The decoration applied to the walls and ceilings of the royal tombs provided far more than a colourful patina, for the artists were in effect making an eternal world for the deceased king. The exigencies of tombs curtailed and hurried burials may have thwarted this goal on many occasions, but what the artists did achieve stands nonetheless among the greatest art of the ancient world. The process by which these decorations were achieved is quite well understood. In some cases, though not all, draughts men laid out the representations using grids made by measuring rods and paint-covered strings snapped against the walls.

The images and inscriptions were then applied in red paint outlines which were corrected as necessary in black. The care involved at this stage is seen in that sometimes errors in the texts from which the inscriptions were copied were noted and the term gem we sh, 'found defective' was written on the tomb wall. From the time of Horemheb on, carvers cut back the surrounding areas from around the representations before they were painted, or incised the individual hieroglyphs and figures depending on whether raised or sunk relief was chosen. The former, more costly, method was used throughout several of the 19th-dynasty tombs, but usually only in the entrances of later monuments. In the next stage, painters carefully filled in the reliefs and their backgrounds, applying their pigments by reflected sunlight near the entrances, and by the light of oil lamps deeper within the tombs. No more than six colours were commonly used in the Valley of the Kings - black, red, blue, yellow, green and white - but these were occasionally blended to create gradations and variations of hue and tone.

In the early burials it seems that the decoration was applied only when the excavation had been completed and before the actual internment. In later burials, because of their larger size and more extensive decoration, construction and painting of the tomb seem to have gone side by side. Even here, stonecutters and painters probably took turns working so as to avoid jams in the confined spaces and damage to the freshly painted surfaces from airborne dust. Towards the end of the valley's history, declining resources may sometimes have caused things to be done differently: the decoration of the tomb of Ramesses IX was evidently begun during the king's reign, but only completed later, after his death. Meaning and purpose of the decoration: The wall paintings of the royal tombs are, in a sense, the most singular aspect of these monuments, for not only do they distinguish the tombs from the sepulchre's of non- and lesser royalty, but they also provide a more detailed visual map or model of the beyond than is found anywhere else in the Egyptian record. This model of the afterlife at first represented the underworld alone, but later the heavens also, and thus the complete cosmos.

The main themes of this decorative programme have been linked to the three successive dynasties which utilized the royal valley: the journey of the sun beneath the earth (18th dynasty); a divided emphasis on the journey of the sun in the heavens and the importance of Osiris and various earth gods in the netherworld (19th dynasty); and a combined stress on the sun's path through both the earth and heavens (20th dynasty). This gradual change of focus may be seen in the varying choices and locations in the tombs of the funerary books, or in the descriptions of scenes from them. In the early 18th dynasty, only the burial chamber received decoration - this taking the form of an unrolled papyrus of the Book of the Amduat, accurate in shape, colour and inscriptional style - but, from the time of Tuthmosis, various deities were also shown on the walls of the antechamber and the well. In the 19th dynasty, decoration was carried into all parts of the tomb, and the idea that the axis of the tomb represented the sun's east-west journey into the tomb (and its west-east return) seems to have been paramount. From the time of Ramesses II on, the solar disc of Re containing the god's morning and evening manifestations was placed above the entrance to the royal tombs. In this exterior position, the disc is invariably painted yellow, the colour of the daytime sun; whereas within the tomb the same image is painted red, indicating its evening and nighttime appearance if it follows the east-west progression of the tomb's axis.

Just within the entrance to the royal tomb, Pharaoh is depicted greeting the sun god Re-Horakhty before the Litany of Re - now placed in the first and sometimes second corridors - which enumerated and pictured the many forms of the solar deity in his daily cycle. The goddesses Isis and Nephthys, symbolically associated with the south and north respectively, were now shown flanking the sun disc above the tomb entrance and at points along the interior passages - as in the tomb of S ethos I. Beginning with the tomb of Ramesses II, two opposing figures of the goddess Maat were painted on the jambs of the tomb entrance, each kneeling upon a basket which was supported on the left-hand (south) wall by a lily plant and on the right (north) by a papyrus clump. This use of the Heraldic flora of Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt at the sides of the tomb - flanking the east-west passage of the sun - seems also to stress the symbolic east-west alignment of the main axis of these royal burials. Osiris and Re: Another aspect of this symbolic orientation of the tomb, developed in the 19th dynasty, is the logical division of the tomb into a front (entrance) half (symbolically the east) and back half (symbolically west), giving precedence to Re in the front half, and Osiris, 'Foremost of the Westerners', in the back. The conscious division is seen especially clearly in the large so-called 'Osiris shrine', with its opposed images of the underworld god, which was placed on the far wall of the first pillared hall - the dividing point of the tomb - above steps leading into the lower reaches of the monument.

There the sun god continues to appear, but his images are often much smaller than those of Osiris. Beginning with the tomb of Horemheb, in fact, it is Osiris and the underworld deities which dominate the lower reaches of the 19th-dynasty tombs; and on royal sarcophagi prepared after Ramesses I, the image of the king as Osiris is invariably carved in relief upon the outer surface of the lid. The 20th dynasty saw further developments in the symbolism of the royal tombs, especially that relating to the association of the deceased king with the sun god and the supremacy of the god in the heavens and the netherworld alike. In the burial chamber of Ramesses, for example, the name of the king was inscribed within a disc formed by the entwined bodies of two serpents. By placing his name within this device, Ramesses identified himself directly with the solar deity and joined its cyclical daily journey. The same idea is also expressed in other ways.

In the tomb of Ramesses IV the king's royal titles are inscribed along the centre of the ceiling of the hall which leads into the burial chamber. Surrounded by golden stars on a blue ground representing the heavens, the king's names follow the path of the sun and once again identify him with the solar journey - the king and god being fused in the path of the sun. Because of their location and significance, the lower reaches of the 20th-dynasty tombs were decorated to represent the complete cycle of the sun in both its diurnal and nocturnal phases. The Books of the Heavens were inscribed on the ceiling of the sarcophagus chamber, and texts and illustrations from the Books of the Earth and Underworld were placed on its walls. The Egyptian royal tomb, in the fully developed decorative programme of the late New Kingdom, represents the cosmos which was depicted not only in its images and texts, but also by the specific location of these symbolic elements.