Book Review: The Complete Valley of the Kings

The Complete Valley of the Kings – by Nicholas Reeves and Richard H Wilkinson

There is a small stack of books sat beneath my work table. The paperback edition of the Complete Valley of the Kings by Nicholas Reeves and Richard H Wilkinson has a deserved place in that privileged stack.

It’s a very nice book, first published in hardback in 1996. The paperback didn’t appear until 2008. More recent books would have all photos in colour. The Complete Valley of the Kings, like The Complete Tutankhamun, its companion volume, has a number of great colour photographs but the majority are in black and white. The best illustrations though are the the 3D diagrams of the tomb layouts and those don’t need to be in full colour.

Section 1 – Preparations for the Afterlife

This section may be mis-named as it is more a general background to the book than it introduction to burial practices. It’s actual contents are:

  1. Royal Tombs After the Pyramids
  2. The Topography of Western Thebes
  3. The Geology of the Royal Valley
  4. Pharaoh’s Workforce: The Villagers of Deir el-Medina
  5. Planning a Royal Tomb: Design and Symbolism
  6. Cutting the Tombs
  7. Graffiti and Ostraca
  8. Stocking the Chambers: What the Dead Took with Them
  9. Pharaoh Joins the Gods

This is a fairly short section. Anybody expecting a detailed introduction to mummification will be disappointed, although personally I prefer the scope of the section as presented by the author, notwithstanding the chapter title. It’s still the weakest part of the book, however. Although each of the passages is well written and competently researched, there is no flow and this section of the book comes across as something of a hot-potch.

Section 2 – Agents of Discovery

The next 30+ pages describe the exploration of the Valley of the Kings up to the time of Howard Carter. It includes an interesting introduction to the work of James Gardner Wilkinson who produced a ground-breaking map of the Valley of the Kings, showing most the known tombs. Like most initial attempts at cataloguing, there were some discrepancies between the work of Wilkinson and the other Egyptologists working in the Valley of the Kings at the time. Nonetheless it formed the basis of the numbering system we know today from KV1 (Ramses VII) through to KV63. (It should be noted that as the Complete Valley of the Kings was first published in 1996, it is silent on KV63 which was found in 2004/5 and announced in 2006. Even the paperback edition, published in 2008 omits KV63. It is a shame that the opportunity to add an extra section wasn’t taken.)

Section 3 – Tombs of the Kings

This section is the core of the back. It is detailed and readable at the same time:  90 pages of fantastic material form the core of this book. It is organised chronologically by reign detailing the Pharaoh’s tomb if it has been identified or alternatively presents discussion of the leading alternatives if the location of the tomb remains in doubt. It is difficult to balance brevity against consideration of all theories and the authors strike a reasonable balance, taking a stand on some issues such as Smenkhare and the occupant of KV55 allowing them to cut through discussion of all alternative theories. The format for most of the tombs is the same. There is a diagram of the layout of the tomb, showing the chambers and corridors to scale and indicating the third dimension. There are photographs of the interior, some in color. (As photography within the Valley of the Kings is now forbidden, photographs of the tombs will be welcome to many.)  There is also text describing the tomb, its discovery and anything unusual or important about it. The tombs of Queens get lesser but generally adequate mention.

Section 4 – Decline of a Royal Necropolis

From the heading, this chapter might seem to be padding but it is another great section that presents (albeit in much less detail) on some of the lesser tombs in the Valley of the Kings 0 those for queens, princes or nobles. It also provides detail on the royal mummies and the two principal mummy caches which for many people will be a highlight of the book. However, some tombs get very scanty coverage indeed. It may come as a surprise to many readers that some tombs within the Valley of the Kings have not been fully explored; however, it would have been nice to have a little more information about these minor tombs such as a photograph of the tomb entrance. Nonetheless this is a small gripe in an otherwise excellent chapter.

The book closes with a short Epilogue


The Theban Mapping Project’s Atlas is rather more definitive in terms of the layout of tombs, but it has always cost several hundred dollars and is really suited to universities and professional Egyptologists. For the lay student of Egyptology, or the tourist who has visited and wants to know more, The Complete Valley of the Kings is an ideal choice. However, with new discoveries being in the Valley of the Kings every year, the book is no longer the complete guide it represented when first published.