By Joann Fletcher7:00AM BST 04 Sep 2014
On 2nd February 1925, the photographer from the Harvard-Boston archaeological expedition was setting up his camera tripod on the rocky plateau of Giza close to the base of the Great Pyramid. Having some degree of difficulty in his attempt to get the legs on an equal footing, he dislodged what he assumed was a small piece of limestone, but which closer inspection revealed to be a fragment of plaster, the kind of plaster traditionally used in ancient times to seal up the entrance of a tomb.
With the same archaeological team having already made a series of spectacular discoveries at Giza over the previous 20 years, most notably a large group of superb statues of King Menkaure, builder of Giza’s third pyramid, this new discovery was so unexpected the excavation’s director George Reisner was still in the US. So the task of opening the tomb fell to his British assistant Alan Rowe and his Egyptian head foreman Said Ahmed Said, whose removal of the plaster covering revealed a 100 foot vertical shaft cut down into the limestone bedrock, filled solid with limestone masonry and yet more plaster. Only after a month when this had all been removed was it then possible for the archaeologists to descend to the very bottom of the shaft to reach the doorway, marked with the official seal of King Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid.
Although the rock-cut rectangular chamber which lay beyond was only 15 by 8 feet, the archaeologists could see ‘the dazzle of gold’ through a small gap at the top of the doorway. They could also see the chamber was crammed full with all manner of wonderful things whose inscriptions, initially read with the aid of binoculars and later at close quarters, revealed the contents had belonged to Khufu’s mother, Queen Hetepheres (c.2600 BC). With her status as queen mother making her ‘first lady’, at that time of greater importance than the king’s wife, she was certainly the most important woman to her son Khufu since the first tomb he built at Giza was for her, located “in the most important point in his own royal cemetery” noted Reisner’s colleague Noel Wheeler.
Her royal status was certainly emphasised by the many spectacular items which had been placed in her tomb, perhaps the most impressive her gold and ebony carrying chair, given to her by her son and which we filmed as part of the new BBC2 documentary ‘Egypt's Lost Queens’. We also looked at Hetepheres’ palace furniture, a flat-pack design the archaeologists described as a “portable bed sitting room that can be set up in 15 minutes” and which took the form of her gilded, curtained canopy to house her golden bed, gilded chairs and exquisite wooden storage chests for her fine linens and her jewellery, chunky silver bangles inlaid with jewelled butterflies picked out in carnelian, turquoise and lapis-lazuli. The archaeologists also discovered her gleaming golden toiletry set of washing bowl and jug, razor and nail pick, plus jars of moisturising, perfumed oils and her vivid green eye makeup, the epitome of style in the Pyramid Age.
Another chest, this time of alabaster, was eventually discovered hidden in a recess in the tomb wall, and when unsealed revealed something very different - the queen’s internal organs which had been removed during the mummification process. Usually described as the earliest example of evisceration in which the organs responsible for initiating bodily decay were removed and buried separately, Hetepheres’ organs were still in their original preservative liquid, a solution of naturally-occurring natron salt which the Egyptians would employ in earnest over a thousand years later to produce their finest royal mummies during the dynasty of Tutankhamen.
As for the mummified body of Hetepheres herself, Reisner was only able to turn his attentions to her alabaster sarcophagus when the rest of the tomb had been painstakingly recorded and cleared. But on 3rd March 1927 before a small invited audience, he finally raised the stone lid, but could only report somewhat succinctly “I regret Queen Hetepheres is not receiving”. For her sarcophagus was completely empty. Assuming that her mummy must have been destroyed by robbers but no-one had dared tell her son the king who unknowingly buried an empty coffin, the mystery of Hetepheres’ missing mummy continues to be the subject of much scholarly debate.
So too the mummified body of our second royal woman featured in the programme, that of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, discovered in 1903, its identification only suggested 63 years later and still a focus of controversy. As for the spectacular Valley of the Queens’ tomb of our third choice Queen Nefertari, consort of Ramses II (c.1279-1213 BC), this had been so thoroughly ransacked in antiquity that Nefertari herself had been reduced to a pair of mummified knees.
Although the scientific study of even such minimal remains can still reveal much about the lady in question, there is no such potential with our final female pharaoh Arsinoe II, whose Macedonian Greek origins dictated her big send off in July 268 BC was a state cremation. Yet within three generations, her dynasty of Ptolemaic pharaohs, culminating in the great Cleopatra herself, did switch to traditional Egyptian mummification as a means of gaining the support of their Egyptian subjects as they tried to hang on to power - by any means necessary.
Of course, it’s a familiar tale within politics throughout history, although within Egypt at least, a considerable number of women had actively influenced policy, led their country and determined its fate. So even if history has all but forgotten them, these ‘lost queens’ are surely deserving of far wider recognition.
Egypt's Lost Queens, presented by Joann Fletcher, airs on BBC2 at 8.00pm on Thursday 4 September