It’s spring, which means it’s spring cleaning time. As anyone who’s tackled emptying a closet or attic that hasn’t been cleaned in years knows, you never know what you’ll find when you start pulling things out. It’s usually things you forgot you owned, never knew you had or wish you never bought. Dr. Ken Griffin, an Egyptology lecturer at Swansea University on the coast of southwest Wales, had his students clean out a storage warehouse filled with miscellaneous uncatalogued artifacts (students will do anything for extra credit) and what they found has stunned the world of Egyptology.
“I was selecting objects for the handling session and saw an old black-and-white photo of a carving which looked more interesting than the rest… when we realized what it truly was our jaws hit the floor – mine as well as the students.”
According to the BBC, what they found was a carving (photos here and here.) of one of the most famous yet mysterious pharaohs in history – Hatshepsut, the second recognized female pharaoh, whose long and successful reign as the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty (1478–1458 BCE) has caused many historians to regard her as the first great woman in history. Despite that, most records and monuments to her were destroyed by her son, Thutmose III, and grandson, Amenhotep II. Historians at first believed that Thutmose III was angry at his mother for holding on to the throne long after he was old enough to take over. A later theory is that they did it to protect the throne from being taken away by Hatshepsut’s other relatives.
All of that destruction makes the finding of a relief of Hatshepsut’s face even more significant. After discovering the old photograph, Dr. Griffin requested a “handling session” which would allow students to look for the object and “handle” artifacts that are otherwise not touched. While searching the warehouse, they found two limestone pieces that had been glued together to form a fan, part of a head and a face with a cobra on the forehead. Griffin recognized the hair and headband as being similar to those on reliefs in the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri (now Luxor). The final proof was hieroglyphs above the head that used a feminine pronoun. This was definitely the top half of the face of Hatshepsut. Unfortunately, what looked like the bottom half, with a chin and a beard to make her look like a male pharaoh, were deemed to be a fake, probably made by an unscrupulous dealer.
How did Swansea University in Wales end up with such a significant Egyptian artifact? And why was it in a dusty storeroom? The artifact was probably looted from the temple of Hatshepsut in the late 19th century before it was formally excavated by the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Egypt Exploration Society) between 1902–1909. Since 1961, the Polish Archaeological Mission to Egypt has overseen the excavation, restoration and recording of the contents the temple. It appears the relief was donated to the University’s Egypt Centre in 1971 by the estate of Henry Wellcome, the wealthy co-founder of the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Company, which eventually became part of GlaxoSmithKline. At the time, it looked like just another broken piece of a wall so it ended up in storage for over 45 years. Dr. Griffin is hoping the Polish Archaeological Mission will find the exact location where the relief was taken from.
Here’s an interesting coincidence that may signify it’s time for Hatshepsut to return to fame as the first great woman in history. The students found her sculpture on March 8 – International Women’s Day. As Dr. Griffin put it:
“Hatshepsut certainly knows how to make an entrance.”