Giant Statue of Ancient Egypt Queen Found

Steven Stanek in Luxor, Egypt
for National Geographic News
March 31, 2008
Archaeologists have uncovered a pristinely preserved statue of a powerful Egyptian queen at the sprawling mortuary temple of Amenhotep III on Luxor's West Bank.

A joint European-Egyptian team found the 12-foot-tall (3.6-meter-tall) quartzite figure attached to the broken-off leg of a much larger colossus of Amenhotep III, who ruled from about 1390 to 1350 B.C.

Experts say the newfound statue is of Queen Tiye—Amenhotep III's favorite wife and the most influential woman of his 38-year reign—bolstering theories that female royalty were gaining in prominence and influence during the time period. (See photos of the discovery.)

The temple complex, which measures 2,300 feet (700 meters) in length, is ancient Egypt's largest. Its most famous attractions are the great Colossi of Memnon—twin 59-foot (21-meter) statues of Amenhotep III that flank the temple's entrance.

(See a picture of the colossal statues.)

But the site was devastated by massive earthquakes in pharonic times and in the first century A.D., so the discovery of an undamaged statue there is extremely rare, experts said.

"The surprise was that she was not crushed," said Hourig Sourouzian, who led the excavation and has been digging at the site since 2000. "The leg [of the larger colossus] was very badly damaged, so the surprise was that the queen lying behind it was intact—she is very beautiful."

Archaeologists also unearthed two sphinxes representing Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye and ten granite statues of the lioness goddess Sekhmet.

Surprise Find

The queen's statue was found as part of an effort to recover fragments of destroyed colossi that had once towered over the temple complex.

The temple originally contained six colossi of Amenhotep III in a seated position, which stood in pairs at three pylons arranged about 330 feet (100 meters) apart. Of the pylons and statues, only the Colossi of Memnon, near the first pylon, remain intact.

Sourouzian, who is director of the Colossi of Memnon and the Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project, said her team was digging around the northern colossus at the second pylon to identify a piece of unformed quartzite.

She had begun excavations on a small stone she thought was a disconnected head of the northern colossus, but ended up unearthing the right leg of another 50-foot-tall (15-meter-tall) Amenhotep III colossus to the south. The Queen Tiye statue was found intact beneath the colossus's leg.

"The first thing we saw of that statue was the thumb," she said. "But the block was [getting] larger and larger ... and then we had the surprise of this beautiful queen who appeared there by the leg of the king."

Queen Tiye was often depicted standing by the right leg of Amenhotep III colossi, and Amenhotep III's mother, Mutemwiya, was usually carved by his left leg.

The inscribed statue includes the titles "hereditary princess, great of honor, beloved of the lady of the sycamore, [and] mistress of the two lands," Sourouzian said.

The archaeological team also unearthed ten new statues of Sekhmet—the lion-headed goddess of warfare and healing.

Since 2000, 84 statues of the goddess have been found at the complex, perhaps a sign that Amenhotep III's health was failing as he ruled into old age, according to Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

(Related: "Egyptian Temple Yields 17 Statues of Lion-Headed Goddess" [March 14, 2006].)

"Maybe Amenhotep III, at the end of his reign, was a little bit sick and he put up many statues of Sekhmet so she can help him in healing," said Hawass, who is an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.

A Golden Age

Experts say the size of Amenhotep III's temple and the scale and number of his colossi are indicative of Egypt's prosperity during his reign.

His kingship is often called the pinnacle of the New Kingdom, which is already known as ancient Egypt's "Golden Age."

Amenhotep oversaw the expansion of Egypt's borders, increased diplomacy, and built at an ambitious rate that far exceeded those of other pharaohs.

"It was the highest moment of the Egyptian civilization, the greatest expansion, the greatest wealth, the greatest power ... and the colossi were accordingly of a very large scale," Sourouzian said.

"The king had excellent workshops, artists, and sculptors—he used all stones and minerals in all available quarries."

Colossi were built to guard ancient temples but were also meant to express the divinity of the ruler. That latter meaning grew in significance during Amenhotep III's reign.

"[Colossi] are gods in their own right ... and they act as intermediaries between gods and men," said W. Raymond Johnson, an Egyptologist at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. "They protect the temple complex, and they are extensions of the king's divinity."

Several other giant statues of the king once looked down on the great open court of the temple, though these were carved in standing, not sitting, poses.

Powerful Women

Egypt's 18th dynasty, which included Amenhotep III's rule, is also believed to have been a period of female empowerment, particularly among royalty, experts say. The newly discovered statue bolsters that theory.

"[The statue] shows that the women of the crown are so important they are represented openly on colossal scale," Sourouzian said, adding that one of Queen Tiye's titles was the Great Royal Consort.

Johnson, of the Oriental institute, agreed.

"This (statue) is tangible evidence of their growing importance. We know from other monuments and monuments of this sort that Queen Tiye shared power with her husband," Johnson said.

"And this of course culminates with Akhenaten [Amenhotep III's son] and Nefertiti, when [they] seem to be almost—but not quite—equals in sharing power."

(Related: "Egypt Vows 'Scientific War' If Germany Doesn't Loan Nefertiti" [April 18, 2007].)

"The Colossi Jumped"

Most experts believe that a massive earthquake obliterated the mortuary temple sometime in the first century A.D.

Sourouzian said evidence also exists of a quake during the Ramessid Period that followed the 18th dynasty, during the reign of Merenptah (1212-1203 B.C.).

The existing remains of the temple, consisting of statues and slabs known as stelae, are generally found in shattered fragments and strewn about the site.

The stones of the temple walls, the bricks of the enormous pylons, and the enclosure wall were quarried away in antiquity and reused in the neighboring temples.

Some experts say the temple was purposely destroyed as part of such quarrying efforts, but Sourouzian said seismologists and geologists have shown that the temple was first devastated by seismic activity.

"It was a very strong earthquake, during which time the colossi jumped," she said. "They not only have fallen, they jumped from their places."

Part of her work is an ambitious long-term plan to identify the fragments of statues, piece them together, and re-erect them in the same places they stood some 3,400 years ago.

In the recent digging season, her team put up a 25-foot (7.5-meter) standing colossus of Amenhotep III in its original position, making it the first giant statue to join the Colossi of Memnon in what Egyptian officials hope will be a unique open-air museum.

"Most temples have their walls, courts, sanctuaries and even their ceilings, but they have lost most of their statuary and other temple furniture," Sourouzian said. "This temple on the contrary has lost all walls, ceilings, pylons, columns—everything. But the statues and stelae have remained."

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