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Egyptologists strike gold

Discovery Channel
A 17-inch-long wooden coffin covered in gold leaf is among the artifacts found in the KV-63 chamber in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.

Lots of little mysteries keep adding to the big mystery surrounding the ancient Egyptian chamber known as KV-63. Was the chamber — where seven coffins and 28 jars were tucked away more than 3,000 years ago — meant to be a royal tomb, a hiding place, a supply room for used mummification materials, or all of the above?

The latest little mystery has to do with a 17-inch-long (42-centimeter-long) coffin. The wooden mini-coffin, which is covered with pink-tinged gold, is about the right size for an infant. But it's empty, with no inscription on it. So what purpose was it meant to serve?

"It's probably not for an infant, but more likely it might be for a funerary figurine. Unfortunately there was nothing in it, so we can only make guesses as to what it might be," the leader of the KV-63 dig, Otto Schaden of the University of Memphis, told me via telephone from Egypt today.

The mini-coffin was found just last week, stuffed inside a somewhat bigger coffin along with a bunch of ancient pillows, and has become the focus of the publicity buildup for Sunday's Discovery Channel documentary about Schaden's work, titled "Egypt's New Tomb Revealed."

The TV show traces the saga of KV-63 up to virtually the present day, but the saga hasn't quite come to its climax. After months of work, Schaden and his team are just now getting to the most intriguing of the chamber's seven coffins: a full-size, sealed coffin at the very back of the room, plus another infant-sized coffin lying nearby.

"We're not sure what we'll find in the other one," Schaden said. "It could be possibly a child, but it could also be a funerary figure, or it could be empty."

That mini-coffin may be taken out of the chamber next week for further study. Schaden said the team plans to X-ray both the infant's coffin and the larger sealed coffin, to get a sense of the contents before taking on the delicate job of opening the lids. Also, 16 of the 28 jars found in the chamber have yet to be opened.

Schaden by no means expects to find treasures on a par with those discovered about 45 feet (15 meters) away in Tutankhamen's tomb. But he does hope to find connections to the age of Tutankhamun and his father, the heretic pharaoh Akhnaten. The style of the carvings and some of the inscriptions found at the KV-63 site already point to the 18th Dynasty, when Akhnaten and Tut ruled.

"We know where the final acts were performed in this tomb, or roughly when, but we'd like to know specifically," he said. "We'd like to know if we can nail it down to a specific reign and maybe even a date. We still have a lot of things to examine in which such information could be sitting there waiting for us."

The show suggests that the chamber might have served as a repository or even a dumping ground during the tumultuous times of the 18th Dynasty. The trouble began when monotheistic-minded Akhnaten removed references to old gods to make room for his deity, Aten.

"What you had was Akhnaten imposing a rather radically new idea on Egypt, and for a civilization that relied so heavily on past traditions, to suddenly have a pharaoh come by and say the god you've been worshipping for hundreds of years has to go — this must have really scared a lot of people," Schaden said.

After Akhnaten left the scene, Tutankhamun and his military advisers led Egypt back to the old gods and the old ways. "I'm sure that in the process, there were a lot of individuals who, at one time or another, on one side of the situation or the other, may have gotten into deep trouble," Schaden said.

Were the coffins and the jars in KV-63 stashed away by ancient notables who found themselves in deep trouble? Schaden sees this as a potential scenario, but he's not ready to commit himself yet.

"My theory is, don't guess," he told me. "Wait until you know, or are reasonably sure. ... We still have most of the questions unanswered."