Building the Tombs


The Royal Tombs

Despite general similarities in design, no two tombs in the Valley of the Kings are the same. However, the tombs can be ascribed to three main phases of design which occur, with some overlapping, during the 18th, 19th and 20th dynasties respectively.

Tomb of Tawosret and SethnakhteEgyptian royal tombs consisted of a series of passages leading to a well or well room, the 'Hall of Waiting', which, beyond a sealed door, led onto a chamber, the 'Chariot Hall'. This room in turn led to the burial chamber itself, the 'House of Gold'.

The passages originally consisted of two deep stairs and two sloping corridors. The outer stair might not now be considered part of the tomb proper, since it merely led up to the sealed entrance of the tomb; but the Egyptians saw it as already part of the tomb and named it the 'god's first passage', or the 'god's first passage of the sun's path'. All the corridors, indeed, were thought to represent the passage of the sun god Re through the twelve caverns of the underworld in the hours of the night, prior to his rebirth at dawn.

The 'Well' itself is a feature that encouraged much comment and debate. The well is of great practical value as it catches water in the rare but devastating flash floods that can occur in the area. A number of tombs have suffered tragically from inattention to this function today:

Tomb of Sethos IBelzoni filled up the well in the tomb of Seti I (KV17), which meant that the next flood went straight down to the burial chamber. Since the floor of the burial chamber was excavated out of the shale that underlines the limestone of most of the valley , it soaked up the water, expanded, and began cracking the walls and columns of the burial chamber.

In the 20th dynasty, when tombs were excavated higher up the ridges and involved shallower descents, rendering them relatively safe from water damage, the wells were eliminated.

Beyond the sealed door in the Hall of Waiting, the first room is almost always the second largest in the tomb, after the burial chamber itself. As the Chariot Hall or 'Hall of Repelling Rebels', it contains the equipment needed for the king to live an ordinary life and perform his kingly duties once reborn, i.e. actual chariots, beds, clothing, etc. And finally there is the burial chamber itself.

18th Dynasty

Layout of Royal TombsThe first 18th dynasty tombs within the valley appear to have no fixed plan; indeed the tomb of Hatshepsut is of a unique shape, twisting and turning down over 200 metres from the entrance so that the burial chamber is 97 metres below the surface.

The tombs gradually became more regular and formalised, and the tombs of Thutmose III and Thutmose IV, KV34 and KV43 are good examples of 18th dynasty tombs both with their bent axis, and simple decoration.

The bends and turns in the 18th dynasty tombs may have been a continuation of the twisting routes of the afterlife as described in Egyptian mythology, or it may be that the early tombs of the 18th dynasty encountered faults in the substrata and adjusted the alignment of the tombs accordingly. Whatever the reason, tombs of this era took on the typical bent axes as shown opposite.

The third passage had wide niches cut on either side which became known as the 'Sanctuaries in which the Gods of the East and West Repose'. As the 18th dynasty tombs descend steeply, the niches may have been to used to help in the lowering of the sarcophagus into the burial chamber. Due to the less steep descent in later tombs, the niches seem to have been discontinued.

19th Dynasty

Layout of Royal TombsAt the beginning of the 19th dynasty there was a change to the layout of royal burials, most notably, with the exception of the tomb of Ramesses II (KV7), the bent axes of previous tombs gave way to a more linear alignment (pictured right).

The angle of descent into the tombs also lessened, the layout of the burial chamber altered and doors were installed between areas rather than completely walling off the furthest rooms. The doors may have been introduced to allow the inspection of the tomb by the guardians of the necropolis.

The orientation of the tombs also varies from those previously. The tombs's main axes takes on an east-west orientation, symbolic of the suns east-west path through the heavens. In the later half of the dynasty, starting with the pharaoh Merenptah, the 'kink' or 'jog' leading from the Chariot Hall disappears.

Another development of the 19th dynasty is the incorporation of side rooms off the Chariot Hall. First appearing with the tomb of Seti I (KV17), it continues, with the exception of the tomb of Seti II (KV15), until near the end of the 19th dynasty. This feature can also be seen in the tomb of Ramesses III (KV11).

20th Dynasty

Layout of Royal TombsDuring the 20th dynasty the layout of the tombs became simpler for economic and other reasons. The 20th dynasty layout continued the straighter alignment of the late 19th dynasty tombs.
The most obvious change was the orientation of the sarcophagus which was rotated through 90 degrees to align itself with the tombs major axis. The head of the pharaoh was now at the west end of the burial chamber, so that the pharaoh now looked east, towards the riding sun.
With the exception of the tomb of Ramesses VI (KV9), tombs of the 20th dynasty constructed after that of Ramesses III (KV11) were generally smaller than those of the 19th dynasty. The proportions of the constituent parts, however, increased in size with the last 6 tombs in the vally having passages more than 3 metres wide and 4 metres high.
The picture at the top right of this page, of the tomb of Twosret and Setnakhte (KV14) (used originally by Twosret and then reused and extended by Setnakhte), clearly shows the linearity of the passages of this 20th dynasty tomb.


The decoration applied to the walls and ceilings of the royal tombs provided far more than a colourful backdrop, for the artists were in effect making an eternal underworld for the deceased king. The problems of tombs curtailed and hurried burials may have thwarted this aim on many occasions, but what the artists achieved stands among the greatest art of the ancient world.

Artistic Conventions

Eygptian Art - artistic conventionsDepiction of human figures and dieties on the walls of Egyptian tombs and temples strike the modern viewer as unusual.

The body is shown as a composite image, made up from different views of its parts. The face is almost always represented in profile, but the single eye is shown in front view.

The shoulders are also seen from the front, but because the artist tried to show the important parts of the body unobscured, the left arm may be attached to the right shoulder and vice versa.

From the shoulders down, the body turns into a three-quarter view of the waist, but the nipple is seen in profile. The legs are again in profile and the left foot is invariably in front of the right - the feet are always depicted resting on the same baseline.

Despite this 'mosaic' way of viewing the human body, the overall impression is that of remarkable assured unity of composition.

Funerary Texts

Funerary texts feature in many belief systems, their purpose usually to provide guidance to the newly deceased about how to survive and prosper in the afterlife. The most famous example of funerary literature is that of the ancient Egyptians, among whose texts number the Amduat, the Book of the Dead, the Book of Caverns, the Book of Gates and the Litany of Re. These texts were written on the walls of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings for the deceased's guidance in the afterlife.

The Amduat
kv34 - Burial Chamber - Amduat, eleventh hour, upper register, scenes 1-3Literally 'That Which Is In the Underworld'', the Amduat tells the story of Re, the sun god, travelling through the underworld, between the time the sun sets in the west and rises again in the east. It is understood that the dead pharaoh is taking this same journey, ultimately to unify with the sun god and become immortal.

The underworld is divided into twelve hours of the night, each presenting various allies and enemies for the pharaoh to encounter. The Amduat names all of these entities, totalling many hundreds of gods and monsters. In fact, this is a prime purpose of the Amduat: to provide the names of these creatures to the spirit of the dead pharaoh, so he can call upon them for aid or use their name to defeat them. Complete copies were inscribed in the burial chambers of Thutmose III (KV34) and Amenhotep II (KV32) and partial versions are found in most tombs.

The Book of Caverns
KV14 - rear wall with final scene from the Book of CavernsThe Book of Caverns describes the journey of the sun god Re through the six caves or pits of the underworld, focusing on the rewards and punishments in the afterlife.

The earliest appearance of this work is on a wall of the Osireion in Abydos. It first appeared in the Valley of the Kings, in the tomb of Ramesses IV (KV2), in place of Amduat. A complete version appears in the tomb of Ramesses VI (KV9).

The book has no ancient title, and is not divided in the hours of the night.

The Book of the Dead
Book of the Dead - the deceased with Horus and OsirisKnown as 'the Spells of Coming Forth By Day', the Book of the Dead was a description of the ancient Egyptian conception of the afterlife and a collection of hymns, spells, and instructions to allow the deceased to pass through obstacles in the afterlife. The Book of the Dead was most commonly written on a papyrus scroll and placed in the coffin or burial chamber of the deceased. Whilst perhaps the best known of the funerary texts, it is not considered the most important.

The name 'Book of the Dead' was the invention of the Karl Richard Lepsius, who published a selection of the texts in 1842. It was the product of a process of evolution from the Pyramid texts of the Old Kingdom to the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom. About one-third of the chapters in The Book of the Dead are derived from the Coffin Texts. The Book of the Dead itself was adapted to the Book of Breathings in the Late Period, but remained popular in its own right until the Roman period.

The Book of Gates
Book of Gates - the four races of humanity in processionThis text, dating from the New Kingdom, narrates the passage of a newly deceased soul into the next world, corresponding to the journey of the sun though the underworld during the hours of the night. The soul is required to pass though a series of 'gates' at different stages in the journey. Each gate is associated with a different goddess, and requires that the deceased recognise the particular character of that deity. The text implies that some people will pass through unharmed, but that others will suffer torment in a lake of fire.

A notable part of the Book of Gates refers to the different races of humanity known to the Ancient Egyptians, dividing them up into four categories that are now conventionally labelled 'Egyptians', 'Asiatics', 'Libyans', and 'Nubians'. These are depicted in procession entering the next world.

The text and images associated with the Book of Gates appear in many tombs of the New Kingdom, including all the pharaonic tombs between Horemheb (KV57) and Ramesses VII (KV1).

The Litany of Re
KV34 - Litany of Re - text and forms of ReThe Litany of Re (or more fully 'Book of Praying to Re in the West, Praying to the United One in the West') is a two part composition: the first part invokes the sun, Re, in 75 different forms while the second part is a series of prayers in which the pharaoh assumes parts of nature and deities but mostly of the sun god. Unlike other funerary texts, it was reserved only for pharaohs or favored nobility.

Developed in the Eighteenth Dynasty, it also praises the king for his union with the sun god, as well as other deities.

The text was used in the entrance of most tombs from the time of Seti I (KV17), though we first know of it from the burial chamber of Thutmose III (KV34).

All the segments of a tomb were thought to represent the passage of the sun god Re through the twelve caverns of the underworld in the hours of the night, prior to his rebirth, and by association the king's rebirth, at dawn. The tombs at first held excerpts from the Amduat. As the emphasis slowly shifted with time from the association with the underworld to an association with Re himself, the Litany of Re made its appearance.

From the time of Horemheb (KV57), tombs were decorated with the Book of Gates. Late in the Nineteenth Dynasty the Book of Caverns was placed in the upper parts of tombs; a complete version appears in the tomb of Ramesses VI (KV9). The burial of Ramesses III (KV11) saw the Book of the Earth, where the underworld is divided into 4 sections, climaxing in the sun disc being pulled from the earth by Naunet. The ceilings of the burial chambers were decorated (from the burial of Seti I (KV17) onwards) with what become formalised as the Book of the Heavens, which again describes the sun's journey through the twelve hours of night.

The labour force

The labourers and artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings lived in a nearby village called Deir el-Medina. The settlement is located on the west bank of the Nile, across the river from modern-day Luxor.

Deir el-MedinaThe people of Deir el-Medina were responsible for most of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens and the temples of the Theban necropolis. The workmen of the village often referred to themselves as 'servants in the place of truth'. During the eight days they spent working on tomb building, they often stayed in a small way-camp built on a ridge above the royal valley, returning to their homes on their twp days of rest. Nominally under the control of a vizier, the labourers were divided into 'Right Side' and 'Left Side' gangs, according to the side of tomb on which the particular gang worked.

The patron of the village was the cobra-goddess Meretseger, who was said to dwell atop the pyramid-shaped mountain al-Qurn that stands between Deir el-Medina and the Valley of the Kings. Other deities worshiped in the settlement included Ma'at, goddess of justice and balance, Thoth, the protector of scribes and painters, and Chnum, the ram-headed god of potters and sculptors.

At its peak, Deir el-Medina covered 5600 m² and contained some 70 homes with another 40 or so outside the perimeter wall. The workers and their families, even in those distant times, were not without their civil rights. The wives had title to their own wealth and a third of all marital goods. As for labour rights, during the reign of Ramesses III the workers downed tools in what must have been the first strike in recorded history. Village leaders attempted to reason with them but they refused to return to work until their grievances were met.

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