The forgotten women in Tutankhamun’s tomb
What can the treasures uncovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb tell us about women in the young pharaoh’s life, including his young wife Ankhesenamun? As we approach the 100th anniversary of the tomb’s discovery, Joyce Tyldesley shares the evidence, including two tiny, baby mummies…
In November 1922, a team led by Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Tutankhamun (reigned 1336-1327 BCE). We can attend Tutankhamun’s funeral via the painted scenes in his burial chamber.
On the east wall we see the mummified king lying in a coffin resting on a bier that stands on a boat that is itself standing on a wooden sled. Twelve of Egypt’s highest ranking dignitaries, all dressed in white linen, have assembled to drag the funerary sled across the desert to the Valley of the Kings. On the north wall the funeral procession has reached the tomb. Tutankhamun’s mummy has been propped upright and his successor, King Ay, has dressed in a priestly leopard skin to conduct the rituals that will allow the dead king to live again.
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Nowhere in these scenes do we see Tutankhamun’s widow, Ankhesenamun (formerly also Ankhesenpaaten). If we want to learn more about the woman who supported her husband in life and death, we need to take a closer look at some of Tutankhamun’s 5,000 grave goods.
Ankhesenamun, Tutankhamun’s wife
The ‘Little Golden Shrine’, a doored box covered in thick gold foil, is one of Tutankhamun’s most enigmatic grave goods. A series of engraved panels on the golden exterior shows the king and queen together. Ankhesenamun fastens a collar round her husband’s neck, receives water that he pours into her cupped hand and supplies him with arrows as he shoots ducks in the marshes. Howard Carter believed that these scenes reflected the daily life of the king and queen, with Ankhesenamun playing a minor role: “The dominant note is that of friendly relationship between the husband and wife.”
A century later, with a far better understanding of the complexities of Egyptian royal art, we interpret these scenes as a reflection of Ankhesenamun’s religious power as she assumes the role of a priest to prepare her husband for his coronation and the New Year ceremonies that will follow.
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Ankhesenamun is equally prominent on the decorated back panel of Tutankhamun’s golden throne. Here we see the royal couple inside a floral pavilion. Ankhesenamun stands before her husband and extends her hand towards him. She wears an elaborately pleated robe, a short wig and a complicated crown incorporating cow horns, a sun disc and two tall feathers. Tutankhamun, dressed in a pleated kilt, tall crown and colourful jewellery, sits in an elaborate chair with his feet on a footstool. At first sight, this too appears to be a charming domestic scene, but in fact we are watching an anointing ritual with Ankhesenamun acting as priest.
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Who is this powerful queen? Ankhesenamun was the third daughter born to the ‘heretic pharaoh’ Akhenaten and his consort Nefertiti. As it is highly likely that Akhenaten was Tutankhamun’s father, she was either her husband’s sister or half-sister. While Tutankhamun’s early years are shrouded in mystery, we can follow Ankhesenamun’s childhood via the art commissioned by her father. We see her as a naked baby clambering over her mother’s shoulder, and as a growing young girl attending various state functions with her parents. It seems likely that she had married Tutankhamun by the time that he inherited the throne. Egypt was now ruled by an eight-year-old king and his teenage sister-wife.
Egypt had no role for a childless, widowed consort. We should therefore not be too surprised that Ankhesenamun disappears when Tutankhamun dies
As the queen consort, Ankhesenamun took precedence over all her husband’s other wives. She was an essential component of her husband’s rule, with the king and queen forming a partnership that would serve the gods and ensure that Egypt prospered. Her most obvious duty was to support Tutankhamun and provide him with a family which would ideally include a male heir. However, she was more than a baby-machine and her responsibilities were varied and complex. She might contribute to diplomatic correspondence, perform important female-based religious rituals, and even serve as her husband’s deputy. A few consorts are known to have ruled Egypt temporarily, acting on behalf of an absent husband or an infant son.
The women who ‘protect’ the dead king
If the Little Golden Shrine and the golden throne confirm Ankhesenamun’s role in supporting Tutankhamun’s living kingship, his quartzite sarcophagus hints that she also had the power to support him in death.
The sarcophagus trough, which is carved with funerary texts, is protected by four carved goddesses, one standing at each corner, looking towards Tutankhamun’s head. Isis, Nephthys, Serket and Neith extend their winged arms to encircle the sarcophagus and in so doing eternally embrace and protect the dead Tutankhamun. The same four goddesses surround and protect the canopic chest which houses Tutankhamun’s preserved viscera.
Close examination has revealed that the four sarcophagus goddesses originally had human arms rather than feathered wings. Initially carved as women, or as one woman four times, they were subsequently re-carved as goddesses, presumably to reflect Tutankhamun’s evolving religious views. Here we can draw a parallel with Akhenaten’s smashed granite sarcophagus trough, fragments of which have been recovered from his looted tomb. These show that Akhenaten intended to be protected in death by four versions of his consort Nefertiti, one standing at each corner of his sarcophagus. It is possible that Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus base was recycled from an earlier burial. But if it was indeed purpose-made, we can deduce that he originally intended to spend eternity in Ankhesenamun’s protective arms.
Two baby princesses: Tutankhamun's daughters?
Ankhesenamun is not the only female to offer her protection to the dead king. The Treasury, the modern name given to a small room opening off the Burial Chamber, housed the most sacred and intimate of Tutankhamun’s grave goods, including his canopic shrine. Here, resting on a jumbled heap of artefacts where it had been placed by the necropolis workers who restored the tomb after an ancient robbery, the excavation team found a plain wooden box whose displaced lid had originally been tied in place. Inside the box were two tiny, anthropoid coffins. The coffins had been tied with linen ribbons, and sealed with the cemetery seal. Both coffins were made of wood, both had been painted with resin, and both bore standard funerary inscriptions that named the deceased as ‘Osiris’.
Each coffin held an inner coffin covered in gold foil, and each inner coffin held a small, well-bandaged mummy. The first mummy wore a golden funerary mask. Carter, who had not expected to find human remains in the tiny coffin, passed the mummy to the anatomist Douglas Derry, who identified the well-preserved body of a premature baby girl. The second tiny mummy lacked a mask. Derry unwrapped this mummy himself, revealing a second premature baby girl.
Recent medical tests indicate that these are likely to be Tutankhamun’s daughters
Recent medical tests indicate that these are likely to be Tutankhamun’s daughters. We do not know why two baby girls would be included amongst the grave goods in a king’s tomb. Nor, as Tutankhamun’s is the only substantially intact 18th Dynasty royal tomb to be discovered in the Valley of the Kings, do we know if this was standard practice. Is it a coincidence that both babies were female? Or, as we might suspect, were they included in his burial so that they might add their feminine protection to that offered by Ankhesenamun?
Ankhesenamun after Tutankhamun
Egypt had no role for a childless, widowed consort. We should therefore not be too surprised that Ankhesenamun disappears when Tutankhamun dies. We can imagine her retiring from public life and retreating to a harem palace, where she might spend the next thirty or forty years in luxurious obscurity. However, one curious story suggests that Ankhesenamun may have retained some authority after her husband’s death.
The Deeds of Suppiluliuma is a biographical account of the reign of the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I, written after his death. It has survived on a fragmented series of clay tablets, written in cuneiform ‘wedge’ script.
Embedded within the history is an intriguing tale. A widowed queen of Egypt has written to the king of the Hittites, asking him to send one of his sons to marry her and take the Egyptian throne. Frustratingly, the name of the letter writer, “Dahamunzu”, is simply a phonetic version of the Egyptian queen’s title ta hemet nesu or “King’s Wife”. Because we know that Suppiluliuma was one of Akhenaten’s correspondents, we know that we are looking for a queen who was widowed after Akhenaten’s death. Could this be Ankhesenamun?
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The Hittite king was confused by the request. Everyone knew that the Egyptians would find the idea of a foreigner ruling Egypt abhorrent. He was, however, tempted: Egypt was a great prize. Eventually he sent a son, Zannanza, who died on the journey to Memphis. Whether or not this was a natural death is unclear; but it certainly caused a rift in the already lukewarm relationship between Egypt and the Hittites. There is no mention of this correspondence in the Egyptian records, and we are left questioning whether this is a genuine appeal for help made by a desperate Ankhesenamun, or whether it might have be a trap designed to cause diplomatic friction between Egypt and the Hittites.
Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley teaches a suite of online courses in Egyptology at the University of Manchester. She is the author of Tutankhamun: Pharaoh, Icon, Enigma (Headline, 2022)
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