An ancient Egyptian artifact featuring Hatshepsut – Egypt’s second female pharaoh – has been sitting in a storage facility, collecting dust for decades. That is, until students at the Egypt Center at Swansea University accidentally discovered it during a handling session. But exactly where it came from, remains a mystery.
It’s unclear where the slabs came from, but Dr Ken Griffin, who oversaw the discovery, believes they are similar to other reliefs from the temple of Hatshepsut near Luxor, a complex of mortuary temples and tombs called Deir el-Bahri. He believes hieroglyphs above the head using a feminine pronoun is a “clear indication” the figure is female, while the twisted uraeus (cobra) headband, decorated fan, and hairstyle are all indicative of similar artifacts found in the area.
The two irregularly-shaped limestone fragments display carved images on both sides and are less than 5 centimeters (2 inches) thick. Cut marks on the back indicate they had “clearly” been removed from the wall of a temple or tomb, which wasn’t uncommon during the late 19th century.
Here’s where it gets murkier. Researchers could find no evidence of where this piece came from in the Egypt Centre’s records. All they could find was that it came to the collection in 1971 with a number of other objects belonging to a London pharmaceutical entrepreneur named Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936).
The plot thickens. The fragments had been in storage for more than two decades and it was only after reviewing an old black-and-white photograph that researchers requested it for use in a session where students handle objects from the archives. On the backside of the upper fragment, a man with a short beard is also depicted, which researchers say had been removed and carved in more recent times to complete the face of the upper fragment. They say it was probably done by an antique dealer, auctioneer, or maybe even Sir Wellcome himself. At some point, this mystery artist also decided to glue the fragments together in their current form.
Hatshepsut was the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, which she ruled for 20 years some 3,500 years ago. Early in her reign, she was depicted as a female wearing a long dress, but as the years progressed her likenesses began to take on more masculine traits – sometimes even having her shown with fake a beard. Other than that, not much is known about the female pharaoh, which makes the find all the more exciting.
“The identification of the object as depicting Hatshepsut caused great excitement amongst the students. After all, it was only through conducting handling sessions for them that this discovery came to light,” said Dr Griffin in a statement. "While most of the students have never visited Egypt before, the handling sessions help to bring Egypt to them."