Mummies found just yards from Tutankhamun's tomb

More than 80 years after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities has stunned the world of Egyptology by revealing that another tomb has been found, just four metres away from Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings.

For a long time it was thought that the valley, opposite the modern city of Luxor and the source of many of the most famous discoveries, had given up all of its secrets.

The discovery was the work of a team of American archaeologists from the University of Memphis led by Otto Schaden.

"It's very, very exciting," said Patricia Podvorzski, curator of Egyptian Art at the University of Memphis. "It was completely unexpected, so long after the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. Many archaeologists said the valley was done 100 years ago." Dr Schaden's find is the 63rd tomb to be opened in the valley.

The newly discovered 18th-dynasty tomb contains five mummies in intact sarcophagi with coloured funerary masks, along with more than 20 large storage jars sealed with pharaonic seals, according to Zahi Hawass, head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The sarcophagi are carved in human form, like Tutankhamun's. The tomb is rectangular, and the wooden sarcophagi are surrounded by the jars, which seem to have been placed haphazardly, suggesting that the burial had been completed quickly, according to Dr Hawass.

Dr Schaden has been working in the valley on the Amenmesse Tomb Project, a minor tomb of the 19th dynasty, for many years. "They had finished clearing up that tomb and had started to dig down to the bedrock in front of the entrance," said Dr Podvorzski. "They were looking for foundation deposits - the models of tools, vessels and other things that were put around the tomb of a king to assure the permanence of the structure. While doing that they found workmen's huts made of dry stone and dating from the 19th dynasty. I believe they were in the process of dismantling the huts when they found the new tomb."

It was a very similar chain of events that led to the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922. That, too, had been covered by ancient workmen's huts. "That was why the tombs didn't get robbed," added Dr Podvorzski. "The ancient Egyptian tomb robbers saw the huts and assumed there was nothing underneath them."

Although the discovery came as a huge surprise, there had been a suspicion that something else might be found. "Some time ago a British team did remote sensing around the tomb and said they thought there might be something down there," said Dr Podvorzski.

Details of the find are expected to be announced officially by Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities today, including possibly the identities of the occupants.

Kent Weeks, an American archaeologist, said the tomb was a single chamber, probably intended for a single mummy. Some or all of the other sarcophagi could have been put in later. He added that photographs of the tomb suggested it did not belong to a king. "It could be the tomb of a king's wife or son, or of a priest or court official," he said. "It clearly proves that the Valley of the Kings is still not exhausted. There are probably many more tombs to be found in it."

Whatever the new tomb may contain, its fate is certain: Egypt's policy on undisturbed tombs is clear. "This stuff will stay in Egypt," said Dr Podvorzski.

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