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By Tanalee Smith
Luxor, Egypt - Through a partially opened underground door, Egyptian authorities gave a peek on Friday into the first new tomb uncovered in the Valley of the Kings since that of King Tutankhamen in 1922. US archaeologists said they discovered the tomb by accident while working on a nearby site.
Still unknown is whose mummies are in the five wooden sarcophagi with painted funeral masks, surrounded by alabaster jars inside the undecorated single-chamber tomb.
The tomb, believed to be about 3 000 years old, dating to the 18th Dynasty, does not appear to be that of a pharaoh, said Edwin Brock, co-director of the University of Memphis that discovered the site.
"I don't think it's a royal tomb, maybe members of the court," he told The Associated Press. "Contemporaries of Tutankhamen are possible - or of Amenhotep III or even Horemheb."
Egypt's antiquities chief, Zahi Hawass, said, "Maybe they are mummies of kings or queens or nobles, we don't know. But it's definitely someone connected to the royal family."
"It could be the gardener," Schaden joked to Hawass at the site. "But it's somebody who had the favour of the king because not everybody could come and make their tomb in the Valley of the Kings."
So far, archaeologists have not entered the tomb, having only opened part of its 1,5-metre-high entrance door last week. But they have peered inside the single chamber to see the sarcophagi, believed to contain mummies, surrounded by around 20 pharaonic jars.
On Friday, Egyptian antiquities authorities allowed journalists a first look into the tomb, located near the tomb of Tutankhamen - the last new burial site discovered in the valley, on Nov. 4, 1922, by British archaeologist Howard Carter.
At the bottom of a 10-metre-deep pit, a narrow shaft leads down another 5 metres to the door, made of blocks of stone. A hole about a 30 centimetres wide has been cleared from the door.
Inside the chamber - about 4 by 5 metres - alabaster pots, some broken, are lined up next to the sarcophagi. One of the coffins has toppled and faces the door, showing its white, painted face. Another is partially open, showing a brown cloth covering the mummy inside.
"It was a wonderful thing. It was just so amazing to find an intact tomb here after all the work that's been done before. This was totally unexpected," Brock said.
The discovery has broken the long-held belief that there's nothing left to dig up in the Valley of the Kings, the desert region near the southern city of Luxor used as a burial ground for pharoahs, queens and nobles in the 1500 BC to 1000 BC New Kingdom.
The 18th Dynasty lasted from around 1500 to 1300 BC and included the famed King Tut.
Schaden's team will finish clearing rubble from the bottom of the shaft, then completely open the door in the coming days to allow archaeologists to enter. They can then look for any hieroglyphs that identify those buried inside.
The team hopes to remove the coffins before the end of the digging season, usually around May when the weather gets too hot to work in the deserts outside Luxor, 500 kilometres south of Cairo, Schaden said.
The coffins appear to have some damage from termites, Brock said. "It's going to take a lot of conservation work to consolidate these things before we can take them out," he said.
The archaeologists were working last year on the neighbouring tomb of Amenmeses, a late 19th Dynasty pharaoh, when they found the remains of ancient workmen's huts. They then discovered a depression in the bedrock that they suspected was a shaft.
When they returned to work during this excavation season, they opened the shaft and found the door, which was opened last week, Brock said.
Since the discovery of Tut's tomb, experts believed that the Valley of the Kings contained only the 62 previously known tombs - labelled KV1-62 by archaeologists.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we discover more tombs in the next 10 years," American archaeologist Kent Weeks told AP.
Weeks made the last major discovery in the valley. In 1995, he opened a previously known tomb - KV5 - and found it was far larger than expected: more than 120 chambers, which he determined were meant for sons of the pharaoh Ramses II.
"It's ironic. A century ago, people said the Valley of the Kings is exhausted, there's nothing left," he said. "Suddenly Carter found Tutankhamen. So then they said, Now there's nothing to find. Then we found KV5. Now we have KV63."
Weeks, who was not involved in the new discovery but saw photos of the tomb's interior, said it was probably built for one person, but that multiple sarcophagi were moved in later for storage. The jars, he said, appear to be meat jars for food offerings.
Objects in the tomb "could be 200 to 400 years later than the original cutting of the tomb", he said. - Sapa-AP