Saturday, July 01, 2006

KV-63: Empty Yet Full

All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind. ~Martin H. Fischer

You don't have to wait until September to watch Discovery Channel's update about what the archaeologists found in KV-63. If you go here, you'll learn what they found in the mysterious coffin at the back of the tomb. You won't have to pay attention to the inevitable hype that will be repeated all through the Discovery program:

"And what will they find in the blackened coffin at the rear of the tomb?"

"Coming up: The coffin is opened. What does Otto Schaden find?"

"Really coming up: Zahi Hawass arrives in time to supervise the opening of the last coffin. Is Tut's mother inside?"

"Honest-to-god coming up: The moment of truth as the coffin is opened to reveal it's secrets. Is Tut's mommy a mummy?"

And so on.

To spare you that, I'll tell you that no mummies were found in any of the coffins. The last, though, contained an unexpected surprise in the form of flowers, possibly remains of garlands that were sometimes around the necks of living and deceased pharoahs.

What we appear to have here is what Egyptologist Otto Schaden and others speculated early on. It's an embalmer's cache of materials used in mummification. There are jars of apparently used natron which also contained pieces of broken pots. The jars were all sealed, but no one is quite sure why or why the potsherds were in the jars as well.

Despite not containing bodies, KV-63 will provide new information and raise new questions about the burial rituals of ancient Egypt. Given that the tomb was probably cut during the period from Akenaten's rule through that of Tutankhamun, it may ultimately reveal something more about the period following the Heretic King's death and the reinstatement of the old gods that occurred during Tut's reign. But, mummies are sexy, and jars of natron aren't, so we'll have to hear about those findings from other sources than Discovery or CNN, in all likelihood.

Just how little we've actually been told about the ins and outs of a dig like this is revealed in this month's Smithsonian Magazine. Otto Schaden is a throwback to the old days of digging on a shoestring. He doesn't have guaranteed funding, raising his own money at least partly through giving shows with his Bohemian music band (he plays flugelhorn) and by soliciting private donations. His digs are manned by volunteers. He has loose backing from the University of Memphis (the one in Tennessee, not the one in Egypt), but that has consisted not of money but of providing a single student volunteer.

Now that he has a find, though, Memphis has dispatched an expert to join Schaden at the dig. Reportedly, for one reason or another, the relationship between Schaden and the university has cooled. The phrase "too many cooks" comes to mind.

When Discovery aired their coverage a while back. I noticed that Schaden appeared to look more and more tired as the program progressed. Some of that is natural, since he is not a young man. It seems, though, that much of that fatigue came from the incessant demands from media and colleagues to move faster and provide information, or at least some titillating speculation. Schaden is not a man to change his methods or one to engage in idle speculation, no matter who is pushing. He is deliberate and methodical and is not about to louse up a site by acting precipitously.

Some will no doubt argue that his methods are too slow and that Schaden himself is an anachronism in this day of rapid publication (whether the facts are completely known or not) and instant gratification. Tough rocks. No one cared whether Otto Schaden reported findings through all the long years he worked on a shoestring simply because he loves what he does.

Sadly, because of all this outside interference, Schaden is not able to enjoy what should have been the crowning moment of his career. But, there is hope. Now that it's been determined that there are no bodies in the tomb, perhaps the pressure will decrease, allowing Schaden to take the time to examine the dig properly.

Of course, since Schaden has proved that there are still things to find in the Valley of the Kings, the attentions of others may be directed to renewed searches. And, then, who knows what they might find?

One new thing I learned from the Smithsonian article is that the ancient Egyptian name for the Valley of the Kings was "The Great and Majestic Necropolis." I think I'll stay with Valley of the Kings.

"Great and Majestic Necropolis" sounds like a cemetery in Beverly Hills.

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