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miércoles, 7 de julio de 2010

Secret Tunnel Explored in Pharaoh's Tomb

Standing on wooden steps that protect a 3,300-year-old stone staircase, Egyptian antiquities chief Zahi Hawass poses in 2009 in a mysterious tunnel that links the ancient tomb of Pharaoh Seti I to ... nothing.

After three years of hauling out rubble and artifacts via a railway-car system (rails visible at left), the excavators have hit a wall, the team announced last week. It seems the ancient workers who created the steep tunnel under Egypt's Valley of the Kings near Luxor (map) abruptly stopped after cutting 572 feet (174 meters) into rock.

Hawass, also a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, believes work on the tunnel began during the pharaoh's 15-year reign (1294-1279 B.C.), but after the tomb above it was already complete. Work may have stopped when Seti I died.

Archaeologist Mustafa Waziri, regional director for the Egyptian antiquities council, said: "I think they were planning to make another burial chamber down there. Suddenly they stopped. But the condition of the stairs is amazing."

Snakes await at the foot of a steep tunnel in a scene painted on the walls of Pharaoh Seti I's tomb, above the real-life tunnel (file photo).

The image adds to evidence that the tunnel may have been planned from the beginning, according to Egyptian archaeologist Mustafa Waziri. The scene may refer to the ancient Egyptian Book of Hours, in which a snake guides good people into the afterlife, Waziri said.

While the rest of the tomb is covered with ornate reliefs, the tunnel is almost entirely blank. Archaeologists, however, did find red graffiti on the steps and what appear to be instructions from the architect: "Move the doorjamb up, and make the passage wider."

Kingly Cutaway

Illustration by Christopher Klein, National Geographic

Ancient Egyptian workers carve out and embellish the tomb of Seti I in a cutaway illustration.

Painstakingly chipped into high limestone cliffs above the Valley of the Kings, also home to the tomb of King Tut, Seti I's tomb is among the hardest to reach but most rewarding. The tomb is the most ornate and largest in the valley—and it's growing.

The newly excavated stairway beneath the tomb isn't the only tunnel to surprise archaeologists and expand the tomb's square footage in recent years. In 2008 experts announced they'd found a new tunnel in the tomb proper, which expanded the crypt's length from 328 feet (100 meters) to 446 feet (136 meters)

Pharaoh's Little Helper

Photograph courtesy Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities

Shabti, or ushabti, figurines—such as this one rescued from rubble in the newly excavated tunnel—became popular in the tombs of pharaohs starting in the 18th dynasty (1550-1069 B.C.). Seti I was the second pharaoh of the 19th dynasty (1295-1069 B.C.).

Ancient Egyptians believed shabtis, usually found in groups of several hundred, were embodiments of farmers and other laborers meant to aid the pharaoh in the afterlife.

Dated to the 19th dynasty, the shabtis in Seti I's tunnel were found alongside pottery from the same period and cartouches bearing Seti I's name (translate your name into hieroglyphs).

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