I am very sorry to report that the geologist and Egyptologist Steve Cross – a good friend and colleague of mine – passed away last week.
Steve was a geologist by training, a very knowledgeable self-taught Egyptologist, and a coastguard by profession. He was also a scouser, and a lovely bloke: shy I think, humble, passionate, full of enthusiasm, and devoid of ego. I liked him from the moment I first got to know him around twenty years ago. In the years that followed he made a name for himself by combining his knowledge of geology and Egyptology to publish a new theory that revealed how Tutankhamun’s tomb came to remain untouched from the late Eighteenth Dynasty until Howard Carter’s team rediscovered it in 1922. I can’t think of a better example of someone without any formal training in Egyptology making such an impact on the subject, and although his work was published in scientific journals and featured in television documentaries, I somehow feel that he was never appreciated to the extent that he should have been.
I first got to know Steve when I joined the staff of the Egypt Exploration Society in January 2001. I was in charge of the library and took over the running of a brilliant service whereby members who couldn’t visit in person could pay to have library books and photocopied articles sent to them by post. Steve was one of a handful of members who had an ‘account’. He would send £10 or so every so often with his latest requests and I would deduct the copying charges and postage costs from the account before sending off the things he needed. We exchanged letters regularly – mine typed on headed paper – I was very proud of my new job! – his scribbled in biro. He was always very pleasant and never late in returning the books he borrowed. I could tell a little of his interests from the things he asked for: mostly things to do with the Valley of Kings, the wider Theban cemeteries, and the late Eighteenth Dynasty including the Amarna Period. The Society’s copy of A J Peden’s The Graffiti of Pharaonic Egypt became especially dog-eared from all the posting backwards and forwards! After a couple of years he said he was writing up the results of his work and asked if I would read a draft. I was flattered but felt he had overestimated my expertise – I didn’t feel I could really help but his writing seemed serious and thorough and I encouraged him to submit it for publication in the Society’s learned periodical, the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (JEA). Most articles published in JEA are written by professional Egyptologists and archaeologists but there’s no requirement that submissions should come from people with any particular qualifications – each submission is judged on its own merits regardless of the author and I felt Steve had nothing to lose: in the worst case his submission would be rejected but only, I hoped, with comments explaining what was lacking and how it could be improved; and in the best case it would be accepted, improved by independent reviewers, and published, providing the work and also Steve himself with serious credibility.
To my delight, he followed my suggestion and his short article on ‘The hydrology of the Valley of the Kings’ was published in volume 94 of the JEA in 2008. Steve had studied the records of historic excavations, including those relating to Howard Carter’s work in the Valley, and records of more recent flash floods including one in 1994, and carried out his own field survey of the Valley. This led him to produce a model that showed that on one particular occasion in the late Eighteenth Dynasty, very shortly after Tutankhamun was buried, the natural shape of the Valley with its various branches led to several streams of flash-flood waters and huge quantities of dust and limestone chips rushing into the area as a result of rains in the mountains. These streams collided with one another, causing the waters and the debris to stop dead in the central part of the Valley, burying several tombs – including Tutankhamun’s – under a thick layer which, when it dried, was rock solid, like cement. That’s why Tutankhamun’s tomb was never robbed, why his mummy was never removed from the tomb by the authorities to the secret ‘caches’ along with the rest of the New Kingdom kings’ bodies, and why the tomb remained intact until Carter’s great discovery. Carter’s own documentation – particularly the photos of the stratigraphy overlying the tomb – provided the crucial evidence but this explanation had eluded Egyptologists until Steve came along. I made sure I gave due prominence to his work in the relevant chapter of my book Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt, and the passage concerned appears below.
In the years that followed Steve was invited to speak about his work by numerous Egyptology societies around the UK and he continued to develop his research, publishing another article – on ‘The Workmen’s Huts and Stratigraphy in the Valley of the Kings’ – in JEA 100 (2014), and a series of further articles in various other publications (available via Steve’s Academia page here.). He featured in a documentary made by Blink Films which was shown around the world in 2013 under various names including ‘Ultimate Tut’ in North America and ‘Tutankhamun: mystery of the burnt mummy’ in the UK (Channel 4). I was also in that film and got to spend a very enjoyable couple of days’ filming in Luxor with Steve, chatting and swapping stories.
His theory suggested that the flash flood may also have covered areas of the Valley that were still unexcavated, leading to the question of whether or not there might yet be further tombs to find, and he was involved in excavations in the centre of the Valley around 2009. For many years he tried to obtain support for a new field project to search for tombs in the Valley but sadly it never came to anything, I suspect in part because he was treated by some in Egyptology as an outsider, but also because the Valley is such a sensitive site and subject to so much interest from so many scholars of various kinds, not all of them entirely credible.
His lectures were always well-received and he was very well-liked – an ‘ordinary’ guy who had taught himself Egyptology and ended up making a contribution to science of equal if not greater importance than that of many others in the field. That importance was confirmed by an invitation to contribute to The Oxford Handbook of the Valley of the Kings for which he wrote the chapter on ‘The Search for Other Tombs’. He never lost his humility and sense of ordinariness. He led tours to Egypt guiding fellow enthusiasts around the Theban hills day after day examining the geology and helping them to understand how the natural environment had affected the ancient past.* I often find myself wishing I could ask him questions when I’m in Egypt, and I wish I could have been on one those trips. It never dawned on me that I might never get the chance to ask my questions but I’ll have to wait to join him in the next life now. To Steve: Life! Prosperity! Health!
*Thanks to Janet Shepherd of Ancient World Tours for this happy memory.
The following excerpt is taken from Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt (London, Thames and Hudson, 2018), 132-4.
“Given what we already know about the use, reuse, removal and reburial of equipment like this in the Valley of the Kings, one might ask how we know that material that was made in the late 18th Dynasty was also deposited at that time. Thanks to some brilliant detective work undertaken in recent years by Stephen Cross, we can now be almost certain that this was the case. Cross knows his Egyptology very well but his formal training is in geology, an expertise that most Egyptologists do not have. Cross carefully reviewed the reports of Ayrton, Davis, Carter and others who carried out their excavations in this area, and embarked on field-walking the Valley itself to build up a picture of the way the Valley evolved in terms of the original natural landscape, and the man-made and natural events that have occurred since it first came into use. He came up with a fascinating hypothesis that has great relevance for the period under study here. KV 55, KV 62 (Tutankhamun’s) and KV 63 were all cut into the bedrock floor in the central area of the Valley, and are among the earliest known tombs in that part of the cemetery. They also lie at a point of confluence of several side wadis leading down from the higher ground in the mountains. We have known for a long time that the Valley is, from time to time, hit by devastating flash floods, formed of rainwater that gathers volume and momentum as it starts its journey from the mountains in the west towards the lower ground of the Nile Valley floor. The floodwaters carry with them limestone chippings and other debris. These deposits have occasionally come rushing into the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, wreaking havoc inside. The ancient Egyptians were aware of this and put in place various measures to ensure that the kings’ burials could withstand such events. This debris, destructive though it is, can also be useful: when it dries it forms a distinctive archaeological layer in the stratigraphy of the Valley, a tell-tale sign, very obvious to a geologist like Cross, that a flood event happened at a particular point in the sequence of events in the Valley.
It is of course very well known that the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered undisturbed since antiquity, whereas most of the other tombs in the Valley had been comprehensively robbed, and some of them had even lain open since ancient times, available for anyone venturing into the area to enter them at will. Cross noted that just such a flood event seemed to have taken place after KV 62 had been sealed, but before the construction of a series of workmen’s huts, built over the top of the flood deposit, a relatively short time later, during the Ramesside Period. Furthermore, the absence of a layer of wind-blown sand deposits, which accumulate very quickly in this part of the world, above the entrance to the tomb but beneath the flood layer suggests that very little time elapsed between the sealing of the tomb and the flood. This event deposited an approximately 1-m (3-ft) depth of alluvium across the central area of the Valley and concealed completely not only KV 62 but also KVs 55 and 63 under a thick and impenetrable layer of what was effectively cement. It would have made it extremely difficult for anyone to find them afterwards, not least enter them. This explains why Tutankhamun’s tomb and KV 63 were never plundered; perhaps even more interestingly, it makes it very likely that the disturbances evident in KV 55, which was sealed, then re- entered and sealed again, took place before this flood episode, not long after the death of Tutankhamun. What is most interesting perhaps for our investigation is that this part of the Valley, which we know was used for the construction of tombs at the end of the 18th Dynasty, and we now also know was completely concealed by the flash flood identified by Cross, has never been completely excavated.”
UPDATE 16 April 2021: I’ve been reminded by Sharon Hague of this interview which she conducted with Steve in 2020. It’s nice to ‘hear his voice’ and to see that he was still so enthusiastically working on various aspects of his research, but at the same time very sad to think that he won’t have been able to bring them all to a conclusion.