Queen's Mummy Found In 4,300-Year-Old Pyramid

Andrew Bossone in Cairo
for National Geographic News
January 14, 2009
Parts of a mummy found inside a 4,300-year-old pyramid could be Queen Seshseshet, the mother of the first pharaoh of Egypt's 6th dynasty, archaeologists have announced.

A skull, pelvis, legs, and pieces of a torso wrapped in linen lay inside a 16-foot-tall (5-meter-tall) pyramid—the third "subsidiary" tomb found next to that of the pharaoh Teti, who ruled for 22 years before he was assassinated.

Seshseshet's pyramid was discovered last November in Saqqara, the vast burial ground near modern-day Cairo that was part of the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis.

Two other previously known pyramids were for his principal wives, Iput I and Khuit.

Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), noted that there are currently no plans to run DNA tests on the mummy to confirm its identity.

"We believe the [newfound] pyramid belonged to the queen, the mother of Teti, because she is the third woman that we know in the life of the king," Hawass said.

Motherly Love

Royal moms were revered in ancient Egypt, as they were literally considered the mothers of a god. Teti's mother was an especially well-known figure in her day.

"Teti loved his mother so much that he named all of his [nine] daughters after her," said Egyptologist Naguib Kanawati of Macquarie University in Australia, who was not involved in the new find.

"All of them have nicknames, but their main names were Seshseshet."

Also, at least two funerary estates—special parcels of land that provided food for the funerary cults of high officials—were named after her, a practice Kanawati compared to naming modern cities after important historical figures.

"Washington was a famous figure in American history, and Seshseshet was an important person, certainly for the king."

Like other royal tombs, the queen's burial chamber was once filled with treasures that were taken by thieves centuries after her death.

But in this case, the tomb raiders actually helped current excavations by creating a path into the chamber. (Related: "Egyptian Dentists' Tombs Found by Thieves" [October 23, 2006].)

The thieves entered through a tunnel from the top, because they couldn't get through the main entrance, said Hawass, who is also a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Fortunately, Seshseshet's mummy was inside a granite sarcophagus with a six-ton lid, so the thieves left the body and its decorations of gold jewelry untouched.

"They didn't open the sarcophagus; they were using their hands," said Hawass, whose team used heavy machinery to remove the lid.

Tomb With Bare Walls

The archaeologists noted that Seshseshet's 172-square-foot (16-square-meter) burial chamber didn't have text inscriptions on its walls, helping to narrow the time frame for when the practice began in women's tombs.

Tomb inscriptions for women existed during the time of Pepy I, who succeeded an unnamed usurper who reigned for two years following Teti's assassination.

This means that Seshseshet was among the last of Egypt's queens buried without inscriptions.

Her name and royal status remain part of history, however, in part because her description has been found on fragments of stone from Saqqara and her name was written inside the tombs of important officials of her time.

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