Nefertiti’s Mummy?

Jan 4, 2021 | Bible Archeology | 0 comments

British scientist Joann Fletcher claims to have discovered the mummy of Egypt’s famous Queen Nerfertiti, claimed by some to have been the most beautiful woman who ever lived. Dr Fletcher, however, has not trawled through acres of sand or stumbled across some long-forgotten catacomb. She is a palaeo-trichologist – which means that she studies ancient hair!

It might be thought that ancient hair was a somewhat arcane subject for a speciality, but in fact hair is quite good at surviving, long after the rest of the soft tissue of a body has decayed away. Modern methods of hair analysis can tell us all sorts of things about the individual: not only their race and genetic background, but also the sort of diet they ate and the environment in which they lived.

Actually, Dr Fletcher is exaggerating slightly when she claims to have discovered the mummy of Nefertiti: all she has done is identify it. The mummy was discovered back in 1898 by Victor Loret, the head of the Egyptian Antiquities Department, when he opened and entered tomb KV 35, the tomb of Amenhotep II.

As usual, the archaeologists were too late – probably by more than three thousand years, for tomb robbers had pretty well cleared out the tomb of any items of value it may once have contained. Unusually, however, the tomb was still occupied. In the huge sarcophagus in the burial chamber lay the mummy of Amenhotep II, still garlanded by mimosa flowers.

Gratifying though this discovery was, it was eclipsed in the popular mind by what came next. Propped against one wall of the burial chamber was a large model boat on which lay a second mummy. Early reports spoke of the body being bound to the boat by rope and with a gag in its mouth. In actual fact the “gag” was nothing more than the usual wadding placed in the mouth of a mummy to pad out the cheeks and give it a more life-like appearance.

Far from being bound to the boat, the body was stuck to it. Apparently tomb robbers had attacked the burial while the resins usually poured over the corpse were still wet and when, in the course of the robbery, they tossed the body carelessly to one side, it had landed on the boat and stuck to it as the resin set.

If this was not horror enough – and remember that Loret was investigating the tomb at the end of a long day and by the light of a flickering torch – one of the side chambers off the main burial chamber was found to contain three more mummies, which Loret identified as a woman with a splendid head of dark hair, a boy of about 15 and an old man. All three were lying on their backs, naked, and with gaping holes in their chests.

A second antechamber, opened a few days later, proved to contain nine royal burials, including those of Rameses IV, Seti II, Tutmoses IV and Siptah. All the bodies were removed to Loret’s boat for transport to Cairo, but a few days later Sir William Garstin, head of the department of Public Works and Loret’s superior, ordered that the bodies should be returned to the tomb.

This was probably a political gesture to mollify people who accused the foreigners of despoiling Egypt’s treasures, but it was a disaster. The nine royal burials and the three other mummies were placed back in their side chambers, but the boy on the boat – who may have been Prince Webensennu – was left in the main tomb chamber for, for the next decade, he was one of the sights of the Valley of the Kings. Unfortunately after that someone stole him and his final fate or resting place is unknown.

Warned by this unfortunate event, the authorities belatedly removed the nine royal burials to the safety of the Cairo Museum, but the three were left in their chamber. There was no way of identifying them and therefore, historically speaking, they were worthless. However as a precaution, the chamber was walled up, though not before Grafton Elliot Smith, Australian professor of anatomy at the Cairo School of Medicine, examined and photographed them for his book, “The Royal Mummies”, published in 1912.

By this time, of course, electric light was available and Smith was able to view the three rather better than Loret had. To his surprise he discovered that the third body was not a man, but a woman – and a young one at that. He concluded that Loret had been confused by the fact that the head was shaven and had not troubled to look at the region where a person’s sex is most easily determined.

Although the bodies were left in the tomb, other objects associated with them were not and the Cairo museum was enriched by a wig of brown hair found beside the bald mummy. No one bothered about it, however, and it was carelessly stored at the museum without any documentation apart from a bare accession number.

Many years later, in 1975, an American team of researchers was allowed to open the chamber and x-ray the bodies – though they only bothered with the old woman and the boy. They took samples of the old woman’s luxurious hair, which were analysed and compared with a lock of hair found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which came from his beloved grandmother. We can now say that the first mummy was that of Queen Tiye, Tut’s grandmother – the first indication that the three bodies might come from the Amarna period.

Joann Fletcher had been interested in Egyptology ever since the age of three when, one rainy day, her mother, desperate for something to keep the child occupied, gave her Christine Desrouches-Noblecourt’s book on Tutankhamun. She studied archaeology at university, where she developed an interest in clothing and hairstyles and from there to a study of hair itself was a short step. She spent seven years preparing her doctoral thesis, during which she travelled to every major museum in the world, examining and studying the hair and wigs of mummies – Aztec, Inca and Egyptian.

In the course of her studies she read about the wig and actually identified it in the Cairo Museum – for the accession number showed that it had come from KV 35 and there was no other record of a wig from that tomb. She was intrigued, however, to realise that the wig was of a style that dated, not from the time of Amenhotep II, but from the time of the Heretic Pharaoh himself.

“It was,” she says, “rather a wonderful hairstyle that women at Amarna wore. It was cut like a Mary Quant bob, coming down into sharp points. It hung down on either side of the face and rested on the shoulder blades.”

When, a little later, she came across a random observation by Smith, that the shaven-headed woman’s left ear was pierced with two holes, she sat up and began to take notice, for double-piercing was a fashion from the Amarna period. (Curiously, the mummy’s right ear is missing, though on the famous bust of Nefertiti it is her left ear which is damaged.)

This led her to consider the possibility that the third mummy might be from the Amarna period and might even be royal. The trouble was that all three mummies were found naked and with no means of identification. Only the fact that they were in a royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings distinguished them from any other mummies in the land of Egypt. If this woman was royal, and if she came from the Amarna period, she would have to be either one of Akhenaton’s daughters or his wife.

Joann Fletcher began to compare photographs of the mummy’s face with the many statues and paintings of Nefertiti and became sure that she could pick out a likeness. There was, however, only one way of proving that the body was royal: the arms.

Common people were mummified and buried with their arms straight by their sides. Kings had their arms crossed on their chests in order to hold the emblems of kingship, the crook and the flail, as they would have held them in life. Queens, however, had their right arms placed across their chests. The problem was that the unknown woman had lost her right arm, broken off at the shoulder.

Both Loret and Smith had noted the presence in the chamber of an unattached arm, but neither had given any details. It might be – and probably was – the mising right arm of the third body, but the crucial question was whether it was straight at the elbow or bent. The only way to find out was to open the chamber once again and examine the arm.

You cannot, however, just stroll into the Valley of the Kings with a hammer and chisel and start pounding on the walls of the tombs. Dr Fletcher had to convince the Egyptian authorities that she had a serious case and it took her twelve years of research and study before she felt confident enough to approach them. Her application went through the usual channels and, as usual in Egypt, a certain amount of money changed hands, but eventually Dr Fletcher had her permission.

Accompanied by Egyptian archaeologists, cameramen from the Discovery Channel and reporters from the Times newspaper, Dr Joann Fletcher was allowed to enter the chamber and sort through the mass of torn and discarded linen on the floor. She found the arm and picked it up. It was bent at the elbow.

Dr Fletcher believes that the third mummy is the body of Nefertiti. She even goes so far as to claim that its presence in the Valley of the Kings implies that Nefertiti wielded far more power than historians usually attirbute to her and may even have reigned as independent ruler after Akhenaton died. (An effeminate figure depicted wearing a crown with Akhenaton is usually interpreted as that of his half-brother or nephew Smenkare and Nefertiti is believed to have disappeared from public view, probably exiled to the northern palace. It is possible that this mysterious figure may in fact be Nefertiti and that instead of being exiled, she was promoted.)

The only problem is the age of the third mummy, which is said to be that of a young woman. Until the body is properly examined and its age accurately determined, this must remain an area of uncertainty in Dr Fletcher’s claim. According to the historical sources, Nefertiti bore three daughters to Akhenaton and lived to see one or possibly two of them bedded by her husband. Even taking the very minimum ages possible for this sequence of events, Nefertiti must have been in her thirties at least by the time of her death.

In other words, we commend Dr Fletcher on her detective work and her perserverance, but we shall keep the champagne on ice just a little bit longer until some of the hype has cleared away and a more informed judgement can be made.

Article used with permission of Diggins Online. You can find more useful material at Apologtetics Courses, Free Courses and Brethren Assembly. Secular materials can be found at Coins Encyclopedia and Guide For Income

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