Explore the tombs of ancient Thebes
The American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) has launched the Valley of the Queens and the Western Wadis on the Theban Mapping Project website. These sites, along with the Valley of the Kings, were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979 and form part of one of the world’s most famous archaeological areas, the Theban West Bank in Luxor, Egypt.
Located approximately a mile southwest of the Valley of the Kings, several wadis (valleys) extend west from the edge of the low desert into and behind the Theban West Bank’s highest mountain—the Qurn—offering accessible but easily protected sites for burials. Here is where the tombs of many of ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom royal family members were dug.
The tombs of 18th Dynasty queens were placed furthest west in the cliffs and valleys of the eastern desert, the area now known as the Western Wadis (Figure 1). These large, undecorated tombs—including one cliff tomb prepared for Queen Hatshepsut before she ascended the throne (Wadi A-1), a cliff tomb for the three foreign wives of Thutmosis III (Wadi D-1), and a large complex of subterranean shaft tombs for the royal court of Amenhotep III (WB 1)—were filled with beautiful burial equipment gifted by the king (e.g., inscribed canopic jars, gold and silver mirrors, and jewelry). (Figure 2).
At the same time, highly regarded officials and royal children of the 18th Dynasty were interred in small, undecorated shaft tombs in what is now known as the Valley of the Queens (Figure 3). Indeed, the ancient name of the Valley of the Queens, ta-set-neferu, can be translated as “The Place of (Royal) Children.” The earliest in the valley is the tomb of a daughter of the 17th Dynasty King Seqenre-Tao, Princess Ahmose, who was interred during the 18th Dynasty with fragments of 20 different chapters of the Book of the Dead written on linen (Figure 4).
This division in burial location of queens and royal children disappeared in the 19th and 20th Dynasties and the Valley of the Queens became the main necropolis for all members of the royal family. Large, beautifully decorated tombs were constructed during this period, including that of the famous Queen Nefertari (QV 66) (Figure 5), and the sons of Ramesses III—Princes’ Khaemwaset (QV 44), Sethherkhepeshef (QV 43), Amenherkhepeshef (QV 55), and Pareherunemef (QV 42) (Figure 6).
Many of the tombs in the Valley of the Queens and the Western Wadis were reused during the Third Intermediate Period, Late Period, and Roman Period for mass burial or by officials, low-ranking priests, and workers connected with the temples on the West Bank. Furthermore, the Valley of the Queens became the site for a large monastery (Deir el-Rumi) and several hermitages during the Coptic Period, where they transformed tomb chambers into chapels and covered the walls with plaster or hacked out the “pagan” iconography (Figure 7).
The vast historical usage of the Valley of the Queens and the Western Wadis has resulted in an extremely rich archaeological area. Several museums and institutes have conducted excavations, studies, and conservation projects here since the early 1900s. An expedition from the Egyptian Museum in Turin, directed by two Italian Egyptologists, Ernesto Schiaparelli and Francesco Ballerini, discovered and excavated several tombs in the Valley of the Queens from 1903 to 1906, including the tomb of Queen Nefertari. Of interest is that the expedition would know they were near an undiscovered tomb when they uncovered large groupings of ostraca (inscribed potsherds) or thin pieces of limestone. These ostraca held administrative information on the construction and decoration of a tomb and would indicate that the tomb builders, artists, and their overseers had worked in the vicinity (Figure 8).
Our understanding of the history and archaeology of the Valley of the Queens has greatly improved since Schiaparelli’s and Ballerini’s time through the work of a joint Franco-Egyptian Mission led by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and the Centre d’Etude et de Documentation sur l’Ancienne Egypte (CEDAE). This mission excavated, conserved, and studied the tombs in the Valley of the Queens from the 1970s through to the 1990s. They discovered new tombs in the process using techniques such as ground penetrating radar (QV J). In the Western Wadis, a joint mission between the New Kingdom Research Foundation, the Cambridge Expedition to the Valley of the Kings, and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, has been surveying and excavating tombs for the last ten years. In October 2022, they discovered a large 18th Dynasty royal tomb that seems not to have been entered since the Third Intermediate Period.
The Theban Mapping Project has been surveying and mapping sites on the West Bank of Luxor for the last 40 years with the mission of disseminating information to the broader public. In 2020, ARCE relaunched the Theban Mapping Project website, which serves as a digital guide to the public, providing users with interactive tomb plans, exhaustive site and exploration histories, photography, and bibliographic references.
About the Author
Bianca van Sittert is an Egyptologist and the Theban Mapping Project Fellow at the American Research Center in Egypt. She received her B.A. in Ancient Cultures from the University of Stellenbosch, and her M.A. degree in Egyptology and Coptology from the American University in Cairo. She specializes in philology and ancient Egyptian religion, as well as digital epigraphy.
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