On November 29, 2012, Egyptologist Kent R. Weeks (b. 1941) speaks to a group preparing to see the King Tutankhamun exhibit at Seattle's Pacific Science Center. Director of the Theban Mapping Project, a database of the Theban valley and its necropolis, Weeks tells of findings in the Valley of the Kings, including his own 1995 discovery of burial chambers believed to be those of Ramses II's sons, one of the most significant archaeological finds since the discovery of King Tut's tomb.
A Lifelong Passion
Fascinated with ancient Egypt from a young age, Weeks spent his earliest years in Everett, from his birth on December 19, 1941, to seventh grade when his family moved to Longview, where Weeks graduated from R. A. Long High School in 1959. Few school resources were available at that time to study Egyptology but Weeks was encouraged by family, friends, and teachers to pursue a career in archaeology.
He graduated from the University of Washington in 1965 with an MA in anthropology backed with studies in the classics and pre-med, specifically anatomy, paleopathology, and medical history. While at UW, he took part in salvage work at American Indian sites along the Columbia River. Weeks also did fieldwork with the Nubian Salvage Project at the reservoir area for Aswan Dam, in connection with Yale University. It was at this time that he met and married artist and archaeologist Susan Howe (1943-2009), who was from Seattle. Both loved Egypt and the couple worked together on archeological projects throughout their marriage, Susan contributing many illustrations of their findings. Kent worked also on sites in Hierakonpolis, Sakkara, Giza, and Mendes. He received a Ph.D. in Egyptology from Yale in 1970.
In 1972 Weeks became Assistant Curator of Egyptian Art at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and was also appointed that year as professor of anthropology at the American University of Cairo (AUC). Getting closer to his dream of doing significant archaeology in Egypt, Weeks was named director of the University of Chicago's epigraphic expedition in Luxor (Thebes) to study inscriptions. The project was called Chicago House, the Oriental Epigraphic and Architectural Survey. Much of his time in this position was spent dealing with grants and fundraising.
Theban Mapping Project
In 1977 Weeks accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley. This allowed him to teach at Berkeley and then spend part of the year exploring in the Valley of the Kings. Securing his own grant funding, Weeks began the Theban Mapping Project In 1978, through UC Berkeley, with the goal of recording and mapping every tomb in the Theban necropolis.
From 1500 to 1000 B.C., the Egyptians buried their pharaohs here in grand underground complexes, and over the years attempts had been made to map the region. The Theban Mapping Project built on previous mapping and journals; work was painstakingly slow. Some tombs referenced in early writings had since gone missing but their probable locations now were included. In the nineteenth century British archaeologist John Gardner Wilkinson (1797-1875) had found and named a tomb KV5, close to the tomb of Ramses II (1303 B.C. -1213 B.C.), the third pharaoh of Egypt's Nineteenth Dynasty. Wilkinson found nothing of value and recorded that KV5 was not worth further exploration. James Burton (1786-1862) also noted the tomb and added it to his early mapping of the Valley of the Kings. He too declared it of little significance.
In 1988 Weeks was hired as professor of Egyptology at the American University of Cairo (AUC). Tourism was now an important part of Egypt's economy, with thousands of visitors arriving daily to the Valley of Kings. A turnaround spot for tour buses was near the tomb of Ramses II. To solve a traffic bottleneck, AUC's Antiquities Department proposed widening the road. Believing that KV5 would be impacted by these changes, Weeks and his team sought to find and relocate it.
Debris from flooding and previous archaeological exploration made the entrance to KV5 difficult to find and enter. After long days of labor, the entrance was found 100 feet from the tomb of Ramses II. As workers slowly cleared the entrance, they moved a few large stones and on one found a hieroglyph bearing the name of Ramses II's firstborn son. A season's worth of clearing led the team through Chamber 3. In February 1995 they discovered doorways and a corridor 100 feet long leading to many separate chambers. At the end of the corridor was a figure of Ramses II portrayed as the god Osiris looking out over the burial sites of what was assumed to be some of his 52 sons. Wall decorations and alabaster fragments carried the names of four of these sons. It was obvious that KV5 was the largest burial site that had been found to date in the Valley of the Kings.
The size and importance of the site made it clear that more money would be needed to continue excavating and preserving these burial chambers. On May 15, 1995, The Antiquities Department of the American University in Cairo announced the KV5 discovery to news outlets in New York and Cairo, hoping to bring in funding and world support. The story quickly spread worldwide and large donations were given to continue the work, the Valley of the Kings being one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world.
Educating and Preserving
Weeks's work from this point on would be focused on further excavation, interpretation, and preservation of KV5. The daily impact of thousands of visitors to the tombs is an ongoing challenge and a balance needs always to be made between protecting the sites and allowing Egypt's lucrative tourism business to continue. Many villagers depend on tourist-related business for nearly all of their income. Training locals to protect the tombs has been a high priority. Under Weeks's direction, a research library is now in operation every day of the year. Starting as a small collection of books related to Egyptology, the library now is broader in scope and includes classics, children's books, and how-to volumes on many topics, much like a regular public library. A website has also been developed; The Theban Mapping Project explains it this way:
"With information about every archaeological, geological and ethnographic feature in the Valley of the Kings, nearly 2,000 photographs and illustrations, over 250 detailed maps, elevations and sections, exhaustive bibliographic resources, articles, glossaries and timelines, this dynamic website sets a new standard for archaeological publishing -- one that is informative, innovative and interactive. From professional Egyptologists to school children, this site serves the needs of wide and diverse audiences. Visitors unfamiliar with the subject matter can go on a virtual tour of a tomb in 3-D or watch narrated movies for each tomb while advanced scholars can research the architecture and decoration of every chamber in every tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The interactive atlas displays movies, information and images within the context of detailed maps and measured drawings in a stand-alone multimodal tool. The HTML site provides access to printable versions of the same dynamic, database driven content which will be continually updated with new data, findings and photography" (Theban Mapping Project website).
A Washingtonian Returns
Tutankhamun: the Golden King and the Great Pharaohs exhibit was shown from May 24, 2012, to January 6, 2013, at Seattle's Pacific Science Center, the last stop on a nationwide tour of eight locations. While the exhibit focused on King Tut, it was broader in scope, putting into context the historical importance of discoveries made in the Valley of the Kings. No person was more qualified to speak on the topic from a lifetime of experience than Weeks, who on November 29, 2012, accompanied with slides, told about his work with the Theban Mapping Project, the KV5 discovery, and his current work in preserving and interpreting the findings. Weeks emphasized that there were many more discoveries to be found in and near the Valley of the Kings. This prediction has proven accurate.
On October 21, 2019, Egyptologist Zahi Hawass (b. 1947) and his team of archaeologists announced their discovery of 30 mummies -- possibly priests -- buried some 3,000 years ago in a section of the Valley of the Kings know as the Valley of the Monkeys. Hawass estimates that to date only 30 percent of Egypt's ancient burials have been uncovered.