The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion >  International



In Search of Undiscovered Cave Tombs

Jiro Kondo
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University
Director, Institute of Egyptology, Waseda University

Re-investigation into the Tomb of Userhat

From December 2007, the Institute of Egyptology at Waseda University began a re-investigation into the tomb of Userhat (TT47), located in the El-Khokha area on the west bank of Luxor in the Arab Republic of Egypt. Userhat was a high official during the reign of Amenhotep III (reigned: 1388–1351 BC) in the Eighteenth Dynasty of the Egyptian New Kingdom. The tomb of Userhat was excavated by the chief (Omda) of the village of Qurna between 1902–03. A summary of the excavation’s findings, together with the beautiful relief of Queen Tiye discovered at the site, was published in the Egyptian Antiquities Department’s annual report by Howard Carter, who is famous for his discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The relief was later stolen from the tomb and taken outside the country. Today, it is housed and exhibited at the Musée royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels, Belgium. Furthermore, the precise location of Userhat’s tomb was lost for over 100 years. I had been hoping to undertake an archeological investigation of Userhat’s tomb for a long time, and the opportunity arrived in 2007 when the demolition and relocation of the houses and residents in the vicinity of the tomb were completed.

Fig. 1: Userhat worshipping the sun god Atum (right)

During the second investigation two years after excavations began (between December 2008 and January 2009), we succeeded in rediscovering the top of the entrance leading into Userhat’s tomb. On it were images such as the worshipping the sun god Atum (Fig. 1) of the owner of the tomb, Userhat. Additionally, in the winter of 2011, we were able to unearth the back wall of the front chamber where traces of the removed Queen Tiye relief remained. However, there was an extensive amount of sand and gravel covering Userhat’s tomb and it took far longer than we first anticipated to clean it out.

Discovery of the Chief Brewer Khonsuemheb’s Tomb

Fig. 2: Discovery of the tomb of Khonsuemheb (end of December 2013)

During the sixth investigation (between December 2012 and January 2013), a retaining wall was established to prevent the collapse of the sand and gravel on the south side. This allowed us to properly conduct the excavation of the front court of Userhat’s tomb during the seventh investigation, which began in December 2013. Then, toward the end of December 2013, an undiscovered tomb (KHT01) was unearthed on the south side of the front court of Userhat’s tomb. This tomb (KHT01) was an incomplete cave tomb that was devoid of any decorations. Upon further investigation inside the tomb, we discovered another small cave tomb (KHT02) on the south side (Fig. 2). The decorations on the inside were surprisingly vivid. It was so well preserved that it seemed as though it had just been painted the day before. Based on the wall paintings at the tomb, it was estimated to be from the 19th and 20th Dynasties of the New Kingdom.

Fig.3: Tomb of Khonsuemheb

By reading the hieroglyphs inscribed in the tomb, it was determined that it belonged to someone named Khonsuemheb, who held the titles of Chief Brewer of the Mut (temple) and Chief of the Workshop for Mut. Additionally, the names of Khonsuemheb’s family were also found, including his wife Mutemheb, known as the Singer of Mut and his daughter, Isetkha. There were sculptures of all three of them in the tomb. Khonsuemheb’s family painted in the tomb were all connected to the Mut temple. His son, Ashakhet, held the title of Wab Priest for a Mut goddess, and it was discovered that his tomb (TT174) was located close to that of his father. Operations are currently underway with the cooperation of specialists to preserve and restore the colorful wall paintings, including those on the ceiling. A shaft believed to lead to the burial chamber was discovered on the southern side of the forecourt of Khonsuemheb’s tomb, and will be investigated in the future. The wall paintings on the inside of Khonsuemheb’s tomb were preserved in extremely beautiful conditions (Fig. 3). However, the area connected to KHT01 on the northern side was heavily damaged, requiring immediate restoration work. For that reason, we began investigations in FY 2016 to excavate the original entrance to Khonsuemheb’s tomb, which had been buried in a thick layer of sediment.

Discovery of the Royal Scribe Khonsu’s Tomb

Fig. 4: Discovered tomb of Khonsu (ceiling)

Excavations commenced in early October 2016. Although there was a pause of roughly 10 days due to a brief visit back to Japan, we were able to conduct excavations for almost four months until the end of January 2017. The ability to conduct a long term archeological investigation was made possible due to a special research period granted by the university in FY 2016. Temperatures are high in Luxor in October and early November, with the temperature reaching 30°C even at night. Investigations conducted outdoors were hard work; however, we continued our debris removal work day after day together with around 70 Egyptian workers. As a result, we were able to remove an extremely large amount of sediment and accomplished our objective of excavating the original entrance to Khonsuemheb’s tomb. This will now make it possible to access the tomb from the entrance and make the preservation and restoration work on Khonsuemheb’s tomb much easier.

During this archeological investigation, we discovered a new cave tomb in early January 2017 on the northern side of the forecourt of Khonsuemheb’s tomb belonging to a man named Khonsu, who held the title of Royal Scribe (Fig. 4). Just like Khonsuemheb’s tomb, this tomb had never been discovered, and it is likewise believed to date back to the same time period as Khonsuemheb’s tomb in the late 19th Dynasty of the New Kingdom.

The region in which the archeological investigation takes place is full of fascinations. We have succeeded in rediscovering Khonsuemheb’s tomb, lost for over 100 years, while also unearthing two undiscovered cave tombs in the vicinity. Even now, approximately 200 years since Egyptology first came about, it was thought that most cave tombs have already been discovered. Hence, it is important that tombs belonging to individuals with clearly indicated names and titles still exist. Additionally, there is the possibility that undiscovered cave tombs still exist in the vicinity of Khonsuemheb’s tomb, and we hope that a third tomb in the area will be unearthed in the near future. Our excavations will continue to provide new knowledge on cave tomb research on Eygpt’s New Kingdom period.

Jiro Kondo
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University
Director, Institute of Egyptology, Waseda University

Professor Kondo graduated from the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences and Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and completed his PhD course at Waseda University. He became a member of Waseda University’s Egyptology investigation team in 1976 and engaged in archeological investigations in Egypt. Funded by the Ministry of Education, he studied at Cairo University as an exchange student from October 1981 to September 1983. His major was Egyptology, Archeology and Cultural Heritage. His publications include Mono no Hajimari 50 Wa [50 Stories of Creation] (Iwanami Shoten), Egypt no Koukogaku [Egyptian Archeology] (Douseisha), Hieroglyphic wo Tanoshimu [Enjoying Hieroglyphics] (Shueisha), etc. He is currently a Professor at the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences of Waseda University, as well as the Director of the Institute of Egyptology of Waseda University and the Chairman of the Society for Near Eastern Studies in Japan.