French archaeologists led by Alain Zivie claim that on December 1, 1997, they found the tomb of the wet-nurse who cared for Tutankhamun when he was a baby. Her name was Maya and her tomb was found 60 feet below ground level at Saqqara, 30 km south of Cairo.
Luxor was the religious centre of the 18th Dynasty, the most powerful and affluent dynasty that ever ruled the land of Egypt, but Memphis was the political capital for most of the dynasties. More than a century ago Dutch archaeologists found the tomb of Tutankhamun’s royal treasurer at Saqqara. By coincidence, his name was also Maya.
A hundred years ago artifacts and inscriptions were the object of archaeology and records were not as carefully kept as they are today. Some time after the tomb was discovered a violent sandstorm blew over the area and reburied it. The site of the tomb was lost and it was not rediscovered until the year 1990, when it was again located.
Statues of Maya and his wife were sent to the Leiden Museum in Holland and a caption beside the statues expressed the hope that one day the tomb would be found again. (The editor happened to visit this museum a few days after the tomb was rediscovered and took the photograph that appears in the magazine.)
Zivie claims that Tutankhamun “was certainly educated at Memphis”. Saqqara was the necropolis or cemetery of Memphis and is not far from it. Memphis lay on the floor of the Nile vally while Saqqara is on the edge of the nearby plateau.
At the entrance of the nurse’s tomb was a relief with a scene showing the baby sitting on her lap while a pet dog crouches beside her. Tutankhamun’s name is also engraved there, together with a scene depicting all the nobles and generals of the kingdom.
The announcement of the discovery was made in Cairo on December 8, 1997, which was very appropriate as 1997 was the 75th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb with all its fabulous treasures.
It is a little puzzling to learn that Tutankhamun needed a wet-nurse. It is natural to assume that his mother would have cared for him – unless she died in childbirth or soon after. According to the reliefs, Egyptian women were usually well endowed and able to suckle their babies, but there is some uncertainty about Tutankhamun’s ancestry.
Some scholars think that he was the son of Amenhotep III and a brohter of Akhenaten, while others think that he was Akhenaten’s son. If the former, then his mother could have been Tiy, but if the latter then his mother may have been the beautiful Nefertiti. That seems very unlikely because she and her husband are often depicted in family scenes with their six daughters, but no male child is ever shown. Other fathers have been suggested.
There is an interesting papyrus in the Cairo museum on which is written the terms of an agreement between an officer and a wet-nurse who had apparently been contracted to care for his baby. Presumably the mother had died and a wet-nurse was needed. It reads: “The wet-nurse, Shepenese, agrees to suckle the son of steward Paneses with both breasts if health permits, to wean and rear him three years in return for board and lodging and an annual payment of oil and silver. Should the milk supply fail some of the money will be refunded.”
The tomb of Tutankhum’s wet-nurse is not the only tomb the French found. The tomb of Rena, the Chief of Painters, was also discovered. Rena held this position in the time of Amenhotep III of the 18th Dynasty. Another tomb was from the time of Rameses II in the 19th Dynasty. All these tombs had been re-used in the Graeco-Roman period.
I met with Dr Zahi Hawass, the Director of the Giza Antiquities Office, and he told me that he hopes to find another 25 tombs in the area called “The Gates of the Cats”, the area in which these three new tombs have been found.
Magda es-Sayid, our Egyptian correspondent
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