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Geography and Geology of the Valley of the Queens and Western Wadis

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Cliffs above QV55 and area of QV86
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Lying south and southwest of the Valley of the Kings (KV), is a vast network of wadis that include the Valley of the Queens (QV) main Wadi, which is the main burial site for queens and other royal family members of the New Kingdom, the Valley of Prince Ahmose, the Valley of the Rope, the Valley of the Three Pits, the Valley of the Dolmen, the Western Wadis (WW), and Wadi al Bariyah, all of which also contain royal tombs. These wadis are characterized by poor quality limestone, marls, shales, and severe flood damage, which has made many of the tombs there inaccessible. 

The geological history of these wadis stretches back around fifty-two million years ago during the Paleocene and Eocene epochs, where layer upon layer of marine sediment calcified to form limestone, shale, and marl. These sediments were uplifted and exposed as the East Africa rift moved northwards, thus creating the Theban Formation. Oftentimes, marine life is fossilized in the stone, known as fossiliferous limestone, and this commonly occurs in Egyptian limestone. In the Valley of the Queens and the Western Wadis, there are two primary geological materials of the Theban Formation, into which the royal tombs are cut: marl and Isna shale. As discussed in the article Geography and Geology of the Valley of the Kings (click here), Isna shale, or Montmorillonite, is a poor quality and unstable stone that is especially prone to water damage, expanding when water comes into contact with it and breaking apart as a result. Marl, in its clay form, was a material commonly used for pottery in ancient Egypt, but it could also harden into rock, called marlstone, which is the formation that is found in the Valley of the Queens and Western Wadis, and this part of the Theban Formation is called Member 1. Marlstone is more stable than Isna shale, which is more clay-rich than marl, and it overlies the Isna Formation.

Main wadi showing geological formation and grotto

Geologic slumping occurred often along the fault lines in the Theban plateau, causing the stratigraphy in these zones to appear rotated, almost entirely perpendicular to the Theban Formation proper. The main wadi QV tombs are cut into this rotated zone, and, because it occurs along a fault line, the tombs are prone to earthquakes, particularly those tombs which are built into the Isna Formation. At the northern end of the main wadi the tombs, such as those of the queens, like Nefertari (QV 66), and daughters of Rameses II are cut into the more stable formation of Member 1. Some tombs that were cut into Member 1 have shafts and chambers descending into the Isna Formation (QV 33), making them susceptible to damage. In the northern and eastern quadrants of the Valley of the Queens, the tombs underwent significant slumping, resulting in a shifting geological environment that has threatened QV tombs from the time they were dug until today, and that is why several tombs are now inaccessible.

Salt inclusions in the rock and the porous properties of the shale have led to varying degrees of stability in the structure of the tombs themselves. This poor quality rock also makes it susceptible to flood damage, which in fact many QV tombs suffered in antiquity as well as even more recently. Previous flooding is evidenced by dry, cracked mud and debris inside tombs. Thirty-one 18th Dynasty tombs and twenty 19-20th Dynasty tombs show signs of previous flooding. This flooding was caused by torrential rains on the Theban Plateau which ran down the Grand Cascade to the northwest of the main wadi. There, a grotto consisting of a small waterfall and pools served as a site for Hathor worship, suggested by the depictions of Hathor carved on the rock. What look like two tall naturally formed pillars flank the grotto, giving it the appearance of a gateway.

Grotto cascade and ancient dam in front

Remains of an ancient dam are found on the north side of the Valley of the Queens, just beyond QV 55, indicating major flooding problems in antiquity. The dam, of which only a small low wall of irregularly shaped stone is preserved, is estimated to have been built in the 20th Dynasty during the reign of Rameses III to divert occasional rains that poured from the grotto and threatened low-lying 19th Dynasty tombs. Built of roughly cut local stone, the simple dam stood one meter high and 18 meters long. Midway between the dam and QV 66 lie the remains of a few simple mud-brick huts (“le hameau”) for the families of the ancient workmen who cut and decorated the tombs. One of these has been restored by the Franco-Egyptian Mission.  

The Valley of the Dolmen contains the rock-cut sanctuaries dedicated to the gods Ptah and Meretseger and is situated along the workmen’s path leading from Dayr al Madinah to the main valley. The valley takes its name from a naturally forming rock outcrop that looks like a dolmen, or megalithic portal tomb. The Valley of the Rope is marked by a deep valley whose slopes are covered in rock debris, or scree, and surrounded by a sheer cliff face. The Valley of the Three Pits is composed of two valleys. The right-hand valley, where the burials are located, is a narrow bed of stone that had formed from the passage of an ancient river. The left-hand valley is much broader and ends in a circular area that is surrounded by natural vertical walls. South of the main valley lies the Valley of Prince Ahmose. It had experienced significant erosion, transforming the rock surrounding the wadi into gentle slopes, and is characterized by a thick and compact layer of marlstone.

Looking south-west over the Wadi al-Gharby (right) and Wadi Jabbanat al-Qurud (left)

The tombs in the Western Wadis, all dating to the 18th Dynasty, are set in different levels of the rock. Some are pits on the level of the wadi floor, and others are cut into the cliff face. The geology here is less complicated than the main valley of the Valley of the Queens where a large section of it is rotated. Commonly, the wadis are characterized by slopes of conglomerate stone that had been deposited by water that had once flowed through the valleys. The wadis A through G are situated between the QV main wadi and Wadi al Bariyah, but only Wadis A, C, and D contain tombs. These wadis are within the larger Wadi Jabbanat al Qurud system, and Wadi A is located in the eastern subsidiary branch called Wadi Sikkat Taqat Zayid. The tombs in all the Western Wadis are well protected not only because of their distance from other West Bank monuments and tombs, but also because the rock’s natural fissures and steep cliffs help to conceal the tomb entrances. Wadi al Bariyah, which consists of a wide and flat surface that had once been a floodplain, is the westernmost wadi containing a complex of shaft tombs that are cut low into the ground. Unlike the Western Wadis, the tomb shafts of Wadi al Bariyah are more easily visible even from a distance.

Except for a few Paleolithic stone tools, there is little evidence of human activity in the Valley of the Queens before the 18th Dynasty. Then, perhaps because of QV’s convenient location, it became an increasingly common site for the burials of members of the royal family, gradually replacing the outlying Western Wadis as their principal burial site. Most of the QV tombs from this time were simple and undecorated, and we know the owners’ names only for those in which inscribed objects were found on the tomb floor. The earliest known is QV 47, belonging to Princess Ahmose from the end of the 17th Dynasty and the beginning of the 18th Dynasty.   

Hathor emerging from western mountain and Tree goddess offering to Queen

Perhaps as important as its convenient location when QV was chosen for the burial of royal women, the aforementioned small grotto in the cliffs at the southwestern limit of QV may have been associated with the vulva of the goddess Hathor, who, as the Lady of the West, was strongly associated with the western mortuary mountains. This attribute of Hathor is depicted in the wall painting of Queen Tyti’s tomb (QV 52), showing Hathor as a cow emerging from the western desert.


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