The Mysteries of Queen Hetepheres' Burial in Egypt

The Mysteries of Queen Hetepheres' Burial

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston

Working to excavate the Tomb of Hetepheres at Giza, near her son's Great Pyramid

One of the most interesting, and indeed spectacular discoveries on the Giza Plateau was not made by an archaeologist, but rather by a photographer working for one. On February 2nd, 1925, Mohamadien Ibrahim, who was working for Reisner, head of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition, at the time, discovered the tomb that has been ascribed to Queen Hetepheres. This discovery was made one day while Reisner was on vacation back in the United States. At the time, Ibrahim was preparing to take photographs on the east side of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza. While setting up his tripod, one of its legs ground against a patch of plaster. He became curious and investigated the plaster, and found that it covered the entrance to a subterranean stairway with twelve steps. Once again, as has been the case in many Egyptian discoveries, a find was made by accident. Ibrahim, being an honest man, reported this discovery to Alan Rowe who was Reisner's assistant, who then notified the expedition leader, who cut his vacation short and returned to Egypt immediately.

A young Dows Dunham near the end of his work on the tomb of Hetepheres

The stairway that Ibrahim discovered led down to a vertical shaft, about 27.5 meters deep, which was filled to the top with limestone plaster to protect it from thieves. This shaft, which is now labeled G 7000x on the maps of the Giza Plateau, took ten years to excavate. The shaft, which follows two vertical fissures in the rock, was left with rough walls. Mixed with the plaster were various artifacts and pottery shards, but near the bottom was a sealing bearing the name of Khufu's mortuary workshop. There was also a niche in the west wall of the shaft blocked off with plaster masonry, that contained the remains of an offering, including three leg bones of a bull wrapped in a reed mat, a horned skull that had been crushed and two wine jars. Mixed in with these remains were a limestone boulder, two ships of basalt and some charcoal, which were probably not part of the original offerings.

However, what was so spectacular were the objects found in the burial chamber at the bottom of the shaft, which was also left unfinished. Reisner tells us, in a tone not unlike that of Howard Carter a couple of years earlier on his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, that:

"This intact tomb... presented for the first time in the history of Egyptian excavation an opportunity of studying the burial of a great personage of an early period, 1500 years older than the royal tombs of the New Kingdom. Looking in from a small opening, [we] had seen a beautiful alabaster sarcophagus with its lid in place. Partly on the sarcophagus and partly fallen behind it lay about twenty gold-cased poles and beams of a large canopy On the western edge of the sarcophagus were spread several sheets of gold inlaid with faience, and on the floor there was a confused mass of gold cased furniture."

It is interesting to note Reisner's reference to tombs of the New Kingdom. Indeed, his discovery eclipsed, if only momentarily, the triumphs of Carnarvon and Carter at the tomb of Tutankhamun. Reisner seems to have loathed them as arrogant and colonial, and did everything in his power, we are told, to discredit as them as unprincipled treasure-seekers and adventurers.

A case of turquoise, lapis lazuli and carnelian silver braceletes

The actual excavation of Hetepheres' packed burial chamber was mostly carried out by Dows Dunham. It was a difficult job and even dangerous. Had he not been wearing a pith helmet, Dunham himself might have been killed when a piece of rock unexpectedly fell from the ceiling. the space within was very restrictive, and no more than two excavators were able to maneuver at any one time. Added to these problems was the very fragile nature of the finds. In many cases, gold foil, with which many of the objects had been embellished, was all that preserved the general form of some objects.

Nevertheless, within the burial chamber there were many beautiful objects made of gilded wood, including a portable pavilion, a bed, two armchairs and a carrying chair, as well as a curtain box, a leather case for walking sticks, several wooden boxes, some copper tools and numerous other small objects, including twenty silver bracelets inlaid with turquoise, lapis lazuli and carnelian. There was also an alabaster sarcophagus that was found against one wall of the chamber, but to everyone's amazement, considering the plaster blocking fill, it was empty, and hence, one of several mysteries surrounding this tomb. The opening of the queen's sarcophagus well into the second season of work at the tomb had been keenly anticipated in almost festive surroundings. Dows Dunham records that:

"On March 3, 1927, a distinquished company [of eight or so people] assembled one hundred feet underground... At a nod from Reisner, the jacks that had been placed for the purpose began to turn. Slowly a crack appeared between the lid and the box. Little by little it widened until we could see intot he upper part of the box; nothing was visible. AS the lid rose higher we could see further into the interior and finally to the bottom of the box..."

The account was taken up by an artist named Lindon Smith, who recounts:

"When it was sufficiently raised for me to peer inside, I saw to my dismay that the queen was not there - the sarcophagus was empty! Turning to Reisner, I said in a voice louder than I had intended, 'George, she's a dud!'

Whereupon the Minister of Public Works asked, 'What is a dud?'

Reisner rose from his box and said, 'Gentlemen, I regret Queen Hetepheres is not receiving.' And added, 'Mrs. Reisner will serve refreshements at the camp.'"

However, a sealed recess in the west wall of the burial chamber also contained an alabaster canopic chest on a small wooden sledge. It was divided into four compartments, three of which contained remains immerged in a solution of natron (a salt like substance used for preservation and other purposes) and water. The fourth compartment contained dried organic material. A mud sealing, protected by a small pottery lid, was found on the lid of this box.

Canopy and furniture found in the tomb

Many of the objects bore inscriptions with the names and titles of Sneferu and of Hetephere, whose main title was "Mother of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt". There were also boxes with mud sealings bearing the name of Khufu. Reisner concluded from this evidence that Hetepheres was a wife of Sneferu, as well as the mother of Khufu. The style of the objects found in the tomb, including pottery fragments found scattered throughout, also confirmed a 4th Dynasty date.

The objects were restored by Ahmed Youssef, who was also responsible for the restoration of Khufu's boat now on display beside his Great Pyramid. Afterwards, the objects were split up between the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The objects now form one of the Egyptian Museum's most important collections, the content of which represent one of the oldest intact royal tombs ever discovered in Egypt.

A gilded wooden chariot char was found as part of the funerary furniture of Hetepheres

Yet, some aspects of the discovery are unclear. Reisner tried to explain the condition of the burial chamber with its broken and scattered pottery, the chips from the sarcophagus found strewn about the chamber, the lack of a superstructure and the lack of a body as best he could. He believed that Hetepheres died during the first part of Khufu's reign, evidenced by sealings from his mortuary service, and was originally buried by him at Dahshur, near her husband's pyramid. Sometime afterward, Reisner believed that her tomb was broken into and her body was stolen. When Khufu discovered that her tomb had been robbed, he took the remaining contents and moved them secretly to Giza, where shaft G 7000x was hurriedly dug to receive the funerary equipment.

Hetepheres' funerary bed, discovered in her tomb at Giza

Hetepheres' funerary bed, discovered in her tomb at Giza

To support his theory, Reisner pointed out that the side of the alabaster sarcophagus against the wall of the burial chamber was damaged, which he though could not have happened in G 7000x. he also thought that the contents of the Giza tomb were in the reverse order of their original positions at Dahshur. He further reasoned that the objects found in the body of the shaft represented items that were originally forgotten and then thrown into the shaft at the last minute. He even imagined that Khufu was not told of the theft of his mother's body, and therefore ordered the offerings that were found in the shaft wall. All of this would have happened while Khufu's upper temple was in the process of being paved, considering the basalt fragments found in the offering niche. Obviously, this is a rather complex theory that some modern scholars find difficult to accept.

Specifically, Mark Lehner, one of our best known modern Egyptologists, objects to Reisner's conclusions on a number of grounds. For example, he thinks that the robbers would have smashed the lid of the sarcophagus, as so often happened, rather than carefully lifting it off of the sarcophagus. Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that the robbers would have missed easily portable valuables such as the silver bracelets. Lehner also thinks that, were Hetephere to have been buried originally at Dahshur, a theory for which there is really no evidence, the reburial should have taken place there as well. He also finds it difficult to believe that a shaft of such depth could have been dug secretly at Giza, and finally, he points out that it is hard to imagine Khufu knowingly allowing his mother to be reburied with broken pottery and violated funerary equipment.

A chair discovered in the tomb of Hetepheres

Hence, Dr. Lehner has suggested an alternative theory for this tomb. He believes that Hetepheres died early in her son's reign, and was buried in this hastily dug shaft, similar in style to 3rd Dynasty tombs. He thinks that a superstructure was begun for the tomb, also in the style of the 3rd Dynasty, but was then abandoned when Khufu's cult was changed and the plan of the eastern field was modified because Khufu's upper temple would have interfered with it. Instead, he built the three small pyramids, referenced as G 1a, b and c. Dr. Lehner then believes that the queen's body was taken from G 7000x and reburied with new funerary equipment inside either G 1a or G 1b.

Dr. Lehner addressed and refuted Reisner's theory point by point, coming up with alternative explanations that fit his own theory. For example, he suggests that the basalt fragments found in the offering niche might be tools, and proposes that the limestone boulder might have been thrown into the niche to crush the skull and therefore invalidate the offering. He further suggests that the copper tools found in the burial chamber were left by the workmen who pried the lid from the sarcophagus to remove the body of the queen. On the grounds that the damage to the sarcophagus included chipping on the lid all the way around, he also believes that the sarcophagus could have easily been damaged in G 7000x.

Gold vessels from the tomb of Hetepheres, who is thought to be the mother of Khufu

Mark Lehner's good friend and old associate at Giza and now head of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass, doubts both theories. He asks the questions, if Hetepheres were originally buried at Dahshur, then where is her first tomb, and how could her burial equipment been moved all the way from Dahshur to Giza in secret? If instead, G 7000x was her first burial, as Dr. Lehner suggests, then why was it left in such disorder? Indeed, he wonders why the queen mother would be buried in such haste, and why would Khufu's officials have needed a completely new set of funerary equipment? Most importantly, he wonders why the Queen's body would be reburied elsewhere, while leaving her canopic material behind?

Hence, Dr. Hawass presents yet another theory to this mystery. He believes that Hetepheres was originally buried in G 1a, the northernmost of the small pyramids. It was Dr. Lehner who pointed out that the portable canopy and furniture found in G 7000x would have fit almost perfectly into the burial chamber of G 1a, which makes more sense if it was originally designed to go there rather than placed hurriedly into G 7000x. But then, why would it have later been moved into G 7000x.

He explains that, during the First Intermediate Period there was a considerable amount of vandalism taking place on the Giza Plateau, and points out that evidence suggests that much of Khufu's complex was destroyed during this time. He therefore believes that Hetepheres' burial could have been disturbed at this time, and her body stolen by thieves looking for jewels. He thinks that it is possible that afterwards, priests connected to Khufu's cult might have moved what remained of her burial equipment to hide it from further pillagers. He suggests that, since the style of G 7000x points to a date in the 3rd Dynasty, or even the 2nd, is could have been dug much earlier and abandoned before Khufu's complex was even begun. Thus, the priest would have found and used this ancient shaft to protect what was left of the burial of this important queen.

A beautifully inscripted wooden box from the shaft of Hetepheres

A beautifully inscripted wooden box from the shaft of Hetepheres

Dr. Hawass also points out that this would explain the reversal of the objects suggested by Reisner, since it would be more reasonable for such a reversal to occur if the equipment were moved only a short distance, item by item. He thinks that the offerings were also moved, being damaged in the process, and that the basalt chips found with the offerings were more likely from the destroyed pavement of Khufu's upper temple, and the limestone debris was probably residue from his vandalized temples. Furthermore, he points to the lack of an official seal over the entrance to the shaft, which might account for a later burial.

To his credit, Dr. Hawass points out holes in his own theory, suggesting that his theory does not completely explain the queen's missing body. Likewise, he agrees with Dr. Lehner that robbers would be more likely to have broken the lid, and of course, there is the matter of various small objects that robbers would have likely have taken, including the jewelry box mentioned above.

So the mystery of Hetepheres remains, but is an excellent example of the detective work and reasoning that goes on all the time in Egyptology. Perhaps one day, future discoveries on the Giza Plateau will provide more answers to these mysteries surrounding the burial of one of Egypt's most important queens.


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Pyramids, The (The Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt's Great Monuments) Verner, Miroslav 2001 Grove Press ISBN 0-8021-1703-1
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Treasures of the Pyramids, The Hawass, Zahi 2003 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 798 1