Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen (Hatshepsut)

Review: Discovery Channel Documentary

Hatshepsut candidates
Four "suspects" of the investigation lined up for CT scans. (c) DCI

The Bottom Line

Recommended if you enjoy women's history, Egyptology, archaeology, or a good mystery, or if you'd just like to know more about this powerful woman, Hatshepsut. The usual hype tone of cable TV documentaries is present but the natural excitement of the investigation takes over from the hype pretty quickly. I loved that the results of the investigation were not what were expected -- the means by which the mummy is identified, and that Dr. Hawass' initial guess (published by him in 2006) is open to question.

Pros

  • An engaging historical mystery - with an unexpected outcome
  • The appropriate mix of hard archaeology and historical story-telling
  • Gender issues inherent in the story are presented gently and clearly
  • On-screen presence of Dr. Hawass and Dr. Cooney adds personality
  • Scientific aspects are presented clearly and, I think, convincingly

Cons

  • Usual "hyped" tone of made-for-cable documentaries - especially near beginning
  • Quite a lot of detail; may take multiple viewings to "get" some of it
  • Press reports of the findings misrepresented the DNA connection
  • A few edits leave information unsaid or unsure
  • Documentary implies that Hatshepsut's father really did groom her to rule

Description

  • Two related stories: scientific archaeology via DNA and CT scan analysis; cultural archaeology looking at Hatshepsut's life
  • Takes viewer into tombs, temples, archaeological sites, and dusty museum storage - vivid images with story-telling
  • Figuring prominently: Dr. Hawass, controversial and dramatic Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities
  • Also figuring prominently to unfold what we know (and don't) about Hatshepsut's life: Dr. Kara Cooney, Stanford University
  • Four mummies identified as candidates for Hatshepsut - shows many different issues involved in identifying a mummy (see more below)
  • Scientific process of proposing hypotheses and then testing them experimentally is made clear; willing to be proved wrong
  • King Tut story had beautiful gold and painted objects; this has less dramatic objects, more story-telling and science
  • Takes on gender issues, unlike most made-for-cable documentaries, and in a way that may convince at least some skeptics
  • Discovery Channel helped provide a permanent DNA lab to the Cairo Museum; expect more to be announced via this partnership

Review - Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen

High school kids 25 years ago probably never heard of Hatshepsut in history classes; today, she's a standard subject in high school world history courses.

The closing sentence of Joyce Tyldesley's excellent book, Hatchepsut, hauntingly notes that Hatshepsut's mummy has not been found. Maybe now, that's changed. If the evidence presented in this documentary holds up, then what the script calls a "3500-year-old cold case" has been solved.

Hatshepsut's story is one that is unfolding before us, in the sense that Egyptologists continue to piece together the evidence. New ways of looking at the evidence—including through a women's history or gender issues lens—are influencing not only what evidence is noticed, but how old conclusions are questioned.

Not least is that Hatshepsut's mummy had not been identified, though those of most of her male ruling relatives had.

I'm one of those people who watches several different cable networks just for the historical and scientific documentaries. Some I like; some I'm willing to watch once a month if they're repeated that often; for some I rush to switch channels. I do get irritated that so little is presented related to women's role in history, or that looks with any seriousness at gender issues. Discovery Channel's Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen is definitely one of those I can watch over and over—and not just because I write about women's history and the subject is one of the most fascinating mysteries about women in history.

Kara Cooney's interview has some interesting insights on this documentary from an Egyptologist's perspective.

Hatshepsut Mummy Identified?

In June, 2007, Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, and the Discovery Channel announced that they had identified the mummy of Hatshepsut. They used DNA methods and also CT scans to attempt to discover which of several mummies might be the female pharaoh, Hatshepsut.

CT Scans

The computer tomography (CT) scans and images were used to identify a number of factors. Mummies previously identified at Thutmose I, Thutmose II, and Thutmose III were tested (Hatshepsut's father, half-brother/husband, and step-son/nephew), as were four female mummies. The following conclusions were drawn from the recreated images that the CT scans made possible:

  • Family resemblance: one female mummy seemed to have facial characteristics that resembled most closely those of the three Thutmoses.
  • Arm position: royal women were mummified with their left arm bent across the chest. A CT scan revealed whether such a position was likely.  In one mummy, her arms were at her side, and the arms had not been broken, thus making it likely that she died in that position.  In another, her arm was not quite in the right position, but the arm of the mummy had been broken at some point (probably after mummification) so it was possible it had originally been in the royal position.
  • Likely age at death of the four women: one was considerably older than the estimated 40-50 for Hatshepsut.

Some of the CT scan results revealed likely health problems and possible causes of death.

For example, a broken rib and small dense object inside the mummy of Thutmose I led to the possibility he had died of an arrow wound. In one of the female mummies, a likely head wound and the intact jaw indicated that her open mouth, which had led to her nickname "The Screamer," was likely in that position when she died.

The identification of KV60A with Hatshepsut came, however, with a particular constellation of evidence from the CT scans.

DNA Investigation

The DNA evidence has not led, at the date of this writing, to any significant conclusions.

The Discovery Channel, Applied Biosystems, and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (Egypt) have established a permanent DNA lab at the Cairo Museum. The purpose of the lab is to establish a suitable environment to develop, refine, and apply modern DNA forensic and investigative techniques. The first project for the team and lab was the investigation of female mummies which might possibly be the remains of the female Egyptian pharaoh, Hatshepsut.

According to the 2007 Discovery Channel documentary, and material posted publicly by Dr. Zahi Hawass of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, usable nuclear DNA was recovered from the mummy (KV60A) now thought to be Hatshepsut. The other mummy (KV60B) found in the same tomb, in the coffin identified as for the "nanny" (wet-nurse) of Hatshepsut, Sitre, also yielded usable nuclear DNA.

But nuclear DNA which the team extracted from the mummy identified as Thutmose I was not usable. It could not be amplified adequately to test it against the DNA from the two female mummies.

According to the sources, mitochondrial DNA has been extracted from both the female mummies (KV60A and KV60B), and from a mummy previously identified as likely to be Hatshepsut's maternal grandmother, Ahmose Nefertari. Work on comparing their mitochondrial DNA to confirm or disprove a relationship has not been completed. Because there is more mitochondrial DNA than nuclear DNA in cells, more is likely to have survived. But mitochondrial DNA can only be used to show female ancestry, as it is inherited solely through a person's mother.

DNA breaks down in the human body after death. Modern techniques have learned to take fragments of the DNA molecule and amplify it, producing enough DNA to test for unique characteristics and patterns which may indicate familial relationships.

Going forward, the team hopes to use the new lab and techniques to clarify other family relationships among the pharaohs and other royalty of ancient Egypt.

This investigation provides another set of theories about how Hatshepsut died.

Sources Consulted Include:

  • Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen. First aired: 7/15/07. Discovery Channel. Brando Quilico, executive producer.
  • "Applied Biosystems Helps Build Egypt's First Laboratory for Ancient DNA Analysis." Press Release, Applied Biosystems, n.d. (June 2007).
  • "Frequently Asked Questions." Press Release, Discovery Channel, n.d. (June 2007).
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen (Hatshepsut)." ThoughtCo, Dec. 22, 2016, thoughtco.com/secrets-of-egypts-lost-queen-hatshepsut-3529294. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2016, December 22). Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen (Hatshepsut). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/secrets-of-egypts-lost-queen-hatshepsut-3529294 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen (Hatshepsut)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/secrets-of-egypts-lost-queen-hatshepsut-3529294 (accessed November 17, 2017).