People often ask me, ‘well, it’s not really as exciting as Indiana Jones, now is it?’
I reply, ‘to an archaeologist, yes, it certainly is!’

— Zahi Hawass

The Mysterious Tunnel in the Tomb of Seti I

The story of my adventures in the tomb of Seti I began over 30 years ago, when I was working in Luxor. I used to meet some 30 colleagues of mine, all Egyptian archaeologists, at the Marsam Hotel on Luxor’s West Bank. The hotel was owned at the time by an elderly man named Sheikh Ali Abdel-Rassoul.

Sheikh Ali was the last living descendant of the famous Abdel-Rassoul family of the village of Gurna, who were once notorious as tomb robbers in the Theban necropolis. It was the Abdel-Rassouls who first found tomb DB320, and it was their attempts to sell off objects from the mummy cache inside it that alerted the Antiquities Service to the existence of this priceless archaeological treasure. Sheikh Ali was a tall man with a huge mustache. I can remember listening to him tell stories of the secrets of the pharaohs - he spoke Arabic with the accent of the people of Upper Egypt, known as “Saidis.” He was quite a character, and my colleagues and I used to love to joke with him. At the age of 70, Sheikh Ali married an 18 year-old girl. He  told us one day that he wanted us to help him find some vitamins that would give him the energy to keep up with her, so to speak. One of my friends went to the store and bought sleeping pills instead, which he told Sheikh Ali were just the medicine he had been looking for. Sheikh Ali took the pills, and his evening with his bride did not go as he had expected. To his credit, however, the old man took the prank very well, and we all laughed about it the whole time that we were together in Luxor.

Sheikh Ali used to tell me that he could sense that I was different from the other young Egyptian archaeologists. He said that he knew that I would be an important and influential Egyptologist one day. It was for this reason that he decided to take me to the tomb of Seti I, one of the most beautiful in the entire Valley of the Kings, and tell me about its greatest secret. He took me to a tunnel that extends downward from the king’s burial chamber, and explained to me how he had explored it to a depth of around 136 meters, farther than any archaeologist had gone up to that point. He had been excavating with the permission of the Antiquities Service, but this permission was revoked after only a few months, and he was unable to go any farther. Sheikh Ali told me that when I became a great archaeologist, I should come back to the tomb and find out what lay at the end of this tunnel - he believed that it would be the true burial chamber of the king, hidden away behind a false burial chamber to protect it from robbers.

I did not really believe Sheikh Ali at the time when he said that there might be a hidden chamber at the end of the tunnel. I knew that we had no artifacts from the burial of Seti I, which could mean that his real resting place had not been found. There was no evidence, however, that the tunnel led to anything significant. Over the years, however, I came to think that regardless of what we may find at the end of the tunnel, it would be good to explore it to determine its real function. It has been suggested that the tunnel serves the same function as the Osireion in the temple of Seti I at Abydos - a symbolic burial for the god Osiris below the level of the water table, and thus connected with the primeval waters of creation.

My team and I began clearing the tunnel in 2007. It is very unsound structurally, and the rock of the ceiling is very fragile. It crumbles easily and there is always a risk that a chunk of stone will fall from it. Once, just such a chunk of stone fell on my foot when I was supervising work in the tunnel. It broke my toe, which was very painful, but I kept right on working. Because the tunnel is so dangerous and fragile, I knew that we had to shore it up it as we  worked. I brought in an expert in soil mechanics to work with my team, as well as engineers to construct steel reinforcement structures at appropriate intervals to reinforce the walls and ceilings. The quality of this work is truly remarkable, and I am very pleased with the results of my team’s efforts - we are now able to work in relative safety in this challenging space. It is truly amazing to watch my team as they use an electric winch to bring up a cart on rails to the surface, carrying each load of debris from inside the shaft. Interestingly, we have found a few small artifacts in the rubble filling the shaft, including two 19th Dynasty shabtis, and fragments of stone inscribed with the king’s name.

We have constructed a wooden staircase to make it easier for us to work inside the tunnel, but in the floor, we are able to see the original limestone stairs that descend into the cliff. What is truly amazing is that we have now reached a point where we can see that after a depth of 65 meters, Sheikh Ali lost the real path of the tunnel. He began to dig through the bedrock itself, roughly parallel to the original structure but about 2.5 meters above it. The worst thing about what Sheikh Ali did is that it destroyed the passage’s original ceiling. When the tunnel was first excavated, it was about 4 meters high. For the first 65 meters, we only had to worry about reinforcing the ceiling to this height. Now that we have met with Sheikh Ali’s diversion, however, we have to contend with a ceiling some 6.5 meters above our head, making the task of clearing and shoring up the tunnel much more challenging. I am very glad to have an excellent assistant, Dr. Tarek El-Awady, to supervise this work when I am not on site. We have so far cleared and reinforced the tunnel to about 90 meters, and we will continue to press on, slowly and carefully.   

 

Because of the way the tunnel descends, I believe that it may be intended to represent the path to the hidden cave of the god Sokar, which the Egyptians believed the deceased king would find in the afterlife. The path to this cave is represented on the wall of the second descending passage of the tomb of Seti I. We will see what secrets it may hold when we reach the end. We must proceed carefully, with the preservation of the tomb and the safety of the team at the front of our minds. I hope, though, that I will eventually be able to learn the true secret of this mysterious tunnel. Perhaps Sheikh Ali was correct, and there is something truly amazing yet to be discovered in this beautiful tomb!

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