African Queen: an intact royal burial from Egypt reveals new insights into cultural connections
The identity of the ancient Egyptian 'Qurna Queen' remains a mystery over 100 years after the excavation of her intact burial. However, new research on her burial assemblage is revealing historic biases in interpretation and shedding light on Egypt's place within African culture, as Margaret Maitland explains.
A landmark year in Egyptology, 2022 marks 200 years since the decipherment of hieroglyphs, which unlocked access to ancient Egyptian written sources, and 100 years since the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, whose splendour sparked global Egyptomania. People were captivated by the golden 'treasure' of Tutankhamun's tomb, but much of its significance and enduring fascination comes from the fact that the burial was almost intact and much of it had remained undisturbed since antiquity. Relatively few time capsules like these survived the early era of European collecting in Egypt. Now, new research on another intact royal burial group from Egypt, dating to about 275 years before the burial of Tutankhamun, is demonstrating the importance of reassessing historic museum collections. The burial group of the 'Qurna Queen' (c.1600 BC), now at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, dates to a less well understood period of Egyptian history, a time of political turmoil. Recent analyses of the objects are offering new perspectives on Egypt's relationship with its southern neighbour, Nubia, in what is now northern Sudan and the southernmost area of Egypt. This dimension helps us to move on from an understanding of Egypt's ancient past that has been coloured by colonial-era biases, in particular the misrepresentation of Egypt's African context.
In 1908, an intact burial of a woman and a child was discovered by a team of Egyptian excavators and the British archaeologist W M Flinders Petrie on the west bank of Thebes (modern Luxor). They were digging in an area that had not been excavated before, to the north of the road that leads to the Valley of the Kings, which Petrie referred to as 'Qurna'. Although the burial was simple, in a mere shallow trench, the woman and child were accompanied by over 100 objects, including gold and electrum jewellery, a carrying pole used to suspend ceramic vessels in rare examples of well-preserved net bags, wooden furniture, baskets, cosmetic vessels, food, and various other items. The excavation and recording of the burial were conducted with more care and attention than was usual at the time, probably because of the fragility of some of the objects, but ultimately it was cleared in just 'around five hours'. At the time of its discovery, it was described as 'the richest and most detailed undisturbed burial that has been completely recorded and published.'
During that time, Egypt was under British military control, and finds from archaeological excavations were typically divided between the Egyptian Antiquities Service and the foreign excavation teams. The Head of the Antiquities Service did not want the burial group to be split up, so he agreed that it could go to the UK provided that it was kept together. While the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum insisted that all objects be displayed typologically, the Royal Scottish Museum (now National Museums Scotland) agreed to display the burial group together as an assemblage, so the 'Qurna Queen' came to Edinburgh.
Who was buried in the grave?
The location of the grave, near other royal burials, and the variety of objects that had been placed in it, including elaborate gold jewellery, suggest that the woman and child were members of the royal family. The coffin contained the remains of a woman, around 5ft tall, aged about 18-25. With her was the white-painted rectangular coffin of a 2- to 3-year-old child. They had been mummified but not successfully, so their remains were skeletal, but still wrapped in large quantities of linen.
The Qurna coffin is a beautiful example of a style known as a rishi coffin, which was common in this period (c.1700-1550 BC). Rishi is Arabic for feather, in reference to the large, feathered wings that wrap around the lids of such coffins, possibly evoking the ba, an aspect of a person's spirit that could take the form of a human-headed bird. The coffin shows the owner wearing the royal nemes headcloth; a large collar; and a gilded pectoral in the form of a vulture with outstretched wings.
The coffin was made from two whole sycamore-fig and tamarisk tree trunks, skilfully carved to fit together. The lid is gilded with gold leaf and painted with Egyptian blue and orpiment yellow. The child's coffin is much plainer, but includes planks and dowels made of east African ebony and cedar from Lebanon.
The woman's coffin has a hieroglyphic inscription in a vertical column down the centre. A name should appear at the end of this, but it was damaged and has been lost, probably because of the placement of the child's coffin on top. The length of the gap in the inscription indicates that it contained a substantial title before the woman's name. One hieroglyph provides a tantalising hint that it may have read 'united with the white crown', a title used for royal women at the time. As such, the woman has become known as the 'Qurna Queen'.
While the woman cannot be identified with any certainty, it is possible to narrow down who she might have been. Known royal women of this period who held the title 'united with the white crown' include Haankhes, Nubemhat, and Sobekemsaf, though there may be others who are yet unknown. They were all part of the Theban royal family and lived around the same time, with probably only a maximum of 30 years separating them.
The jewellery and other objects
The 'Qurna Queen' would have been at the cutting edge of fashion in her time. She was buried wearing a magnificent gold necklace, two penannular gold earrings, four gold bangles, an electrum girdle, an electrum button, and a glazed steatite scarab. She wore very early examples of earrings, which only became common after her lifetime, via influence from Western Asia and/or Nubia. The style of bead (known as 'wallet beads') used on her electrum girdle are probably the earliest surviving examples. Scientific analysis of the jewellery was conducted using optical microscopy, X-radiography, scanning electron microscopy, X-ray fluorescence, and ion beam analysis. The earrings were found to be made of an extremely high-purity gold alloy (95.4% gold). The necklace is formed of 1699 individual gold ring-beads strung in four strands and secured with a clasp ingeniously designed to blend in completely with the ring-beads.
The necklace and earrings must have been almost entirely new or very little used when they went into the burial, while the bangles show marks indicating they were probably worn in life. The girdle displays so much wear that it may have been handed down as an heirloom.
The child wore a necklace of gold and electrum ring-beads, two gold earrings, three ivory bangles, a faience bead girdle, and faience bead anklets. The presence of the girdle suggests that the child was considered female. The 'earrings' were probably re-purposed necklace clasps, serving as stand-ins. Even though we cannot be sure about the child's identity, since their set of jewellery was intentionally assembled for the joint burial from reused and recycled elements, this suggests that it was intended to link the identities and status of the woman and child.
Alongside items of exceptional wealth, the woman and child were buried with more everyday objects like baskets, bread, fruit, and even a ball of string. Numerous carved stone vessels held cosmetics, some of which are still sealed with their contents intact. A beautiful stone bowl is decorated with figures of baboons. A container made from a cow's horn is fitted with an ivory carving of a bird's head topped with a spoon and a small hole to allow the contents to flow into it. Like other examples that have been found, it apparently held some form of oil. Representations of horn containers show them being held by kneeling women, several of whom are also carrying a child. This suggests that the horn and its oil contents might have been associated with the care of pregnant women, mothers, and children.
Why is the 'Qurna Burial' important?
The contents of the burial – over 100 objects – have fascinated researchers ever since their discovery. Because of its nature as an assemblage, many objects found in the burial have been useful in dating and interpreting similar objects in other museum collections. In particular, the burial is an important source of information about a less well understood period of history, when Egypt was politically divided between competing rulers in various parts of the country, including occupiers in the north from western Asia, known as the Hyksos. Fewer objects and texts survive from this period of political instability, which is called the Second Intermediate Period (c.1750-1550 BC) by Egyptologists. Thebes, where the burial was found, was the seat of power for kings who ruled the southernmost part of Egypt at this time. The burial group is an important source of evidence for our understanding of the Theban royal court, showing that it was not so completely isolated or at conflict with its neighbours. They still had skilled craftspeople, resources, and trade connections beyond Egypt, but they also reused and recycled, especially things that were harder for them to access at this time. The burial also tells us much about the cultural connections between Egypt and the powerful Kingdom of Kerma in Nubia to the south. A new publication on the burial aims to provide the first comprehensive reassessment since the original excavation and publication over a century ago, synthesising previous studies of the various objects in the burial alongside new research and scientific analyses.
Cultural connections between Egypt and Nubia
The burial of the 'Qurna Queen' contained six exquisite tulip-shaped beakers, thin-walled and highly burnished, which were made in the Kingdom of Kerma in Nubia, Egypt's nearest neighbour to the south. The presence of Nubian pottery in the grave of the 'Qurna Queen' has been used to argue that the woman was a Nubian princess who married into the Theban royal family. However, it is problematic to assume that these objects must be ethnic markers. When Mycenaean and Cypriot vessels have been found in Egyptian-style graves, they have usually been interpreted as luxury imports, but Nubian pottery in Egyptian burials has generally been viewed as an indicator of Egyptianised Nubian identity. This reveals a reluctance to recognise the desirability of Nubian material culture rooted in Egyptological bias against the rest of Africa.
The colonial attitudes of European and American Egyptologists in the 19th and early 20th centuries meant that they generally assumed that ancient Egypt must be culturally linked to Europe and more 'civilised' than the rest of Africa. The first excavator of the site of Kerma in Sudan, archaeologist George Reisner, originally assumed that it was an Egyptian colonial settlement, which has since been proven to be incorrect. Later excavations at the site of Kerma led by Charles Bonnet revealed extensive, elaborate indigenous Nubian structures and demonstrated the scale and wealth of their capital city. Scholars such as Elizabeth Minor have reinterpreted the presence of imported Egyptian objects at the site as expressions of status by the Kerman elite.
At the time of the Qurna Burial, Egypt itself was politically divided, whereas the Kingdom of Kerma was a powerful enough political entity that the Hyksos occupying the north of Egypt sought their alliance. Since we now know that Kerma was a powerful and influential kingdom, it makes perfect sense that their material culture would have been considered desirable in Egypt, especially the delicate and beautifully formed Kerma beakers. They were used as drinking cups and have been found in other burials in Egypt, but none boast as many as the burial at Qurna, clearly indicating that it was fit for a queen.
The Qurna Burial also contained an Egyptian-made carinated bowl with a painted black rim. This style of vessel seems to have first emerged in southern Egypt before moving northwards. It may have been made in imitation of similar Nubian vessels, further indicating an Egyptian interest in Kerma culture during this period.
Other items from the burial have been assumed to be either specifically Egyptian or Nubian, but are actually not so easily categorised. Ten net bags made from linen string were used to transport various pottery vessels to the burial, suspended from a wooden carrying pole. The survival of this cordage to such a high level of preservation is remarkable, as few examples of net bags are known from ancient Egypt. Despite the limited number of surviving examples, images from tombs suggest that net bags were fairly common and they show netting strung in a diamond-pattern similar to many of the Qurna examples.
There are five different styles of netting attested from the burial. The majority of the net bags from the Qurna Burial are made in a style of half knots grouped in a diamond-pattern. Examples of this style have been found in a number of places in Egypt, including one from the 18th-Dynasty tomb of Hatnefer at Thebes, which also has similarly plaited handles.
But the largest number of surviving net bags come from Kerma in Nubia, including some of the most intricate types known. Two types of netting from the Qurna Burial are otherwise only attested at Kerma, including the most elaborate example. The Qurna example fits the vessel perfectly, so tightly that it appears to have been made around the vessel itself – which is Egyptian – rather than added afterwards. Arguably, the similarities between net bags from Egypt and Nubia, especially in terms of the method of knotting in half-knots, outweigh their differences. The comparison of known examples indicates that the use of net bags was a shared tradition along the Nile Valley.
Three stools were found in the burial, a further indicator of wealth, as wood was scarce in Egypt, and furniture was relatively rare. The two smaller stools are made from costly cedarwood imported from Lebanon. The largest stool has elegantly carved legs imitating cattle hooves. This was a style that had been used in Egypt several centuries earlier, before falling out of fashion, replaced by leonine feet. However, bovine-feet were used on Nubian funerary beds at this time, so this may indicate further influence from Nubia.
The headrest from the 'Qurna Queen' burial is a particularly graceful example made of local acacia wood with delicate inlaid decoration in imported ebony and ivory. Its octagonally-faceted pillar was common in Egypt, though at the time it would have been a relatively new style. It has always been assumed to be entirely Egyptian in style, but the triangular pattern used to decorate the pillar – alternating ebony and ivory triangles, so that each inlay forms one half of a square – is not common in Egyptian design.
While triangular ivory inlays and motifs on pottery are attested in Egyptian prehistory, they later disappeared. However, triangular motifs were common on Nubian pottery from fairly early on, right up to the time of the Qurna Burial. And at the Nubian capital city of Kerma, triangular inlays of ivory, bone, and shell seem to have been a relatively widely used form of decoration on wooden furniture and other items. So, the triangular motif may perhaps derive from a common Egyptian and Nubian artistic tradition that diverged over time and remerged during this period of increased interaction and influence. The burial of another queen of this era, Queen Ahhotep at Thebes (c.1550 BC), also features this triangular motif on the decoration of the handle of a ceremonial dagger, as well as several gold bracelets.
The 'Qurna Queen' may have been a royal woman of Egyptian or mixed Egyptian-Nubian heritage who appreciated and valued Nubian culture. Or she could have been a powerful Nubian woman whom the Egyptian king married to ally Egypt to the formidable Kingdom of Kerma. The results of carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analyses of her skeleton suggests that she consumed a mixed diet, including plants common to both a Nubian diet (such as sorghum and millet) and an Egyptian diet (for example, wheat and barley). However, reassessment of the objects from the burial of the 'Qurna Queen', alongside items found in both Egypt and Nubia, demonstrates that it is impossible to categorise neatly the material culture of this period. The two cultures were entwined like the threads of a woven net bag. This and other evidence proves that cultural influence was not just a one-way flow from Egypt to Nubia, as was originally believed, but rather part of a much broader and richer cultural conversation over time.
In the past, the objects from the 'Qurna Queen' burial were displayed in the museum in Edinburgh as purely 'Egyptian', exemplifying what was to be admired about Egypt as a 'civilisation', without acknowledging how much came from or was influenced by Nubia. Our understanding of museum collections, and the past more broadly, isn't static though – it's a process, and we need to keep continually learning and reassessing past interpretations in light of new information and new perspectives. Egyptology has all too often approached Nubia as 'the other', but re-examination of the Qurna Burial suggests that there was a greater level of mutual influence between Egypt and Nubia than previously acknowledged – especially during the Second Intermediate Period – as well as a deeper shared cultural heritage across the Nile Valley.
ALL IMAGES: © National Museums Scotland unless otherwise noted
Further reading C Bonnet and D Valbelle (2006) The Nubian Pharaohs: Black Kings on the Nile (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press). K A Eremin, E Goring, W P Manley and C Cartwright (2000) 'A 17th Dynasty Egyptian Queen in Edinburgh?', KMT, 11/3: 32-40. M Maitland, D M Potter and L Troalen (2022) 'The burial of the "Qurna Queen"' in G Miniaci and P Lacovara (eds), The Treasure of the Egyptian Queen Ahhotep and International Relations at the Turn of the Middle Bronze Age (1600-1500 BCE) (London: Golden House Publications), pp.205-233. E Minor (2018) 'Decolonizing Reisner: A Case Study of a Classic Kerma Female Burial for Reinterpreting Early Nubian Archaeological Collections through Digital Archival Resources' in M Honegger (ed), Nubian Archaeology in the XXIst Century. Proceedings of the Thirteenth International Conference for Nubian Studies, Neuchâtel, 1st-6th September 2014 (Leuven: Peeters Publishers) pp.251-62. W M F Petrie (1909) Qurneh (London: Bernard Quaritch).
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