Updated: May 31, 2022
When the Discovery Channel approached to search for the mummy of Queen Hatshepsut, they did not really think they would be able to make a definite identification. But he did think that this would give him the perfect opportunity to look at the unidentified female mummies from Dynasty 18, which no one had ever studied in as a group. There were already many theories about the identities of these mummies, but the latest scientific technology had not yet been used to study them.
There are a number of unidentified high-status mummies of the New Kingdom, mostly found in what we call the Royal Mummy Caches. These are a series of secret tombs in the Valley of the Kings, in which agents of the High Priests of Amun, who controlled the Theban area during the 21st and 22nd Dynasties, hid the bodies of many of the kings and queens of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Dynasties. Although they may also have stripped both the mummies and the royal tombs of most of their valuables, they also acted piously, to protect the royal remains from the tomb robbers who roamed the sacred hills of Thebes.
When we are studying the mummies from these caches, we have to keep in mind that these mummies were moved at night, and we have to know that the bodies could be misplaced and misidentified. When they were first taken from their original tombs, most of the royal mummies were put in tombs nearby. For example, we know from historical records that the mummy of Ramesses II was originally moved from its tomb to the tomb of his father Seti I. It was only afterward that it was moved to a cache at Deir el-Bahari. This is very important to keep in mind when searching for the mummy of Hatshepsut, because it shows how complicated the movements of these bodies could be. The second thing to keep in mind is how the mummies could be misidentified: When they were being transferred, the mummy of one king could easily be placed in a coffin intended for another. The people working for the priests identified the mummies through “dockets” written in hieratic (a cursive form of hieroglyphs) on the coffin lids or the linen shrouds with which they rewrapped the mummies, and it is easy to imagine one mummy being mistaken for another. In addition, some mummies have no identification at all associated with them any more.
This problem of identification is one of the reasons that I initiated the Egyptian Mummy Project, the purpose of which is to study both royal and non-royal mummies through CT scans. A portable machine was rented by Discovery Channel from Siemens for the project; my hope was to use it, among other things, to try to solve some of these puzzles of mistaken or unknown identity, beginning with the riddle of Hatshepsut.
In my search for Hathshepsut, the first thing that I did was look at the mummies from KV60, which is a small, undecorated tomb located in front of KV20, the real tomb of Hatshepsut. KV60 is actually a perfect cache for the reburial of mummies. Howard Carter, the discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamun, had excavated this tomb in 1903, and found two mummies here: one, a small woman, was found inside an 18th Dynasty coffin inscribed for a royal nurse, In; the other was a hugely obese woman, discovered on the floor next to In’s coffin. We know from other sources that Hatshepsut’s wet-nurse was named Sitre-In, and that the last two letters of this name appeared on the coffin from KV60; based on this fact, and the location of KV 60 close to KV 20, Egyptologist Elizabeth Thomas had already suggested that the obese mummy could be Hatshepsut.
KV 60 had been re-explored in 1906 by Edward Ayrton, and then left alone until 1989, when Donald Ryan recleared the tomb. When Ryan began working, there was only one mummy present in the tomb: the obese woman, whom he put into a wooden box. I went to the Valley of the Kings to see her for myself.
The tomb is very small, and is uninscribed. Its entrance is located directly in front of KV19, the 20th Dynasty tomb of Prince Mentuherkhepshef. KV 60 had clearly been robbed in antiquity; apart from the mummies, only miscellaneous scattered remains were found inside, including the lid of a wooden coffin, ancient tools, the remains of pottery vessels, jewelry, scarabs, and seals. The only decorations are wedjat eyes crudely painted in each of two niches that flank the entrance. Architecturally, Ryan believes that KV 60 dates from the 20th Dynasty.
The obese mummy has its left hand across the chest with its fist clenched, suggesting that it is a royal mummy (although there are non-royal mummies with their hand in that position as well). She is bald in front but has long hair in back, and is in very good condition. When I saw her, I believed at once that she was royal, but had no real opinion as to who she might be. I decided to bring this mummy to the Cairo Museum, so that she could be studied and protected there.
Someone (perhaps Ayrton) had moved the coffin and mummy of the wet nurse to the Cairo Museum. With the help of the curator in charge of mummies at the museum, Someya Abdel Someia, I found them in storage on the third floor. The manner of mummification was excellent, but to me her face and features did not look particularly royal.