Scientists have uncovered what may be the largest underground tomb ever found in Egypt's fabled Valley of the Kings -- a mausoleum in which may lie buried 50 sons of Ramses II, the red-haired pharaoh of Exodus who ruled Egypt at the zenith of its power more than 3,000 years ago.
"We were the first people inside parts of the tomb in 3,000 years," said Dr. Kent R. Weeks, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo who made the find public yesterday.
Archaeologists excavating the tomb so far have identified 67 chambers -- about five times more than is common in other tombs in the valley where so many of ancient Egypt's rulers were buried. Scientists suspect there are dozens more burial chambers hidden at the end of sloping corridors that appear to lead to a lower level.
From the names inscribed on the tomb's richly decorated walls and from fragments of ornate funeral gear on the floor, scientists have determined that at least four of Ramses II's 52 sons were interred there.
Among them was the pharaoh's first-born son -- Amon-her-khepeshef -- who, according to the Old Testament, died as the result of a divinely inspired plague at the time of the Exodus of Israelites from Egypt.
"This tomb is unique in Egyptian history," said Dr. Adel Halim Nour ed-Din, president of the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities. "It seems to be a mausoleum with many burial chambers intended for many of Ramses II's numerous children."
The explorers have found fragments of human mummies in the debris-choked burial chambers. They also have found thousands fragments of furniture, pottery, jewelry and beads.
They have identified inscribed stone vessels, offerings of food, and stone sarcophagus fragments.
The tomb was discovered in 1989 near a proposed parking lot at the entrance to the valley, as part of a survey of three burial sites in the area. From wall decorations, they later determined that the tomb was intended for the royal sons of Ramses II.
Archaeologists from American University's Theban Mapping Project, in cooperation with the Egyptian government, worked the site for several years, but it was not until last February that the unique architectural character of their find was revealed, Dr. Weeks said yesterday.
It was then that they broke through a doorway in a central chamber to reveal a 60-foot-long passageway leading past 16 more chambers to a large statue of the Egyptian god Osiris. Extending off in either direction were two more corridors, each lined with doors into an additional 16 rooms. At the end of each of those passageways, there are stairs and sloping corridors leading to even more rooms.
"There is a 90 percent certainty that there is a lower level with even more chambers. We will be working in the tomb for at least half a dozen more years," Dr. Weeks said.
The entrance of the tomb leads 16 steps down a single narrow stairway through a doorway into a small chamber about 10 feet by 16 feet. That leads into a second small chamber, in what appears to be an architectural scheme common to most Egyptian tombs, Dr. Weeks said.
But there ends the resemblance to anything Egyptologists have previously encountered. The second chamber opens into a large chamber about 50 feet square with a ceiling supported by 16 pillars. From this chamber lead 11 sealed doorways.
So far, the archaeologists have gone through only one of those doorways, which revealed the long passage and its additional 48 rooms. They do not know what lies behind the other doors.
"Wherever we have found an exposed wall, we are finding some traces of decoration," Dr. Weeks said. "Some of the walls we have exposed so far are beautifully preserved. There is elegant carving. Some of the paintings have been damaged by flash flooding over the last 3,000 years."
Today, the tomb is almost completely filled with debris, reaching within a few inches of the ceiling of most rooms the scientists have examined so far.
Exploration of the tomb has been suspended while engineers investigate its structural stability. Dr. Weeks said he hopes to resume the excavation in July.
Scientists believe the tomb was last entered in about 1150 B.C. when thieves were caught ransacking the burial chambers. According to an ancient transcript of the trial, the thieves were tortured and killed. The tomb was resealed.
Amateur archaeologists in the last century found the tomb's entrance and then ignored it. A few decades later, one of the world's most renowned Egyptologists -- Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun not far away -- also excavated the entrance, but was so unimpressed with what he found that he ordered his workmen to dump tons of debris on the doorway.