Steve Cross – a tribute to a fine Egyptologist

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 Cross in the Valley of Kings, a few metres away from the tomb of Tutankhamun, in 2012.

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.

Steve in the Theban hills in 2014. Photo courtesy of Janet Shepherd.

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.

Steve explaining his ideas for the TV cameras in the Valley of Kings in 2012.

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.

The Valley of Kings.

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.

Steve, explaining how the tomb of Tutankhamun came to be concealed during the making of ‘Tutankhamun: mystery of the burnt mummy’ (Channel 4, 2013)

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.

Steve (far right) leading a group on a geological tour of the Theban wadis in 2014. Photo courtesy of Janet Shepherd.

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!

Steve by the Nile at sundown in 2012, with the Theban mountains across the other side of the river in the distance.

*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.

21 thoughts on “Steve Cross – a tribute to a fine Egyptologist

  1. Sylvia Kerr-Morgan

    What a fitting tribute he sounds an amazing guy. Very interesting life very clever man. R. I. P.. God bless.

  2. Mrs Maria rose

    This is the first time I have heard of this gentleman and I have been interested in Egyptology since the age of 10. What a brilliant mind and what a sad loss. He could have been instrumental in helping to find the tomb of herihor had he lived longer. I am sure John romer would have valued his input.

  3. Thomas Sutton

    Hello Chris,
    Iam Ste Cross’s neighbour I live a few doors down from him….
    I rang the police on Thursday night to alert them over poor Steve…
    So sad to see such a talented,intelligent and humble man pass in such tragic circumstances..
    RIP Ste

      1. William Gleeson

        Hello Chris. Tks for your fine obit. Are you please able to indicate the cause of death … for a research project I am running.
        Tk, Bill Gleeson

    1. David moss

      So sad for Steve loss, being a friend of Joann Fletcher, l remember him in one of her series on Dvd, Steve bringing her into a partly constructed tomb with chisel marks and measuring by ancient cubits, he will be missed, l came across him mentioned in Dobson new book, a real nice guy, a sad loss to Egyptology. David. I have studied Egyptology since a boy of 9 years old and was a member of the EES for many years. Life health prosperity Steve to you too. David

  4. Pingback: Interview with Stephen W. Cross – Sharon Janet Hague, Author

  5. Peter Rowland

    Very sad news about Steve. I think your blog is spot on. Spent a brilliant week with him in Luxor in 2014. My wife and I are part of the group in Janet’s photo of us in the Theban wadi’s. Thanks to Steve we spent a lot of time exploring areas areas rarely visited, many of which are now strictly off limits. Will always have nice memories of our time with him. RIP Steve Cross.

    1. Beate Arndt

      I am so sorry….I already looked for a contakt to Steven and than I SAW the massage that he past away 😔 ! I am interessing since 30 years about agypt Hysterie! Now i look a movie about tutenchamuns tumb and how it felt in lost for so long time! The Theorie about the flut of Water is so clear! ….If I came back in a new life, I will BE an Archäologe !! Now I am to old for thies! I tried to get a job for helping hand, but I never get an Response in Germany 😔… so I will see you and your Kollegens in the TV and Reports!!…I am 63 now with a little crazy Dog….and WE can move to work in agyp!! If you need me, we will BE there! ….I was 3 Times in Luxor and Kairo, but only as an Tourist! …sensearly and with best wishes….Bea and Emmi
      Tel. 01525 30 70 350 …. Germany

  6. Stan Schofield

    Hello Chris,

    I’m an old school friend of Steve’s. We were at Ellergreen High, class of 1972, and had, together with a number of other school mates, kept in touch regularly.

    This is just such sad news. Steve was a fantastic bloke, a very good friend, and a man of many talents and interests. He was also so modest, and just ‘one of the lads’ despite his distinguished achievements in geology and Egyptology, and his varied career in the Fleet Air Arm and the Coast Guard.

    It was only on Wednesday when I sent him a Whatsapp message asking him how he was getting on with his latest paper on the Valley of the Kings. Now I know why he didn’t reply.

    Your tribute to Steve is fantastic.

    Stan Schofield

    1. Thanks for your memories Stan. It’s lovely to hear from friends from the other parts of Steve’s life and no surprise to find that everyone was as fond of him as we all were in Egyptology. So sorry you have lost such a good friend. Take care, Chris

  7. Malcolm Symes

    Brilliant tribute.
    I went to school with Steve and over past year we along with other school friends had zoom chats every Monday. Steve didn’t make them all put his last one was around the week he died.
    We used to get first reads of his papers many years before they were published. Lovely man. We will miss him. He was looking forward to new projects in the valley of the Kings.

    1. Thanks for sharing your stories of Steve, Malcolm, it’s great to know that he was surrounded by so many good friends right up to the end. So sorry for your loss, we will all miss him.

  8. Steve Mee

    Thank you. A fantastic tribute to a truly lovely guy. I worked with Steve in HM Coastguard. He was an excellent coordinator of UK Search & Rescue and helped to save many lives throughout his time in HM Coastguard. He was so passionate discussing Egyptology and it’s such a shame he never got to witness his theories come to fruition. It was lovely to see Steve as I remember him in ”Tutankhamen:The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy” for Channel 4 in the UK (available here and Steve is on the 1 hour 30 mark – .
    A lovely and fitting tribute to a lovely guy. RIP my old mate…

    1. Thanks Steve, it’s lovely to hear something more of his work for HM Coastguard. The documentary you mention is the one we were filking when I took the photos. It did really well – got a lot of attention and viewers which was fitting given the importance of Steve’s work. It’s sad that he didn’t get to complete his work but he achieved a great deal nonetheless and his flood theory is now widely accepted. Thanks again!

  9. Amanda Plant

    I got to know Steve through his daughter Alex, we’ve been close friends since school. He was a genuinely lovely man and extremely passionate about Eygptology. It permeated most aspects of his life. If he wasn’t reading up on it, he was watching documentaries, he took us to the museum in London and read the hieroglyphics for us. And often their holidays ended up being in Egypt, every year where he’d catch up with friends and pop in on digs. He was very humble, intelligent and sweet. He’s very sourly missed.

  10. A super memory of Steve. I taught Him to be a Coastguard. Methodical, diligent, intelligent and deeply compassionate he was a natural to Maritime search and rescue. These same qualities were the cornerstones of his other passion. On one occasion he took the time to explain his theory about the Valley of the Kings from a geology perspective to me and I have never once doubted his rational and reasoned perspective; fascinating. The world is poorer for his passing both as a passionate Egyptologist and a committed maritime search and rescue specialist. fair winds and following seas my friend, you made more of a difference to the living and the dead than ever you realised. God bless. Mark R.

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