In 1904, a group of archaeologists entered one of the largest tombs, and the most richly decorated, in Egypt’s Valley of the Queens at Thebes. In this small wadi, a dried riverbed in the western Theban desert, Egyptians of the New Kingdom (c.1539-1075 BC) buried members of the royal family and high-ranking officials and courtiers. Nearly 100 tombs were cut into the rock of the main wadi, most with a series of rooms leading to a burial chamber, where an eminent figure was interred in a stone coffin.
It was in this wadi, known to the ancient Egyptians as Ta-Set-Neferu (‘The Place of Beauty’), that a team from the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy, was given licence to excavate by the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Their mission was to explore the valley systematically and publish their findings, but also to acquire artefacts for the museum, to fill in chronological gaps in its collection, while obtaining important contextual data that would be lacking for objects that had been acquired on the antiquities market in Egypt, fairly common practice for museums of the time. And so the director of the museum, Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli, started digging in the valley with his team over three seasons between 1903 and 1905. They investigated several tombs, including those of Princess Ahmose, four children of Ramesses III, and Imhotep, the vizier under Thutmose I, but perhaps their most significant discovery was in the 1904 expedition, when, led to the right place by a local guide, they excavated the great tomb of one of Egypt’s great queens: Nefertari.
As Schiaparelli wrote in his report on the work of the Italian Archaeological Mission:
On the lintel, on either side of the rising sun that was shown flanked by two sacred eyes and adored by the two sisters Isis and Nephthys, we read the name of the famous spouse of Ramesses II. The name of the Queen was also provided by the inscriptions that were engraved and painted on the jambs of the door.
‘The noble of lineage, the greatest of favours, the lady of goodness, of gentleness and love, the sovereign of the South and the North, the deceased spouse, justified, lady (of the Two Lands) Nefertari Merenmut, true of voice before the Great God…’
From two galleries, going down a few steps carved between two pillars, one could reach the lower part of the room, which was also the deepest part of the tomb […] Various large fragments of the sarcophagus lid, of beautiful pink granite, were still lying there in the middle of the room…
Finds from the tomb (QV66) were taken to the Museo Egizio, and some of the material from these excavations, and other artefacts from the museum, is now on view at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas as part of a touring exhibition, Queen Nefertari’s Egypt, introducing both the queen and life in New Kingdom Egypt.
Nefertari Meritmut (or Merenmut) – meaning ‘beautiful companion’ (nefer, or ‘beautiful’, appears in many queen’s names, including that of Nefertiti) and ‘beloved of Mut’ – was the first of the Great Royal Wives of Ramesses II (r. 1279-1213 BC), the third pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty. Little is known about her background, but she was so well-regarded by the pharaoh that she was celebrated – along with the goddess Hathor – in a temple next to his own in Abu Simbel, and when she died around 1255 BC she was honoured with a sumptuous tomb (and, with a burial chamber around 85m² in area, a spacious one), providing her with everything a noble queen could need in the afterlife.
Jennifer Casler Price, curator of Asian, African, and Ancient American Art at the Kimbell, says, ‘People knew they’d likely find her tomb in the Valley of the Queens. Archaeologists had a sense of how important she was from inscriptions and evidence elsewhere, but it was unexpected to see just how big this tomb was, and how resplendent, particularly the tomb murals on every surface.
‘The tomb had been looted in antiquity – which isn’t unusual, and happens elsewhere – but it was still impressive. They were impressed by the sheer scale of the granite sarcophagus lid found inside. There was a tiny bit of a gilded coffin-lid too, which suggests she had a fully gilded coffin.’
Indeed, Schiaparelli’s account, quoted in the exhibition catalogue, relates his team’s enthusiastic reaction:
Although the funerary equipment was very poor, nevertheless the Mission rejoiced for the discovery of the tomb, which is one of the most important results obtained. It belongs to one of the most famed Egyptian queens, and it is exceptionally beautiful, both for its architectural structure and for the reliefs and inscriptions that covered the walls. […]
Despite some effaced zones, in the parts where the decorations were intact, which we could consolidate, the size of the figures, the brightness of the colours, the magnificence and the purity of style (close to the most significant examples of the Egyptian art of the first period of the 18th Dynasty) make this tomb one of the most outstanding monuments in the Theban necropolis. It compares with the most relevant tombs in the Valley of the Kings, maybe not because of its size, but for sure by reason of its shapely proportions and of its artistic worth. The difference between this tomb and the others in the Valley of the Queens (and all the tombs) consists in the inspiration that creates and connects the scenes painted on the walls.
Nefertari appears in painting all over the tomb, giving offerings to the gods and being welcomed by them. The brightly coloured scenes depict various steps the queen’s spirit must take on her journey through the Duat (the underworld) and into the afterlife, as described in the Book of the Dead, the ancient funerary texts containing spells and rituals to aid and protect the deceased.
Rainwater that had entered between the rock structure and the painted plaster meant that some walls were in a bad state of preservation, so – after archaeologists opened the tomb in 1904 – Francesco Ballerini, Schiaparelli’s assistant, carried out an initial restoration. The astonishing level of decoration was meticulously recorded in photography by the expedition. Ballerini prepared an impressively detailed model of the tomb, which was completed after his death in 1910 by colleagues Edoardo Baglione and Michelangelo Pizzio based on his copious drawings, photographs and notes. Decades later, in the 1980s, the tomb underwent another major restoration, but it is closed today.
Although the objects found in the looted tomb were few in number, those that remained – like the fragment of the gilded coffin – still reveal the exceptional skill and artistry that went into preparing and furnishing these royal burials.
The finds include 34 wooden shabtis, covered in black resin and inscribed with the name of the queen. Her name also appears on the back of an exquisite gilded wood and blue vitreous paste djed-pillar amulet. This type of amulet, representing the spine of Osiris, the god of death and the afterlife, was a symbol of stability and eternal life. They appear painted on walls around the tomb too. The object was found hidden in a niche, and it may once have stood on one of the four ‘magical bricks’ (none of which have survived from QV66) that were placed in the four corners of the burial chamber for protection. The Book of the Dead tells us that there is a spell to be said over a djed-pillar amulet set on a brick.
Another name from within the tomb may give a clue about Nefertari’s family background. Various fragments of furniture were discovered in the tomb, some of which may have been reused. Among this assemblage was a faience knob, likely from some furniture, inscribed with the gold cartouche of Aye, a former pharaoh of the late 18th Dynasty. This was perhaps included in the tomb as Aye was an ancestor of Nefertari (although there is no way of knowing for certain) and so it may be that she was of royal blood.
Other objects hint at what Nefertari may have worn. Casler Price says, ‘One thing I find touching from Nefertari’s tomb is a pair of sandals. They’re beautiful and in amazing condition. Imagine when Schiaparelli found them! They’re 3,000 years old and it’s amazing that they can travel for the exhibition. What’s great is that in one tomb mural, Nefertari is sitting at a senet board – senet is a game about the afterlife, everything’s about the afterlife – playing the game and wearing the sandals.’ These sandals are made of woven palm leaves, and are of a type dating to the late-18th and 19th Dynasties, so they may have belonged to the queen herself. An even more direct connection to Nefertari, perhaps, comes from a pair of mummified knees that are the only human remains left in the looted tomb. Based on analysis of the legs and the mummification method, it is possible that these could represent the last mortal remains of Nefertari.
Nefertari, as a queen and as the favourite wife of a powerful pharaoh, had an exceptional position in society. Like other queens, she was the earthly embodiment of goddesses, a counterpart to the pharaoh who was linked to Amun-Ra, the creator god and king of the heavens. Nefertari was associated with the celestial goddess of fertility Hathor, with whom she shared a temple at Abu Simbel, and the mother goddess, and dutiful wife of Amun, Mut, who embodied the ideal woman. Part of her name (Meritmut) even tells us that she is ‘Beloved of Mut’.
As seen through her tomb and temple, Nefertari was also beloved of Ramesses II. Of his some 100 children, we know that at least six were Nefertari’s (Ramesses II had other wives), but her status came from more than the usual biological duties expected of a queen.
Even among most other queens, Nefertari was exceptional. Her name appears on many monuments, hinting at her importance, and, beyond the usual symbolic power of the goddess-like queens, she played an active part in politics, assisting her husband with diplomacy (she corresponded, for example, with the Hittites in far-off Anatolia) and other royal duties. Casler Price explains, ‘When Ramesses II was crowned, she went with him as he travelled to see all his people. So she was meeting people beyond her normal realm, the women’s palace. One reason that he took her was that she was not only his favourite wife, but could also read and write, and help him. This involvement makes her like other great queens, like Hatshepsut and, much later, Cleopatra.
‘This level of learning was very unusual. Most women were not literate. Even most queens and royal women were not literate. They were in the women’s palace, leading sheltered and secluded lives.’
Outside the royal sphere, what do we know about life for other women? In the New Kingdom, women had some independence, particularly economic independence, and certain rights that meant they could stand in court and have their own businesses in fields that included farming and textile manufacture.
Through the archaeological record, we have glimpses of individual women – both royal and not – through the objects they owned that were inscribed with their names, boxes for cosmetics or clothing, kohl pots that were placed in tombs. They are depicted also in finely worked sculptures from tombs and funerary stelae.
The artisans who built Nefertari’s exceptional tomb and others in the Valley of the Queens lived and worked in Deir el-Medina, a village also excavated by Schiaparelli and the Italian team. As well as preparing the lavish rock-cut tombs for royalty, they prepared burials for people within their own community. The scale and the showiness may not be the same, but these are still expert artisans. From Deir el-Medina, the funerary stelae show deceased craftsmen, often along with their wives, worshipping gods and receiving offerings from their families.
Finds from Schiaparelli’s excavations shed light on the domestic lives of people in the village and on how they carried out their work. Well-preserved wooden scribal palettes were found, along with the fine reed brushes used, while hammers bear the marks of where they repeatedly struck against a chisel as workers hewed out tombs from the rock. ‘There are also ostraca,’ says Casler Price. ‘They’re limestone fragments, chips that come off the stone you’re carving. They’re your sketchbooks. Artisans were making preparatory sketches, then threw them away. They’re as small as three inches. Schiaparelli found thousands of these ostraca, and thankfully he didn’t just throw them away! I love the delicacy and surety of the line, the skill. To me, it’s just mind-blowing – and so personal.’
It was another queen – another Nefertari, in fact – who was instrumental in setting up Deir el-Medina. Ahmose-Nefertari (d.1495 BC) was the first queen of the 18th Dynasty and of the New Kingdom. She was the Great Royal Wife of pharaoh Ahmose I and used her wealth to fund religious projects and festivals. After the death of the pharaoh, Ahmose-Nefertari may have served as regent to her son Amenhotep I while he was still young. It was with this son that she founded the village of Deir el-Medina, and for five centuries she was worshipped by its inhabitants as a local goddess. Her son was also deified and honoured, and these two royal and godly patrons appear on some of the funerary stelae from the village, receiving offerings from the deceased.
Through the rediscovery of the spectacular tombs like Nefertari’s and the village of Deir el-Medina itself, the work of the artisans who worshiped its royal founders has lived on, and with it, the legacies of the great queens of the New Kingdom.
Queen Nefertari’s Egypt runs at Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, until 14 March 2021. It is organised by the Museo Egizio in Turin, and StArt, in collaboration with the Kimbell Art Museum. The exhibition will travel to Portland Art Museum as Queen Nefertari: Eternal Egypt (9 October 2021 to 16 January 2022).
A catalogue by Christian Greco with Simon Connor, Paolo del Vesco, Alessia Fassona, and Federico Poole is published by Museo Egizio and the Kimbell Art Museum (price $16.95, ISBN 978-0912804576). It is available from the Kimbell. See www.kimbellart.org for more information.
All images: Museo Egizio, Turin, Italy.