Geography and Geology of the Valley

Opposite the city that developed around the East Bank temple complexes for the cult of Amen, the West Bank of the Nile at Thebes served as a vast cemetery for its citizenry and officialdom for thousands of years. For approximately five hundred years of that time, during Dynasties 17 to 20, it was also the burial place of Egypt's rulers. Several locations are known to have been set aside as royal necropoleis, the most famous of which is the Valley of the Kings.    
The Valley actually consists of two valleys that run northeast from the slopes of a prominent ridge on a high plateau extending into the Western Desert [16017]. This plateau is composed mainly of limestone strata, the Theban Formation, laid down about thirty-five to fifty-six million years ago. The limestone overlays layers of "Isna shale" and chert. These strata were forced upwards later in the Tertiary, and, during the Pleistocene, heavy rains cut a series of wadis deep into the limestone as floodwaters drained off the plateau toward what eventually become the Nile Valley.     16017
The quality of limestone in the Valley of the Kings varies from extremely fine and structurally sound (as in KV 57, belonging to Horemheb [16140], for example), to fractured and weak, as in the lower reaches of KV 11, only a few meters away. Often, as a tomb was cut, it would pass through several limestone strata, each of different quality, and the plan of a tomb may have been altered to acknowledge that fact (as in KV 20).     16140
The Isna Shale that intermittently appears in the Valley of the Kings is an especially weak and unstable stone that posed problems for ancient quarrymen and modern conservators. When the shale comes in contact with moisture it can expand, literally causing parts of a hillside to break apart. This has happened in the past, and has done damage to several tombs in the Valley, including KV 7 (Rameses II) [13702] and KV 13 (Bay).     13702
There are numerous pieces of chert embedded in the Theban limestone, the very material used by ancient Egyptians to make the stone tools used to cut the tombs. Many pieces of chert litter the hillsides of the Valley of the Kings and are imbedded in the bedrock [15909]. Where they have lain unmoved for millions of years they acquire a dark patina and archaeologists know there is no point clearing such a dark-colored hillside because there will be no remains of human activity beneath its surface [10027].     15909 10027

Published or last modified on: August 23, 2002
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