by Stephanie Findlay
Consider her the Queen Elizabeth of ancient Egypt, one of the great pharaohs of her age.
Unlike the female pharaohs before and after her, Hatshepsut, who ruled in the 15th century B.C., was a powerful leader, a prolific builder and a dedicated patron of the arts who maintained her empire’s sphere of influence for two decades at the height of that civilization.
For reasons that can only be guessed at, her stepson, Thutmose III, tried to obscure her place in Egypt’s history after she died. He wasn’t entirely successful.
Last summer, in a dig in Egypt, a University of Toronto archaeologist discovered a wooden statue with an hourglass figure and gentle chin that was likely crafted in Hatshepsut’s image.
“There is more delicate modelling in the jaw,” noted Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner, associate professor of Egyptian archaeology, who recently presented her findings.
Pouls Wegner said Hatshepsut (pronounced hat-shep-SOOT) is often depicted in men’s clothes with a fake beard in ancient Egyptian iconography. “In her stone statuing, she’s shown to be male but with nods to her (female) physique,” she said. “The waist is thinner in this example.”
The find is extraordinary. There are fewer than 15 such wooden statues of pharaohs in the world; most fell victim to termites centuries ago. Many of the surviving examples were found in King Tut’s tomb, nearly a century ago. If this statue is of Hatshepsut, it will be the first depicting a female pharaoh.
Pouls Wegner, 47, said she found her life calling through chance. She was a twenty-something native of New Mexico travelling the world when she reached Egypt, with which she had a childhood fascination.
In Luxor, the city known in ancient times as Thebes, she was searching for a cold drink and went into the lounge of the Etap, an upscale hotel popular with foreigners.
There she met an American epigrapher, a historian specializing in ancient writing, who invited her to visit a tomb in the nearby Valley of the Kings, the resting place of Rameses III and Tutankhamen. Pouls Wegner soon abandoned her plans for medicine and went instead into archaeology.
Today, she carries out digs in Abydos, a two-hour drive from Luxor, studying the arid grounds around the temple of Osiris, built to serve the ancient god of the afterlife.
In the summer of 2011, her team found the metre-long cedar statue. Though it was facedown and covered in mud and insect feces, Pouls Wegner could immediately tell it depicted a royal figure.
“The nemes headdress” — the familiar blue-and-gold striped headpiece worn by pharaohs — “has a pigtail, and that was really distinctive,” she said.
Pouls Wegner said that one dig has given her data enough to study for a decade. However, she plans to return to the site next year. “There are so many unanswered questions.”
In the meantime, she’s concerned about looting, which has become common in the area as Egypt undergoes political unrest. Looters equipped with bulldozers and front-end loaders are damaging sites more than ever before, searching for objects to sell on the antiquities market.