28 June 2007

Hatshepsut is Back! (Updated)

This seems to be my mummy week.

Egyptian antiquities chief Zahi Hawass announced that one of two female mummies found in a small and undecorated, robbed-out tomb (KV60) in the Valley of the Kings over a century ago has now been identified as Hatshepsut, "the greatest woman monarch of the ancient world." As the media will be full of this story -- and Dr Hawass has a lengthy, illustrated piece on his own website -- I would like to focus instead on two points of uncommon interest.

First, how and why did Hapshepsut (and her woman friend, thought to be the royal wet-nurse, Sitre-In) get moved out of the great mummy cache, known as Deir el Bahri 320?

Second, why was Hapshepsut's mummy long thought to be that of Sitre-In?

Royal Mummy Caches

The High Priests of Amun, who controlled the Theban area during the 21st and 22nd Dynasties hid the bodies of many of the kings and queens of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Dynasties in a series of secret tombs in the Valley of the Kings. For over a century, the official version goes, the High Priests had struggled in vain to check the plundering of the noble dead, the pharaohs and great families of the empire. It is equally likely -- particularly if you have an evil mind, like mine -- that the stripping of the dead had not been done by local robbers, but by the state itself, hungry for gold at a time of economic decline. Whichever the true story, undoubtedly, by the turn of the first millennium BC, it was a pretty battered set of royal mummies and relations that residual piety demanded should be saved.

In Pharaoh Siamum's tenth year (c. 969 BC) , it was decided to secure the remains by interment in one or two large groups of secret hiding-places. One group, including 50 kings, princes, and courtiers, with almost 6,000 accompanying objects, went into the secret tomb (DB320) of Pinudjem II, reigning High Priest and ruler of Thebes and southern Egypt. Some of these mummies had already been shifted one or more times, shedding treasures along the way, while this mass transfer also made it all too likely that, every now and again, one king's mummy would be placed in the coffin of another, or that a mummy, ready for rewrapping, would mistakenly be listed under the wrong name. Some mummies ended up with no identification at all associated with them any more.

The mummies of named kings found in this cache were Seqenenre-Tao, who had fought the Hyksos, Ahmose I, the founder of the New Kingdom, the revered Amenophis I, the first three Tutmosids [that is to say, Hatshepsut's father (I) and husband (II), as well as her ungrateful stepson (III)], Seti I, Ramesses II, III and IX, and the empty coffin of Ramesses I.

Among the objects was an ivory box that bore the cartouche of Hatshepsut (below the knob and between the two dark stripes), which contained the liver and inner bits of the queen and a single tooth: in principle, her mummy should have been there as well, because the box was never meant to have been separated from the mummy.

What happened to her mummy?

It was not in DB320, for the tooth (a molar) -- which must have fallen out while Hatshepsut was being embalmed and carefully placed with her viscera -- did not fit any likely female mummy in the cache.

Hatshepsut's original burial was in KV 20, a tomb consisting of 4 tunnels, each about 213 meters (650') long. Over the course of their length, the tunnels bend to form a half circle: it is believed that the tomb took this shape so that it would end at the axis of Queen Hatshepsut's splendid temple at Deir el Bahri, so that the burial chamber would lie directly beneath the holy of holies.

In 1902, Howard Carter and Theodore Davies discovered an empty sarcophagus made of sandstone inscribed for Hatshepsut as a pharaoh in the burial chamber of KV20, as well as a second empty sarcophagus belonging to her father, Thutmose I, presumably ordered by Hatshepsut so that she could move her father’s body into it.

The next year, in front of KV 20, Carter also discovered the tomb KV60. This tomb contained the two damaged female mummies, one in a decorated coffin, the other one on the floor. Because the tomb had been robbed and was undecorated, he closed the tomb again after a short inspection.

In 1906 Edward Ayrton opened KV60 again. He moved the mummy which was lying in the coffin together with the coffin to the Egyptian Museum at Cairo. This coffin is inscribed with the name of Sitre-In, who has been meanwhile identified as the nurse of Hatshepsut.

The 2nd mummy of a partially unwrapped, fat lady (with huge pendulous breasts) of middle age, worn-down teeth, and red-blond dyed hair was left in the tomb lying on the floor. The woman had been mummified with her arms in the position that has been usual for queens during the 18th Dynasty - with the left arm bent over the chest. The tomb was closed again.

Recently, Dr Hawass reopened KV60 and inspected the Fat Lady mummy. This convinced him that she was more likely the wet-nurse than the queen because:
  • the very obese lady died at an advance age,
  • was not very thoroughly mummified,
  • and had huge pendulous breasts (not unusual for a nurse),
  • the position of the left arm was not always restricted to royalty.
In contrast, the mummy brought to the Museum was more likely that of Hatshepsut, because :
  • the right arm is extended at her side, the left arm is resting across the abdomen,
  • the left hand is closed as if it was holding something,
  • the lady was very thoroughly mummified and originally wrapped in fine linen, the fingers bandaged individually,
  • the mummy had long wavy white hair, and is about 1,50 m tall, whereas the coffin is about 2,13 m and, therefore, suggesting that it was not intended for this person,
  • the mummy still in KV60 is significantly taller and would better fit in the coffin.
You can probably guess what happened next.

To the surprise of almost everyone (though some are disguising it better than others) the Fat Lady has now been identified as the mummy of Hatshepsut.

The key to this identification is the tooth found in the ivory box from the cache DB320: in recent CT-scans, the tooth can be seen to fit exactly into a gap in the upper jaw of this mummy.

Why was Hatshepsut's mummy unrecognized?

Just ten days ago (and not for the first time) on the EEF-List, Egyptologist Marianne Luban questioned all the unspoken assumptions including:
  • Why does there have to be a "wet-nurse" involved at all? The presence of "large breasts" on an obese old lady is hardly an uncommon phenomenon indicating that profession!
  • The inscribed coffin was obviously made for someone named Sitre-In, but now could perfectly well be occupied by someone else.
  • If the body found on the floor was taller than the one in the coffin, it still doesn't mean that it belonged to her either.

So Marianne's view before yesterday's announcement: "Some years back, I got hold of a large photo of the profile of this [fat] lady and did a reconstruction. The result was very like the profile of Ahmes, the mother of Hatshepsut, with her strong features. I'd place my money on those two women [in KV 60] being related--not royal lady and servant."

Well, she picked a winner with Hapshepsut's mummy.

Who says that "a fat, big breasted, woman with dyed long hair" could not possibly be a queen? Though she never would have let herself be pictured like that, of course.

Who would?

Hatshepsut died at around the age of 50 -- in those days, already an old woman -- probably as a result of bone cancer (not liver cancer as also reported, but "a 2cm wide tumor in her left leg"), and she was obese and suffered from diabetes.

Despite her hard end, she was undoubtedly "the greatest woman monarch of the ancient world."

Nonetheless, she was sadly and rudely transported and robbed. But when? Two last speculations:

First, she may never have been in DB320. It would make sense for her (and the second female) to have been moved the short distance directly from KV20 to KV 60 during the 21st Dynasty, when so many other kings were moved. If so, how did the ivory box get to DB320? One possibility is that it was accidentally removed when her father, Thutmosis I, was taken from KV20 and given a new tomb, KV38, by his grandson, Thutmosis III. He did end up (it seems) much later in DB320.

More importantly, if unlikely, that would mean that her reign was still remembered as late as the 21st Dynasty, despite the destruction of her monuments and erasure of her name.

Or, of course, a cruelly vindictive Thutmosis III unceremoniously booted her out of KV20 right after removing his grandfather. Stuff happens.

Update: Mark Rose has a good review of Discovery Channel's 'Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen' (aired 15 July at 9 pm EST), Hatshepsut Found; Thutmose I Lost -- knowledgeable and a more than a little bit tongue-in-cheek.

Updated 19 March 2009: The April issue of National Geographic has a rather overwritten story by Chip Brown, "The King Herself. What motivated Hatshepsut to rule ancient Egypt as a man while her stepson stood in the shadows? Her mummy, and her true story, have come to light". Little that is new except for the failure of DNA tests to come up with a clear answer to the 'Is She or Isn't She?' question:

"With ancient specimens you never have a 100 percent match, because the genetic sequences aren't complete," says Angélique Corthals, a professor of biomedicine and forensic studies at Stony Brook University in New York. "We looked at mitochondrial DNA for the suspected Hatshepsut mummy and her grandmother Ahmose Nefertari. There is about a 30 to 35 percent chance that the two samples are not related, but I cannot emphasize enough that these are just preliminary results." Another round of tests may soon deliver a clearer verdict.

Stupendous photographs, especially the close-ups of the mummy.

My thanks to David Gill at the Ancient World Bloggers Group for the tip-off.


  1. Anonymous2/7/07 20:32

    It's a fascinating story, though I doubt if we will ever ascertain the real truth about what happened to Hathshepsut's bodily remains. Her son and co-regent hated her, had her inscriptions effaced after she died, and it would sound reasonable that he kicked her out of her grave too, mummy and all. Besides, how unusual is the name Hatshepsut? Where there princesses or noblewomen who were called Hatshepsut and if so, can they be the now found Hatshepsut?

    Please enlighten us!

    Gerti and Harm

  2. Thank you Gerti and Harm.

    It may not be so simple.

    It seems that Thutmosis III was not motivated just by hatred and vengeance for Hatshepsut’s ‘flagrant usurpation’ (as most modern historians would have it).

    New evidence, especially from Karnak, shows that the persecution of her memory did not begin immediately after her death: her monuments were visible until her stepson’s 42nd year – over 20 years after her death! This changes how we look at the relationship between the two monarchs during their coregency , and his motive for attacking her monuments: 20 years or more is too long to hold such a grudge before carrying out destructive measures because of it.

    Whatever the real reasons, the mutilation was never absolute: her monumental inscriptions at Deir el Bahri are still quite legible. There certainly was a concerted effort to persecute the memory of the female king, but it may have been of limited duration, and probably due to something other than hatred.

    So, there are still many unanswered questions to keep us busy.

  3. Hi Judith,
    I gave you a Rockin' Girl Blogger award. Check it out and spread the fun. :)

  4. That was meant to be used in life to cross the portal check the material and the out of place where dead kings end.


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