There’s a new gal in town and she’s 3,500 years old.
Last month, Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, announced that the mummy of an elderly female from tomb KV60 in the Valley of the Kings was surely Hatshepsut, female pharaoh of Egypt in the 15th century B.C.
The identity of Hatshepsut is significant because this is the first clear royal mummy ID since Tutankhamen was discovered and identified in 1922. And the ID was made with advances in science; a CT scan of a single tooth in a box with Hatshepsut’s name on it perfectly matched a tooth socket in the mummy’s jaw. Royal lineage has been also supported by DNA analysis of some yet unnamed fragment of the mummy and a longer dead female royal relative.
More startling, the descriptions of Hatshepsut suggest that women haven’t changed all that much over the centuries.
Turns out, Hatshepsut was no Cleopatra. Instead, she was a 50-year-old fat lady; apparently she used her power over the Upper and Lower Nile to eat well and abundantly. Archaeologists also claim that she probably had diabetes, just like many obese women today.
Hatshepsut also suffered from what all women over 40 need—a stylist. She was balding in front but let the hair on the back of her head to grow really long, like an aging female Dead Head with alopecia.
This Queen of Egypt also sported black and red nail polish, a rather Goth look for someone past middle age.
But like today, one should never be fooled by a woman’s Look. Hatshepsut was a powerful, successful woman. She married one of her half brothers, Thutmose II, and helped rule Egypt as his “Great Royal Wife.” When her husband died, Hatshepsut was named regent for her step-son but quickly grabbed the throne for herself.
To underscore her position of power, Hatshepsut often wore the complete regalia of a male pharaoh, including a false beard. Some speculate she actually liked wearing men’s clothing, and so what?
Hatshepsut ruled for 22 years, longer than any female ruler before or after her, and left behind a remarkable record of buildings and sculptures, including her mortuary tomb Djeser-Djeseru, a marvel of architecture.
But like many women of power, Hatshepsut was also embroiled in controversy. Her successor and stepson, Thutmose III, tried to erase her image from the Egyptian mind by chiseling her name and symbol off everything. And then he moved her to an obscure tomb and left her there to dry up with only a mummified nurse for company.
But Hatshepsut’s image couldn’t be erased because even with the weight, the beard, and the nail polish, she was a ruler, and a grand one.
In ancient Egypt, just like today, you simply can’t keep a good woman down.
Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).
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