What is important to me is that I have the great good fortune to spend my days doing something I love, and being given the opportunity to make a difference in the world.

— Zahi Hawass

The Quest for Hatshepsut - Discovering the Mummy of Egypt's Greatest Female Pharaoh
June 26, 2007 - 11:00pm

When the Discovery Channel contacted me to ask if I would appear in a documentary on Queen Hatshepsut, I did not believe that it would actually lead to one of the most important Egyptological discoveries in living memory. However, through a stroke of inspiration during the production of the film, I was able with the help of my all-Egyptian team to identify the mummy of the great queen, shedding new light on one of the most remarkable women in history.

The Mysterious Queen

Hatshepsut ruled Egypt during the Golden Age of the New Kingdom. She was not the first woman to rule the country as a pharaoh, but she was the only one ever to do so in a time of prosperity and stability rather than during the upheaval that accompanied the end of a dynasty. Her father was Thutmose I (r. 1504-1492 BC), a warrior who campaigned in Nubia and Syria. Hatshepsut was married to her half-brother Thutmose II (r. 1492-1479 BC). She had no male children, however, and it was a secondary queen who bore her husband's heir, the future Thutmose III (r. 1479-1425 BC). Thutmose II died while his son was still a small child. Hatshepsut originally stepped in only to serve as regent for the young pharaoh until he came of age, but as time passed, she began to assume all of the titles and regalia of a pharaoh, even having herself depicted in the male garb of an Egyptian king. She controlled the country for twenty-one years, from 1479 to 1458 BC.

Although we know a fair amount about the events of her reign, including the famous trading expedition to the land of Punt depicted on the walls of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari, no record exists of how Hatshepsut met her end. For many years, it was widely believed that her stepson Thutmose III might have had her killed in order to assume the throne in his own right. The fact that her monuments were defaced after her death was taken as a sign that he had sought to eliminate all trace of her out of jealousy and anger. Although she was buried in the Valley of the Kings in the tomb known as KV20, her mummy was lost when her burial was looted in antiquitiy. Scholars longed for the opportunity to examine the remains of the great queen, but most believed that we would never learn what became of her after her death.



The Search for Hatshepsut

I began my search for the mummy of Hatshepsut by exploring the places where her remains might have rested after her death. I knew that I needed to have a sense of the places connected with the story. 

First, I entered KV20, Hatshepsut's royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings. It was first cleared at the turn of the twentieth century by the famous Egyptologist Howard Carter. The undecorated tomb is slippery and treacherous, filled with the smell of the bats that have lived there for countless years. I am one of only a handful of archaeologists who have explored its entire length - it was truly an adventure to descend along its winding passages, supported by a rope so that I would not fall and would be able to climb out again.    




I then visited a tomb at Deir el-Bahari, near Hatshepsut's famous mortuary temple. Known as DB320, this tomb does not date to the queen's reign, but was used as cache for the reburial of royal mummies in the 21st and 22nd Dynasties, after their original tombs had been ransacked. The remains of many of Egypt's great pharaohs, including Hatshepsut's father, husband, and stepson, were discovered there in 1881. To enter DB320, I had to be lowered into the shaft on a seat suspended from ropes (the picture above shows me descending into the tomb).

Finally, I visited a little-known tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Known as KV60, this simple sepulcher consists of a corridor, a side room, and a single burial chamber. When it was discovered in 1903 by Howard Carter, it contained two female mummies. One, known as KV60-B belonged to a slight woman with long, red hair. This mummy lay inside a coffin inscribed for a woman named Sitre-In, who is known to have been Hatshepsut's wet-nurse. The second mummy, KV60-A, was that of an older woman, who had been quite obese when she died. This mummy lay exposed on the floor. Carter moved the coffin of the wet-nurse and the mummy it contained to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, leaving the obese woman behind in the tomb. Donald Ryan, who re-cleared KV60 in 1989, had a wooden box made to hold the mummy. It was a deeply moving experience to open the box and look into the face of this nameless woman.



Unidentified Mummies

In addition to the two mummies from KV60, my team selected two other sets of female remains for scientific analysis as part of our search for Hatshepsut. Both of the additional mummies were in the collection of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. One, known as Unknown Woman A (at right in the photo), was found in the DB320 mummy cache. The other (second to right), known as Unknown Woman D, was discovered in a cache found in tomb KV35 in the Valley of the Kings. We performed CT scans of each of the four mummies, in the hope of finding some type of evidence that would show whether any of them might have belonged to Hatshepsut. We were amazed to learn that the distorted appearance of Unknown Woman A was in fact due to trauma suffered at the time of her death. We were no closer, however, to identifying the mummy of Hatshepsut. 




The Tooth in the Box

One evening, I was sitting alone in the Egyptian Museum, where the CT machine is kept. I considered possible places where we could search for clues that would shed light on the identity of the mummies that we were studying. I suddenly remembered a small, wooden box that had been discovered in the DB320 mummy cache - this box was inscribed with the cartouches of Hatshepsut, and contained a small bundle that might have been a mummified internal organ. Although I did not know how, I felt certain that the box would help lead us to the mummy of the queen. I immediately asked for it to be brought into the lab and scanned. To our surprise, in addition to what appeared to be the remains of a human internal organ, the bundle in the box contained a molar tooth, to which a single root was still attached. Right away, we carefully examined the CT scans of the four unidentified female mummies to see whether one of them was missing a tooth. To our delight, KV60-A, the obese mummy from the Valley of the Kings, had an empty socket in her jaw - Galal El-Behri, a dentist from Cairo University, was able to determine that the socket was a perfect fit for the tooth in the box! As early as 1966, Egyptologist Elizabeth Thomas had suggested that KV60-A might be the mummy of the great female pharaoh. Now, modern forensic science was finally able to prove that this idea was true!  


The discovery of the mummy of Hatshepsut was widely reported in the international media, and captivated people around the world. Our examination of the mummy revealed that the queen had died at between the ages of 45 and 60. She was obese, and suffered from a variety of painful medical conditions. Her bones were weakened by osteoporosis, and her joints showed signs of arthritis. Her teeth and jaws were in terrible condition, which along with her weight may indicate that she was diabetic. We saw evidence of a tumor in her pelvic region, which had begun to metastasize and to erode her left iliac bone. Although she had died in very poor health, however, there was no sign at all that she had been murdered. We must conclude that Thutmose III was not in fact responsible for his stepmother's death, and that he was able to assume the throne peacefully after her passing.

 As part of the agreement through which they were allowed to film our search for the mummy of Hatshepsut, the Discovery Channel funded the establishment of the first laboratory in Egypt dedicated exclusively to the analysis of ancient DNA. We took tissue samples from the mummies found in KV60, along with those of other members of the Thutmosid royal family - Thutmose II, Thutmose III, an unidentified man believed to be Thutmose I, and Ahmose-Nefertari, the matriarch of the line. Our preliminary results are promising, but much additional work must be done before we can use genetics to confirm the identities and family relationships of these individuals. We are in the process of establishing a second, independent DNA lab to verify our results in accordance with the highest scientific standards. I was fortunate to direct an amazing team in my quest for the mummy of Hatshepsut - Dr. Ashraf Selim, professor of radiology at Cairo University; Dr. Galal El-Behri, professor of orthodontics at Cairo University; Dr. Yehia Zakaria Gad, professor of molecular genetics at Egypt's National Research Center; Dr. Hany Abdel-Rahman, CT and MRI applications specialist with Siemens Ltd.; and Mr. Hisham Elleithy, Egyptologist. I am looking forward to continuing to work with such outstanding scientists to reveal the secrets of the great pharaohs of Egypt's Golden Age.