Rare Image of Early Female Pharaoh Found in University Collection

After her reign, Hatshepsut was expunged from Egyptian history, but a carving of her likeness has turned up in Swansea University

Swansea University

Earlier this month, Egyptologist Ken Griffin at Swansea University in the U.K. was on the hunt for artifacts his students could handle when he came across a black-and-white image of a relief carving held in storage at the school's Egypt Centre. It appeared to him that it depicted a rare image of Hatshepsut, one of Egypt’s few female pharaohs. As the BBC reports, Griffin requested the item for the class session, and once he and his students got the thin limestone slab in their hands, they confirmed that it was, indeed, Hatshepsut's likeness.

“[W]hen we realized what it truly was our jaws hit the floor—mine as well as the students,” Griffin says.

The find happened to come on March 8, International Women's Day, something Griffin says he realized afterward. "Hatshepsut certainly knows how to make an entrance,” he quips.

According to a press release the front side of the relief depicts the head of a figure wearing a uraeus, or a cobra crown, a symbol of a pharaoh, though the lower half of the face is missing. Traces of hieroglyphs above the figure’s head use female pronouns, which also helped the confirm that the image was a female pharaoh. Griffin, who has worked extensively with Egyptian artifacts, also recognized that the style and materials used in the relief were similar to those found in the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri.

So how did the carving end up in Swansea? It’s something of a mystery. The carving is actually two fragments that have been glued together, one on top of the other, to complete an image of fan directly behind Hatshepsut. On the back of the smaller fragment, however, is a carving of the lower face and beard of a man. If the fragment is flipped and fitted to Hatshepsut’s face it completes the image of the pharaoh. It’s likely that an antique dealer or collector at some point carved the lower face in modern times to make the relief more valuable since complete images command higher prices in the antiquities market.

The fragment was likely lifted from the temple in the late 19th century, before formal excavation and restoration of the Temple of Hatshepsut began in 1902. How it came to Swansea is less of a mystery. The item was donated to the University’s Egypt Centre in 1971 from the estate of Henry Wellcome, the pharmaceutical magnate and collector whose will established the Wellcome Trust, tasked with "the advancement of medical and scientific research to improve mankind's wellbeing." At the time, however, researchers failed to recognize the significance of the piece. Now that the artifact has been identified, it will be taken out of storage and put on display at the Egypt Centre.

According to History.com, Hatshepsut was the daughter of New Kingdom ruler Thutmose I. She was wed to her half-brother, Thutmose II, and after he died, Hatshepsut was named regent since her stepson and next pharaoh in line, Thutmose III was too young to rule. Later, instead of turning over power to Thutmose III, she instead became co-ruler. It’s unknown why she took this step, whether it was a power-grab or a political move to help Thutmose III retain his claim to the throne. Whatever the case, she tried to legitimize herself by ordering that her images include a beard and burly muscles. Ancient.eu reports that under her reign, the Egyptian economy was booming and the nation undertook many ambitious building projects, including her impressive temple. She also undertook an almost mythic expedition to Punt, the “Land of the Gods,” likely in present-day Somalia.

While her reign seems like it was an important part of the New Kingdom period, late in Thutmoses III's rule, following her death, he had her images carved off the walls, her name expunged from history and took credit for her accomplishments.

The campaign was so effective that archaeologists did not even know she existed until the mid-1800s when the Rosetta Stone finally allowed for hieroglyphics describing her rule to be translated, giving them their first inkling of the "lost queen."