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'Wonderful things' on paper: the Egyptologist Victor Loret in the Valley of the Kings.

Victor Loret (1859-1946) (Fig. 1) studied Egyptology in Paris with e famous scholar Gaston Maspero. In 1881, he joined him in Egypt, where he stayed for five years, becoming one of the first members of the French Archaeological Mission in Cairo. With Maspero, Loret travelled down the Nile, and was enchanted by the country. (1) In 1883, he worked in Thebes with Eugene Lefebure in royal and other tombs, copying their decoration and studying their inscriptions (Fig. 2). (2) This was his first contact with the Valley of the Kings, where, fifteen years later, he would make the greatest discovery of his life--the tombs of Thutmoses III and Amenhotep II. From 1886 until 1929 he held the chair of Egyptology at Lyons, going back to Egypt only in 1897-99 as director of the Antiquities Service. In these years, he founded the Annales du Service des Antiquites de l'Egypte, still published today, and dug in Saqqara and in Thebes. Loret was more interested in research and excavation than in administration and public relations, and for this reason his directorship of the Antiquities Service attracted unfavourable comment from Egyptologists at the time. (3) But he was a good scholar and a good teacher: among his students were Kuentz, Devaud, Montet, Gauthier, and Varille, all of whom became well-known Egyptologists in their own rights and continued to enjoy excellent relationships with their mentor, regularly writing to him and visiting him in Lyons. Together, they discussed Egyptology in all its aspects, from language to archaeology, but also music, which was one of Loret's passions. (4)


At his death, his library and a small group of glass plate negatives went to the University of Lyons, while his philological notes were in part bequeathed to Montet, and are now in the Institut de France in Paris; (5) however, the majority of his archives were left to his beloved student Alexandre Varille. They were stored in the Varille family flat in Lyons and in their country house at Lourmarin de Provence, where they were kept together with the archives of Alexandre Varille, who died only five years after his master, in November 1951. This important collection of papers, drawings, photographs and other materials belonging to the two scholars were jealously guarded by the Varille family for almost half a century, until the heirs eventually decided to sell thorn. Thanks to the antiquarian booksellers Ars Libri of Boston, which had already sold the Varille library in 2001, (6) the Universita di Milano was able to acquire the entire archive in January 2002, thereby enriching its important Egyptological resources. (7)

Loret's archives, whose rediscovery represents one of the major events in the history of Egyptology in recent decades, include a rich correspondence between him and such colleagues as De Morgan, Schweinfurth, Ebers, and Brugsch, not to mention his former students, including Varille and Montet. The latter was the discoverer of Tanis, the capital of Egypt at the end of the second millennium BC, and of the rich tombs of the pharaohs buried there. Every year, on his return from Tanis, he would write letters to Loret describing his discoveries, asking for his advice, and send him annotated photographs, which are of extraordinary importance for our understanding of the history of the excavations (Fig. 3). (8)


Loret was fascinated by the study of zoology and botany, and in his archives there are notes and lists concerning Egyptian birds and fishes, casts in plaster and tin (Fig. 4), and tracings of other animals, and notes on trees and plants, sometimes together with dried and pressed specimens inside notebooks.


There are also numerous cards with lexicographical observations, arranged in alphabetical order, which were to be used for a never finished Egyptian dictionary (Fig. 5), as well as various notebooks containing texts copied and translated, comments on archaeological sites or on objects in museums, notes on religion and a mass of observations on Egyptian music and musical instruments, both ancient and modern, a subject on which Loret was a true authority. He wrote voluminously on all these topics, and the Universita di Milano is now in possession of the proofs as well as the original manuscripts of published and unpublished works (Figs. 6-7 and 9-12).


Of particular interest are the travel notebooks, made more attractive by the enchanting sketches that illustrate them, including one dating from Loret's first trip to Egypt in 1881 (Fig. 6). An extremely important manuscript, describing in detail the Musee de Boulaq (Fig. 7), the first collection of Egyptian antiquities in the country (Fig. 8), (9) dates from the same year. The dossier concerning the excavations carried out at Saqqara in 1897-99 is also exceptionally useful (Fig. 9), since it contains a great deal of unpublished information on the tombs that were discovered, and detailed lists of objects, noting the exact locations in which they were found.


Loret was always passionate about the history of the reign of Amenhotep III, an interest afterwards passed on to Alexandre Varille, and in his archives are preserved notebooks full of texts of this period copied from monuments and objects, studied and translated, along with drawings and watercolours reproducing them, as well as copies of details from the tomb of the pharaoh (Fig. 10).

In addition to exploring many of the known tombs of the Valley of the Kings, such as those of Amenhotep III and of Ramesses IX, in 1898-99 Loret either located or excavated seventeen new tombs, (10) of which only five seem to have been previously known. The greatest discovery we have made in his archives actually concern his notes and reports--one of which was probably intended for publication--together with texts for lectures, photographs, sketches, plans, drawings and watercolours that illustrate the tombs he found in the Valley, especially the most important of them, those belonging to Thutmosis III and to Amenhotep II.

Of these two tombs, we have also discovered a detailed day-by-day excavation journal, previously thought by Egyptologists to have disappeared or never to have existed. (11) It consists of seventy-five loose pages, folded in three, which provide a precise description of the discovery (Fig. 11): each sheet concerning a new excavation day is dated on one side, while the other side presents plans, sketches and a list of the objects discovered, together with their exact position and a short description of the principal events of the day, recorded also in photographs. This abundance of material was merely summarised in the preliminary report, which constitutes the only article published by Loret on the subject. (12)

The entrance to the tomb of Thutmosis III, the powerful pharaoh to whom Egypt owed its maximum territorial expansion, was discovered by Loret's workmen on 12 February 1898, while he was away in Aswan. He only came back to Luxor on 21 February, and the first page of the excavation journal dates from that day.

The tomb, situated in an elevated position at the end of a rocky gorge, is a well-preserved architectural and artistic masterpiece. Its principal innovative features are the cartouche-shaped burial chamber and sarcophagus, the latter carved out of yellow quartzite painted red, a detail that astonished Loret at the time of its discovery. Another novelty is the well, to a depth of six metres, which had a religious significance, symbolising as it did the approach to the underworld, combined with a practical function, namely to collect the rainwater which its creators realised would eventually seep through, while also serving as a deterrent to tomb-robbers.

While the entrance corridors are undecorated, the well and the burial chamber are adorned with a frieze of khekher (bundles of reeds), and the ceiling is painted like a night sky, in blue with yellow stars. Furthermore, the walls of the antechamber present the images and the names of seven hundred and forty-one deities listed in the so-called Book of the Netherworld, or Amduat, and on the walls of the burial chamber this same text is written in cursive hieroglyphs and is accompanied by representations of deities or funerary scenes. These are outlined, or painted, in black and red on a brownish-yellow background, like an enormous papyrus unrolled on the walls, as Loret already noted the first time he penetrated this large chamber. Its two central columns are decorated in the same style, with text and images of another funerary composition, the Litany of Re.

Loret was not surprised to find the sarcophagus opened and empty, since the mummy of the king had been found, in 1881, in tomb 320 of Deir el-Bahari, known as the first cachette, together with the mummies of fifty-two other pharaohs or important persons. They had been hidden there during the 22nd dynasty, at the beginning of the first millennium BC, to protect them from the ravages of robbers looking for jewels inside the bandages. (13) When the mummies reached the Musee de Boulaq in Cairo, their discoverer, Emile Brugsch, together with Eugene Lefebure, at that time director of the French Archaeological Mission, and the junior members of the Mission--Loret among them--listed them and made a preliminary study of them for Maspero, the director of the Antiquities Service, who was temporarily away in France. (14)

Loret probably remembered this first encounter with royal mummies when, in 1898, he had the good fortune to discover many other mummies of pharaohs hidden in the tomb of Amenhotep II, afterwards called the second cachette (Fig. 12). He entered the tomb on 9 March in the evening, and explored it all night long, going through corridors and chambers full of fragments of items that had been broken by robbers as well as other pieces in good condition, amounting to a total of around two thousand objects, including a number of beautifully painted wooden artifacts. (15) Inside one model boat, in the antechamber, he found a mummy which has been identified as in all probability being that of the pharaoh Sethnakht, but an even greater surprise awaited him in the burial chamber, where--inside a carefully carved, cartouche-shaped quartzite sarcophagus--he discovered the body of the tomb's owner, Amenhotep II. It was the first time that a pharaoh had been found in his own tomb.

The room is decorated like Thutmosis III's burial chamber, with elegant silhouettes of the king and various gods on the pillars, the text of the Amduat displayed on the walls, and its blue ceiling studded with yellow stars: when found, the ensemble was absolutely intact. Four small rooms open onto this chamber: in one of them Loret found three mummies, one plausibly identified as Queen Tiye, the wife of Amenhotep III. The original photograph of the three bodies as found, previously presumed lost, (16) is one of the great treasures of the archive (Fig. 15). Another of the rooms, closed off with limestone blocks, some of which had been removed from the top right-hand corner in antiquity, had an amazing suprise in store for Loret. Nine mummies were lying there, inside coffins which were partly covered, partly uncovered, and mostly bearing royal cartouches. He entered the room, and on closer inspection discovered that the bodies were those of many of the most celebrated pharaohs of the New Kingdom, identified by dockets upon the bandages and/or upon the coffins: (17) Thutmosis IV, Amenhotep III, Merenptah, Sethi II, Siptah, Ramesses IV, V and VI, and an unknown woman, maybe Queen Tawosret.


From his journal, which is preserved in the archive, we now know the exact position of each mummy and of the objects deposited in the room by priests or officials of the 21st dynasty who wanted to save their kings from destruction. From the same journal, it is possible to retrieve information concerning the other materials uncovered and their respective positions within the ideal grids into which Loret divided the antechamber and the burial chamber, grids that--hitherto unpublished and presumed lost--have previously only been hypothetically, but as it transpires accurately, reconstructed by Egyptologists in recent years. (18)

When the excavation was finished and everything, objects and mummies, had been made ready to be sent to Cairo, Loret received from the Egyptian government, upon the initiative of Sir William Garstin, the Under Secretary of State for the Public Works Department, the order to leave the mummies in the tomb, since public opinion was opposed to the transfer of the bodies of the kings from the tomb in which they were reinterred to the Ghiza Museum. The news was unexpected, and Loret was astonished and concerned by it, since there was a serious risk of theft. Various newspapers dating from April 1898 report the entire controversy: these interesting articles, together with Loret's handwritten comments, are gathered together in a separate dossier among his papers.

In the following year, Loret continued his excavations in the Valley of the Kings and made other significant discoveries: above all the intact tomb of Maiherpri, a non-royal but prominent personage of Nubian origin. In spite of this new success, he resigned from his post as Director of the Antiquities Service, and went back to France; he was never to return to Egypt (Fig. 14).


In January 1900, Gaston Maspero, Director of the Service for the second time, ordered the nine mummies found in the cache to be sent to Cairo, while Amenhotep II, the mummy in the boat, probably of Sethnakht, and the three others found in one of the side rooms were left in the tomb.

In the end in November 1901, as Loret had feared, thieves entered the tomb. The boat in which the mummy lay, and Amenhotep II's bow deposited inside the sarcophagus, were stolen; (19) the mummy in the boat was smashed to pieces, and only the mummy of Amenhotep II was undamaged by robbers looking in vain for jewellery which had probably already been stolen in antiquity. (20) But by that time another young archaeologist, Howard Carter, was in charge of the Valley of the Kings, and was obliged to deal with the problem. (21) The discoverer of the tomb himself was in France with all his notes, his photographs, his plans and sketches which were never published, doubtless distressed by the unpleasant situation that had arisen during his directorship of the Antiquities Service.

To remember what Loret did for Egyptology, and to add precious information about the history of the Valley of the Kings, all this material is currently being digitalised and studied in detail, and will be comprehensively published as part of a series of volumes devoted to the treasures of the Universita di Milano in 2004.

(1) E. David (ed.), G. Maspero, Lettres d'Egypte: Correspondance avec Louise Maspero (1883-1914), Paris, 2003, pp. 118, 126. At the beginning, Maspero considered 'le petit' Loret an excellent scholar, and relations between them were excellent. However, from the closing years of the nineteenth century, onwards, Maspero was harshly' critical of the work done by Loret in Egypt. See ibid., pp. 247-48, 270, 347, 568.

(2) Lefebure was Professor of Egyptology at Lyons from 1879 until 1884, but in the years 1881-83 lived in Egypt, having been appointed to direct the French Archaeological Mission there. In 1885, he was Professor of Egyptology at the College de France, and afterwards at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. In 1887, he moved to Algiers, where he founded an Egyptological school in the local university, and where he died in 1908. See H. Mondor, Eugene Lefebure: Sa vie--Ses lettres a Mallarme Paris, 1951, pp. 127-39; W.R. Dawson, E.P. Uphill, M.L. Bierbrier, Who Was Who in Egyptology, London, 1995, 3rd edition, pp. 243-44.

(3) N. Reeves, Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries--A Year-by-Year Chronicle, London, 2000, pp. 101, 105.

(4) A. Varille, 'Victor Loret 1859-1946', Annales du Service des Antiquites de l'Egypte, vol. XLVII, 1947, pp. 7-13.

(5) P. Montet, 'Le dictionnaire hieroglyphique et les carnets de Victor Loret', Kemi, vol. XVII, 1964, pp. 7-9. For some letters and notes sent by Loret to Lefebure, see G. Lefebure, 'Correspondance de Victor Loret', Kemi, vol. XII, 1952, pp. 5-6.

(6) Ars Libri Ltd., Egyptology: The Library of Alexandre Varille, catalogue no. 124, Boston, 2001.

(7) P. Piacentini, La Biblioteca e gli Archivi di Egittologia del Dipartimento di Scienze dell'Antichita dell'Universita degli Studi di Milano, Novara, 2002; P. Piacentini and E.W. Seibel, 'L'egittologo bibliofilo', in P. Piacentini and M. Pozzi (eds.), Egitto: Dalle piramidi ad Alessandro Magno, exh. cat., Milan, 2002, pp. 20-21.

(8) For other letters from Tanis, sent by Montet to his family, in which Loret is mentioned with great affection, see P. Montet, Lettres de Tanis 1939-1940: La decouverte des tresors royaux, C. Montet-Beaucour and J. Yoyotte (eds.), Paris, 1998, pp. 18, 77, 115, note 5, and p. 261.

(9) P. Piacentini and V. Rondot, '1881: Musee de Boulaq, mort de Mariette', in M. Eldamaty and M. Trad (eds.), Egyptian Museum Collections Around the World, vol. II, Cairo, 2002, pp. 949-56.

(10) KV 26-41, plus KV L-M, and maybe more. Further researches in Loret's papers will probably establish the precise number of tombs he discovered.

(11) D.C. Forbes, Tombs, Treasures, Mummies: Seven Great Discoveries of Egyptian Archaeology, Sebastopol and Santa Fe, 1998, pp. 59, 83, note 30, pp. 89, 103, 108-109, note 3; N. Reeves, Valley of the Kings: The Decline of a Royal Necropolis, London, 1990, pp. 21, 192, 221, note 93; N. Reeves and R.H. Wilkinson, The Complete Valley of the Kings, London, 1996, pp. 69, 100, 179.

(12) V. Loret, 'Le tombeau de Thoutmes III' and 'Le tombeau d'Amenophis II et la cachette royale de Biban-el-molouk', Bulletin de l'Institut Egyptien, vol. IX (third series), 1898, pp. 91-112, plates 1-15.

(13) Reeves, op. cit., pp. 183-92.

(14) E. Lefebure, 'Le puits de Deir-el-Bahari: Notice sur les recentes decouvertes faites en Egypte', Annales du Musee Guimet, vol. IV, 1882, pp. 1-17.

(15) For some of these objects, see Forbes, op. cit., pp. 6467; E. Hornung and B.M. Bryan (eds.), The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt, exh. cat., Washington and elsewhere, 2002, pp. 76-79, 110-111.

(16) Forbes, op. cit., p. 59.

(17) Reeves and Wilkinson, op. cit., pp. 202-207.

(18) Reeves, op. cit., pp. 192-195; Reeves and Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 100.

(19) The boat was subsequently recovered, and is now in the Cairo Museum.

(20) The mummy of the pharaoh was finally sent to Cairo in 1931.

(21) H. Carter, 'Report on the Robbery of the Tomb of Amenothes II, Biban el Moluk', Annales du Service des Antiquites de l'Egypte, vol. III, 1902, pp. 115-120; N. Reeves and J. Taylor, Howard Carter before Tutankhamun, London, 1992, pp. 60-63.

Patrizia Piacentini is Professor of Egyptology at the University of Milan, where she is responsible for the library and the archives of Egyptology.
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