illustrations, the beautiful reliefs are often mysterious and bizarre, the pantheon of gods is, we're not really sure what they all mean. So Egyptian religion is still shrouded in mystery for us.
Let's go back a little bit into the history of Egypt and put this new kingdom period into context, what is the significance of this?
Well it's interesting, the Egyptian society cultural dynamic lasted 3000 years which is certainly one of the longest lasting societies that the world has ever seen. When Ramses came to power, the pyramids at Giza were already 1300 years old so that just gives you a sense of the incredible stability of the system. The pharaohs have always been portrayed as cruel, overbearing, they used slave labor to build monuments to themselves, but the archeological record doesn't really bear this out. The system was stable because the people believed in it and because the pharaoh was necessary to the society. Whether the pharaoh was a good guy or not a good guy or loved or not is really irrelevant, the people saw the pharaoh as part of their lives. And the most of the tombs were built not with slave labor but with workmen who were highly compensated and in fact Ramses even has a wonderful inscription where he boasts about how generous he was to his workmen so that they work for me with full hearts. And this is true with the other pharaohs as well. But the new kingdom was the last great period of Egyptian history and the valley of the kings, which was the burial for the pharaohs for one part of the new kingdom period, is probably the crowning glory of this era of Egyptian history. The tombs of the valley of the kings are absolutely splendid, the reliefs in them are stunning. Ramses built a tomb for his principle wife, Nefatari, which may be one of the most beautiful tombs ever built for anyone in the history of the world. In fact the technique of xxx, which is a shading technique used in painting, was actually first used in the tomb of Nefatari. The painters had consummate skill, the beauty and the elegance of those reliefs is really beyond belief.
The work that Kent Weeks is doing at KV5, in a sense he's really only just begun opening that area up, is that correct?
That's right, he's got a long process ahead of him of excavation. One of the significant things of what he's doing is that this is really the first good archeological excavation done in the valley of the kings. Previously, tombs were simply emptied out, sometimes archeologist used dynamite to open them up. In one tomb they broke down the doors with a battering ram, stuff was taken out without any indication of where it had been laid out in the tomb. So this is the first true archeological excavation. It's being done very carefully and very systematically and it should tell us a lot about the valley of the kings and the burial practices and especially about the families of the pharaohs. We know a lot about the pharaohs themselves from their burial chambers, but this is the very first time that they've discovered the tomb of the sons of the pharaoh other than the principal son who would have become the next pharaoh. So it's extremely important, it's telling us a lot about Egyptian family life, especially paranoiac family life.
Is it likely to rewrite any books on this period?
I think that it will add a lot of information. One of the most interesting questions about the pharaohs is we know that they married their wives and their daughters but what we don't know is if these marriages were ceremonial or if they were consummated. And if they find many of the mummies of the sons of Ramses II in the burial chambers then they might be able to through DNA analysis solve this very interesting question. Because we do know that Ramses did marry his sister, one or more sisters and one or more daughters but whether these marriages were consummated and whether they resulted in children is still a question.
What about the possibility of finding treasure?
Well the tomb was robbed shortly after Ramses sons were buried there. In fact we actually have the papyrus which they talk about the torture and the execution of the robbers who first broke into Ramses tomb which is right across the way of KV5 and then they went across the little arroyo at the mouth of the valley of the kings which is where these tombs are situated and they robbed the tomb of the sons. So we do know that the tomb was robbed but how thoroughly it was robbed, whether there were any chambers that the robbers missed, we don't know because the tomb has barely been explored. Out of 100 rooms they've only excavated about a dozen so you never know what could be found. It's very exciting.
What about a curse?
Well that's a little bit of an exaggeration. The curse on King Tut's tomb was the invention of a disgruntled journalist who was extremely angry that Carter and Lord Carnarvan had given an exclusive to the London Times on the discovery, so this other journalist who felt shut out made up this whole story about curses and the rest of it. There were no curses on King Tut's tomb and there don't appear to be any curses laid on the tomb of Ramses' sons either.
It's a great story though....From what Kent Weeks told you, if you could just describe that moment when he crawled in there. What do you suppose he was doing there and what must he have felt as an explorer.
Well, I think every archaeologist has a dream of discovering a tomb in the valley of the kings. I mean they've all read Carter's account of peering through the little peep hole and seeing the glint of gold. I think that Kent Weeks is the only archeologist living who has actually had this privilege. It was a very spontaneous thing, he saw this little hole at the top of a doorway, he was absolutely sure it lead to some little dead end room at the back of the tomb because all of the other tombs in the valley of the kings are laid out this way, they had a little tiny dead end room in the back. So this is what he figured this room was. So one day he was sitting around, not really with any grand plan in his mind, so he said to an Egyptian workman, hey let's go check this out. And they crawled through this very narrow space through the doorway and they found themselves gazing into the most remarkable discovery in Egypt since the discovery of King Tut's tomb without a doubt. There's no question this is a stunningly important discovery and he realized it instantly. How did he feel? I asked him this question tons of times and got many answers. But I have to say the feeling was really beyond description. Just as when you read Carter's description of peering into King Tut's tomb, it falls short, the words fall short of the actual experience. Carter called it that day of days and that's pretty much how he left it, and it was the same for Kent Weeks.
And it was such an apparently unlikely spot, there were vendors who had set up booths nearby.
The whole discovery was caused originally by the Egyptians who wanted to gouge out the cliff to build this hideous bus turnaround because tourists were complaining about having to walk up the valley. The whole area was chockablock full of vendors shouting at tourists and waving their cheap wares, this hideous face of commercialism. In fact a sewer pipe had been built over the first room in this tomb and sewage had been leaking into it for 30-50 years and had destroyed a lot of the reliefs in that first room. So it was a completely unlikely place and it's right at the entrance to the valley of the kings, it's not where you expect to find a tomb. You sort of go to the back of the valley and most of the great tombs are further up in the valley so it was very surprising to find a tomb there.
Lots of people seem to think that there's just nothing left to be discovered...and you would say that that's not true.
It definitely isn't true. There's an absolutely staggering amount to be discovered in Egypt. If Ramses buried his 50 sons in such a grand tomb, and this is the only tomb discovered of the sons of any pharaoh, there must be 100s of tombs out there of the pharaohs children. There also must be tombs of nobles, of queens that are undiscovered, the valley of the kings was only the burial place for a very short of Egyptian history. There are entire dynasties of Egyptian history where they haven't even found where those pharaohs are buried. So yes a lot remains to be discovered under those shifting sands of Egypt.
That would be in the Theban xxx which the valley of kings is part of correct?
That's right, yeah, in fact all up and down the Nile there are burial areas of pharaohs and nobles and queens which have been largely undiscovered. There's also been of course a tremendous amount of looting but just recently a new tomb was discovered in the xxx area which is a remarkable tomb, so there's still a lot to be found.
Tell me a little bit about yourself, what are you working on, do you have a book in progress?
Well I'm writing a novel, I have a novel coming out in July about an archaeological subject, it's called "Thunderhead". It's about an expedition into the remote canyons of southern Utah where they find a beautiful cliff dwelling, sort of south western archeology if you're interested in that, and I'm also writing for the New Yorker on various archeological subjects.
This has been wonderful. I really appreciate you taking time to come in....