The entrance to the Tomb of the Birds, designated NC 2
by Reisner's team
(picture copyright: Andrew Collins, 2009)


The furore surrounding the claimed rediscovery of a previously unrecorded cave underworld at Giza has prompted an extraordinary response from Dr Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the SCA, on his site (see His claim that the tomb, through which one has to pass to achieve access to the caves, is fully recorded, and that the caves are simply fictions of the imagination, has been countered by Nigel Skinner Simpson and myself (see

Thus with the mystery of the cave discoveries remaining a subject of hot debate, it was only natural that the Egyptological community should turn to its archives worldwide in order to establish what is known about the tomb containing the caves, which is located in the plateau's northern cliff. Aside from the exploration of "catacombs" here by Salt and Caviglia in 1817 (Collins, 2009, from Salt's memoirs in Usick and Manley, 2007), and Vyse and Perring's interest in the tomb in 1837 (Vyse, 1842, and Perring, 1839-1842), could anything be found regarding the rock-cut sepulchre?

Andrew Collins inside the Tomb of the Birds (NC 2),looking
south (Picture copyright Andrew Collins/Sue Collins, 2009).

No mention of the tomb appears in standard reference work Porter and Moss, Topographical Bibliography, volume III of which includes the monuments of Giza. However, this was last updated in 1974, and a more up to date source of information on Giza is the Giza Archives Project website operated by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This includes photographs, drawings, plans, manuscripts, and other documents absent from Porter-Moss.

Dr. Peter Manuelian, Director of the Giza Archives Project, has made available an unpublished plan of the tomb in a post on the Giza Archives blog (see "More on the So-called "Caves" at Giza", September 16, 2009, The tomb was designated NC 2, for "North Cliff # 2" by the Reisner's Harvard-MFA Expedition, with two other smaller tombs along the same north-facing ridge being designated NC 1 and NC 3.

The unpublished plan is an inked version of an archaeological drawing dated April 29th 1939 made by expedition draftsman Alexander Floroff. The plan shows the interior of the tomb, and yet fails to record either the large rectilinear chamber at its southeast corner, or the hole in the west wall of the tomb's long entrance passage, which provides access to a lower chamber that leads into the cave system.

What is interesting is that on the inked version of the plan drawn by Nicholas Melnikoff, is a pencil note, also presented on the blog, in the hand of MFA Egyptologist William Stevenson Smith. It reads: "Rock cut tombs due north of Harvard Camp. Used as air raid shelters during War. In 1930 I saw traces of painting on columns in central one [i.e. NC 2]. Had the idea that this was an 18th Dyn. tomb or N.K. W[illiam] S[tevenson] S[smith] 1946".

Alerting us to the fact that the tomb might well date to the New Kingdom, and the Eighteenth Century in particular, is an interesting observation. To start with, it contradicts Dr Hawass recent opinion that the tomb is most likely Graeco-Roman in date, based on its style and use as an animal cemetery. Secondly, although the tomb's deep-cut façade bears some resemblance to the entrance to the falcon catacomb at Saqqara (Smith, 2005), it might also be compared with the deep-cut façade of the civil tomb of Aye, which forms one of the South Tombs group at Amarna (see Davies, 2004, and Yet this is where the similarly ends, for the Amarna tomb has a wholly different internal structure. However, it is possible that the tomb was cut during the New Kingdom and was then used in later times, perhaps the Late Period and Graeco-Roman times as a bird cemetery. Whether or not the natural caves were accessible prior to the construction of the tomb remains to be seen.

Beyond the preliminary plan of the tomb NC2, drawn as part of the MCA Expedition, no other modern references have been found. In fact, since it was Reisner that gave the tomb its designation, this indicates that very little was known about it prior to this time. In fact, it would appear that no one had even linked it with Vyse's work here in 1837, the reason that we came to refer to it as the "Tomb of the Birds", after the discovery here of mummified bird remains.

It is possible that out there, somewhere, is a better record of the tomb, and perhaps even more details on the caves that lay beyond it. However, until a better record is produced, the tomb's recent exploration, along with the rediscovery of the cave catacombs, remains a challenging mystery to the Egyptological community.

Andrew Collins

Sue Collins in cave system's north-south passage,beyond
the large first chamber beyond the Tomb of the Birds
(Picture copyright: Andrew Collins, 2009)

Further reading

Collins, Andrew, Beneath the Pyramids, Fourth Dimension Press, Virginia Beach, VA, 2009.
Collins and Skinner-Simpson, "The Giza Catacombs-A Possible Entrance Identified," pre-publication, 2008.
Davies, N. de G, The Rock Tombs of El Amarna, 6 vols. (London, Egypt Exploration Fund 1903-8); reprinted in 3 parts (London, Egypt Exploration Society 2004).
Perring, John Shae, The Pyramids of Gizeh, from Actual Survey and Admeasurement. Illustrated by notes and references to the several plans, with sketches taken on the spot, by E. J. Andrews, 3 parts in one vol., James Fraser, London, 1839-42.
Porter, B., R. Moss, and J. Málek. A Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs and Paintings. 2nd edition. III Memphis, Part 1. Abû Rawâsh to Abûsîr (revised and augmented by Jaromîr Málek), OUP, 1974.
Smith, H.S., and S. Davies, The Sacred Animal Necropolis at North Saqqara: The Falcon Complex and Catacomb: The Archaeological Report, Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2005.
Usick, Patricia, and Deborah Manley, The Sphinx Revealed-A Forgotten Record of Pioneering Excavations, British Museum Press, London, 2007.
Vyse, Col. R.W. Howard, Operations Carried on at the Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837, 3 vols., James Fraser, London, 1840.