Katarin Parizek/Pennsylvania State University

Follow the fracture.
Egyptian tombs may be easier to find by looking for specific geologic signatures.

A New Way to Find Hidden Tombs

Finding Egyptian tombs is a tricky business that often requires a fair amount of luck. Now geologists have found a way to take some of the chance out of the equation.

While cruising the Nile on a tour of Egypt, Katarin Parizek of Pennsylvania State University in State College noticed that many of the cavelike tombs that house the mummified remains of Egyptian royalty were carved in regions rich in limestone. These areas were likely chosen by the ancient Egyptians because limestone is relatively soft and well suited for excavating. What's more, Parizek--who teaches digital photography and was trained as a geologist--noticed that many of the tombs, including those in the famous Valley of the Kings near the city of Luxor, are located in fracture zones, which are even weaker--and thus more easily carved out by the tomb builders.

After returning to the valley with her father, Penn State geologist Richard Parizek, to map the fracture zones and tomb locations, the two predicted that hidden tombs might be found by following fracture traces on the surface. They were proven right last February when the 63rd known tomb in the area was discovered in a fracture zone. It is the first tomb to be found since the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun.

Unfortunately, the same geology that makes the Valley of the Kings ideal for digging tombs also leaves those tombs susceptible to water damage. Limestone is very permeable rock, and fracture zones are even more easily penetrated by water. (In fact, the same method the Parizeks propose for tomb hunting has long been used to locate good spots for drilling wells.) Although it doesn't rain often in the Egyptian desert, even a light rain can send a torrent into the low valleys, and many of the tombs in the area have been irreversibly damaged by flooding. Water further weakens the fracture zones, causing roofs and pillars to break apart or collapse. It is possible to protect the ancient excavations from water by diverting it, the Parizeks say, so finding undiscovered tombs is critical to their preservation. They presented the work 22 October at the Geological Society of America meeting in Philadelphia.

"I think following these fissures would make a lot of sense," says University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Harold Dibble who works in Egypt near the Valley of the Kings. Many scientists who study this fairly recent period of ancient Egypt don't pay much attention to the geology, focusing instead on history and art history, Dibble notes. He agrees with the Parizeks that the ancient Egyptians probably did pay attention and knew that fracture zones were easier targets for excavation. "They may have been better geologists than the modern Egyptologists."

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