09 January 2009


Three Minor Mysteries of a New Tomb

This is all that is left of the body of Queen Sesheshet -- a skull, legs, pelvis, and scattered bones, once carefully wrapped in linen. Sesheshet was the mother of Teti, first pharaoh of the 6th Dynasty (r. 2323 - 2291 BC).

Her new pyramid was found at Saqqara last November. Although now topless, it had once been as high as a five-storey building.

As Zahi Hawass (Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities) whooped:

You can discover a tomb or a statue, but to discover a pyramid, it makes you happy. And a pyramid of a queen -- queens have magic.

Still, after digging down through 7 metres (23') of sand to reach the pyramid, archaeologists must have been miffed when they spotted a gaping vertical shaft already dug through its upper structure -- evidence that the pyramid had been robbed in antiquity.

Yesterday, the archaeologists, too, entered the tomb.

Inside a spacious burial chamber (22-m [72'] long and 4-m wide), they discovered the queen's granite sarcophagus, some six tons in weight. A team of workers spent five hours lifting its heavy lid. Sadly, her disarray and paltry adornments showed that the robbers had been there first. Only some gold finger wrappings had been left behind. It had been thoroughly ransacked.

Mystery # 1

Who put the lid back on the sarcophagus, and why?

Mystery # 2

Was Sesheshet an Uppity Queen, or not?

To be honest, almost nothing is known about her. Her husband's name -- and, thus, the father of the new king, is unknown. Her estates under the title King's Mother are mentioned in the tomb of the early sixth dynasty vizier Mehu. That title points to her being a royal mother but hardly suggests (as reported on some sites) that she ever ruled as pharaoh herself.

Rather, she was said to be instrumental in enabling her son to gain the throne and reconciling two warring factions of the royal family. Teti's chief wife, Queen Iput, was probably a daughter of the last king of the 5th Dynasty, Unas -- and one can easily imagine that Sesheshet had a hand in arranging the marriage. Marriage to the previous king's daughter legitimized Teti's rule but that doesn't mean that his accession was peaceful. A less than easy transition is suggested by his Horus name, Seheteptawy, which means, "He who pacifies the Two Lands".

The rest of the story is just as murky (to say the least).

Mystery # 3

Was Sesheshet the "Queen Who Had No Hair?"

A Queen Mother named Shesh is mentioned in the Ebers medical Papyrus, the most important Egyptian pharmaceutical record to have survived (ca. 1550 BC, although its content is undoubtedly much older). It tells us how to make the very same hair-restorer that Queen Shesh had used herself!

Another remedy to make the hair grow , prepared for Shesh, the mother of his Majesty, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Teti the justified

The remedy was made from the claw of a dog, the hoof of a donkey, and some boiled dates.

This was a fairly unpretentious hair-restorer for a great queen but her celebrity endorsement undoubtedly popularised it. If that didn't work, however, another sure-fire remedy for baldness advised the sufferer first to recite this invocation to the sun god:
O Shining one, thou who hovers above!
O Disk of the Sun!
O Protector of the Divine Neb-Apt
and then swallow a mixture of burned prickles of a hedgehog immersed in oil, fingernail scrappings, and a potporri of honey, alabaster, and red ochre.

Hair still falling out? Stir up and rub on the scalp “the fat of a horse, a hippopotamus, a crocodile, a cat, a snake and an ibex. Then mix in the tooth of a donkey crushed in honey.” Just collecting the ingredients would be a fairly hair-raising business, which might have been the general idea.

Did any of this help Queen Sesheshet? We don't know, but I suggest that the archaeologists now going through her tomb with a fine-tooth comb keep an eye out for plaits and fringes of false hair. A hair-piece might have supplied the deficiency rather better than brew of dogs' claws and donkey's hoof had done.

Not really uppity -- but she might have set the fashion for Egyptian wigs.

Update: 20 January 2009

Mystery #1 is solved! Elementary, my dear Shesh: the early reports of the sarcophagus having been opened by the tomb robbers turns out not to be the case:

The thieves entered through a tunnel from the top, because they couldn't get through the main entrance, said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities

Fortunately, Seshseshet's mummy was inside a granite sarcophagus with a six-ton lid,* so the thieves left the body and its decorations of gold jewelry untouched.

They didn't open the sarcophagus; they were using their hands, said Hawass, whose team used heavy machinery to remove the lid.

Here's a close-up of Seshseshet's mummy. It certainly doesn't look 'untouched' -- but I'm more prepared to believe that something horrible happened to her during embalming than that the thieves lifted the lid with their hands ... and then carefully replaced it.

* Surely it's the sarcophagus that weighs 6 tons, not the lid by itself!

My thanks to Talking Pyramids for signalling the update.

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