Monday, July 16, 2007

Discovering Hatshepsut

For the last 100 years, curators sat down to drink tea, but they did not do their jobs, ... How many artifacts are in the basement? It was awful. ~ Zahi Hawass

Before I start, I've got to get something off my chest. The History-Discovery axis of channels has had some dreadful moments such as the KV-63 programs and the Jesus family tomb debacle. Recently though, they had a couple of small clunkers that are the sort of thing that drives me to distraction. On an otherwise good Science Channel program on geology, the announcer at once point says something about "caves like these ones." These ones? These ones? An eight-year old knows better than that. Then, almost the next day, on a program on one of the History channels about Captain Bligh keeps referring to the British "Admirality"? Perhaps a dozen times we hear admiralty pronounced "admirality." Interestingly, the same announcer did both programs.

I don't know if the guy can't read or the writers can't write, but someone needs to be flogged.

Having said that, I can say that, for once, the Discovery axis has done it right. The Discovery-funded "Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen" makes up for the miserable Nefertiti fiasco they foisted on us last year. The new program involves the investigation that determined the real mummy of Hatshepsut, the queen who ruled as Pharoah.

Hatshepsut became regent during the 18th Dynasty period. She liked being regent so much, she decided that she ought to stay in charge even when her son Thutmosis III came to power. Once Thutmosis came to power, he had all images of her erased from monuments in what appeared to be a monumental act of posthumous revenge. Her mummy disappeared.

It was thought to have been found in 1990 in KV-60, a tomb containing two female mummies. One was identified as Hatshepsut's nanny or nurse, so it was assumed that the other might well be the Queen-Pharoah herself, but no one could be sure. So, Discovery put up some money to find out just who was who.

Zahi Hawass, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, immediately looked to CAT scanning, a technique he used to great effect in putting to rest the Tut murder caper. He has also begun putting DNA testing to work, although getting good DNA from 5000-year-old corpses is not always easy. The CAT scans were interesting but inconclusive. DNA was obtained from the female mummies, but they were forced to use mitochondrial DNA because the DNA of the best male representative was of insufficient quality for use. The mitochnodrial samples would take some time to evaluate.

Now this is the point where Discovery would normally leave us hanging, but Hawass wasn't out of options yet. A canopic container, a box holding a mummy's organs, was found that was definitely identified as containing Hatshepsut's liver. It was possible there might be something else in there that could prove helpful. There was: A tooth.

Now, the news articles had already noted that the mummy had been identified using a tooth, but the program showed us that it wasn't as easy as that. The box had been filled with preservative resin, which had hardened into a block. The only way, it appeared, to find out what was in the box would be to damage the precious artifact. But the Egyptians are really into CAT scanning now, so they CAT scanned the box. When they did, they found an anomalous little hard object which turned out to be a molar missing one root. And one of the mummies, the one in the nurse's coffine, had a broken root where the molar would fit perfectly.

This, then, was no nurse. It was Hatshepsut, Pharoah of Egypt.

What made the program most enjoyable is that, unlike the aforementioned Nefertiti mess, the backstory about Hatshepsut's reign was well researched and seemed to stick to the archaeological evidence. They couldn't resist a little shot about a possible murder plot, but even that melted away. Hatshepsut, it seems, was a very sick woman when she died, with bone cancer and a severe abcess that would have spread infection throughout her body.

The program even brought out a different possibility for why Thutmosis was rubbing out all references to his stepmother. Thutmosis was a stepson, not fully of royal blood. He wanted his son to continue his blood line in the royal line, not one of Hatshepsut's children. One way to do this was to simply remove Hatshepsut from the record. One archaeologist likened it to the Soviet habit of rewriting history to minimize roles played by those now out of favor. As he put it, Thutmosis made Hatshepsut an "unperson."

One interesting side effect of all this mummy identification is that it has raised suspicions, at least in the mind of Zahi Hawass, about the identity of other pharonic mummies. If Hatshepsut could be placed in a misidentified coffin, possibly to protect her mummy from robbers or from desecraters, then it could be the case with others. According to Hawass, they can only be sure of two of those mummies: Hatshepsut, because of the tooth, and Tut because he was found in situ.

The rest, I suspect, are going to be spending time in the old CAT scanner, as well as having DNA pulled if at all possible. There may well be some more interesting re-identifications in the future.

So give the Discovery gang a pat on the back and watch the show. It's on at 8 PM CDT tonight (on the Science Channel; it was on Discovery last night), but I'm sure it will be replayed many times.

An for a change, it'll be worth seeing again.

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