How Did Hatshepsut Die?

What Do We Know About the Cause of Hatshepsut's Death?

Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, Deir el Bahari, Luxor, Egypt,
Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, Deir el Bahari, Luxor, Egypt,. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Hatshepsut, also known as Maatkare, was an 18th Dynasty pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. She ruled longer than any other woman we know of who was an indigenous Egyptian. She officially ruled as co-ruler with her stepson, Thutmose III, but had taken on powers as a pharaoh herself for between 7 and 21 years. She was one of a very few women to rule as pharaoh.

Hatshepsut died at about age 50, according to a stela at Armant.

That date has been resolved to January 16, 1458 BCE by some. No contemporary source, including that stela, mentions how she died. Her mummy was not in her prepared tomb, and many of the signs of her existence had been erased or written over, so cause of death was a matter of speculation.

Speculation Without a Mummy

In the late nineteenth and through the twentieth century, scholars speculated on the cause of her death. She died shortly after Thutmose III returned from a military campaign as head of the armies. Because apparently her mummy had been lost or destroyed, and Thutmose III had apparently tried to erase her reign, counting his reign from his father's death and erasing signs of her rule, some speculated that her stepson Thutmose III might have had her killed.

Looking for the Mummy of Hatshepsut

Hatshepsut had been preparing one tomb for herself as Great Royal Wife of Thutmose II. After she declared herself the ruler, she began a new, more appropriate tomb for one who had ruled as pharaoh.

She began to upgrade the tomb of her father Thutmose I, adding a new chamber. Either Thutmose III or his son, Amenhotep II, then moved Thutmose I to a different tomb, and it was suggested that Hatshepsut's mummy was placed in the tomb of her nurse instead. Howard Carter discovered two female mummies in the tomb of Hatshepsut's wetnurse, and one of those was the body identified in 2007 as the mummy of Hatshepsut by Zahi Hawass.

(Zahi Hawass is an Egyptologist  and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs in Egypt who was controversial for both self-promotion and tight control when he was in charge of archaeological sites. He was a strong advocate for return of Egyptian antiquities to Egypt from museums of the world.)

Mummy Identified as Hatshepsut: The Evidence for Cause of Death

Assuming that identification is correct, we know more about likely causes of her death. The mummy shows signs of arthritis, many dental cavities and root inflammation and pockets, diabetes, and metastized bone cancer (the original site cannot be identified; it may have been in soft tissue like the lungs or breast). She was also obese. Some other signs show the likelihood of a skin disease.

Those examining the mummy concluded that it is most likely that the metastized cancer killed her.

Another theory derives from the dental root inflammation and pockets. In this theory, an extraction of a tooth resulted in an abscess which, in her weakened condition from the cancer, was what actually killed her.

Did Skin Cream Kill Hatshepsut?

In 2011, researchers in Germany identified a carcinogenic substance in a vial that is identified with Hatshepsut, leading to speculation that she may have used a lotion or salve for cosmetic reasons or to treat a skin condition, and this led to the cancer.

Not all accept the flask as actually connected with Hatshepsut or even contemporary to her lifetime.

Unnatural Causes?

There was no evidence found from the mummy of unnatural causes of death, though academics had long assumed her death might have been hastened by enemies, perhaps even her stepson. But more recent scholarship does not accept that her stepson and heir was in conflict with Hatshepsut.

Sources consulted include:

  • Zahi Hawass. "The Search for Hatshepsut and the Discovery of Her Mummy." June 2007.
  • Zahi Hawass. "Quest for the Mummy of Hatshepsut." June 2006.
  • John Ray. "Hatshepsut: the Female Pharaoh." History Today. Volume 44 number 5, May 1994.
  • Gay Robins. Women in Ancient Egypt. 1993.
  • Catharine H. Roehrig, editor. Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh. 2005. Article contributors include Ann Macy Roth, James P. Allen, Peter F. Dorman, Cathleen A. Keller, Catharine H. Roehrig, Dieter Arnold, Dorothea Arnold.
  • Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen. First aired: 7/15/07. Discovery Channel. Brando Quilico, executive producer. ( Review: Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen )
  • Joyce Tyldesley. Hatchepsut the Female Pharaoh. 1996.