A Forgotten Female Pharaoh Comes to Life

By:
Margaret Regan

If Richard Wilkinson has his way, one day the Egyptian Queen Tausert will be as well-known as Nefertiti.

For the last six years, Wilkinson and the other archaeologists in his University of Arizona Egyptian expedition have been excavating Tausert’s mortuary temple in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.

Unlike Nefertiti, who was the queen consort of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, Tausert was herself a pharaoh. It was extremely rare for a woman to rule in Ancient Egypt — only a handful reigned during the 4,000 years the civilization lasted — but Tausert was king in the 19th dynasty, around 1200 B.C. Knowledge of her largely disappeared after her death, and her story has long been buried in the Egyptian sands.

“We’re bringing the queen back,” Wilkinson says animatedly in his office in the UA Department of Classics. “It’s important we bring her back from oblivion. We’re bringing her back into history.”

Named a Regents’ professor in 2008, the renowned Egyptologist has been at the UA for 21 years, first in the former humanities program, then in classics, and now in the new School of Anthropology. He also has an affiliation with the Department of Near Eastern Studies.

Wilkinson is known as a charismatic teacher — his classics colleague and fellow Regents’ Professor David Soren calls him a Pied Piper — and ever since he arrived at the UA in 1989, he’s led his students on his excavations in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. For more than two decades, he’s spent winter breaks and scorching summers digging in the valley, across the Nile River from Luxor, known as Thebes in ancient days.

“Most of my work career has been in the Valley of the Kings,” he says. Now a World-Heritage site, for about 500 years, from the 16th to the 11th centuries B.C., the arid valley was the final resting place of nobles and pharaohs, including the boy king Tutankhamun.

Wilkinson has written no fewer than eight books on his findings — including the best-selling Complete Valley of the Kings: Tombs and Treasures of Egypt’s Greatest Pharaohs. They’ve been translated into so many languages — 19 — that even the multilingual Wilkinson can’t decipher them all. In his office, he points to bookshelves stuffed with volumes in Danish and in Japanese.

“It’s odd that I can’t even read some of them,” he laughs.

But fans around the world can and do read them. Wilkinson is a leading light in Egyptology, a distinguished scholar who regularly pens journal articles, wins grants, and delivers lectures around the world — last winter break he presented his most recent findings on Tausert at an international conference in Luxor. But he also is a consultant to popular television shows and he’s a hero to the many laypeople entranced by Ancient Egypt.

One time when he gave a lecture in Los Angeles, a fan came up afterward and announced that she was the reincarnation of Nefertiti.

“I would have been excited,” Wilkinson deadpans. “Except that the exact same thing had happened the day before” — with a different woman.

Rebuilding a Queen

You won’t find any Egyptophiles claiming to be the nearly forgotten Tausert — at least not yet. That could change. For six years, Wilkinson has slowly been accumulating information about the female pharaoh by doing painstaking dirt archaeology in the ruins of her mortuary temple.

In Ancient Egypt, members of the royal families built elaborate tombs — the bestknown being the pyramids — but they also constructed separate mortuary temples. The tombs housed the mummies and the elaborate goods the departed would need in the afterlife, but the temples had a ceremonial purpose. Priests performed sacrifices there in honor of the departed, sometimes for centuries.

“Once a king died, he became one of the gods,” Wilkinson explains, and the sacrifices in the temple helped keep his memory alive.

The pyramids, near Cairo, in what’s called Lower Egypt, were constructed as burial chambers for kings; their mortuary temples were built alongside them. The set-up was a little different in Thebes, in the Valley of the Kings, in Upper Egypt, many miles south. A thousand years after the pyramids were built of stone, tombs in Thebes were dug into the side of the local pyramid-shaped mountains, Wilkinson says. (The triangular peak al-Qurn dominates the whole valley.) The mortuary temples were built “over the hill, on the other side of the valley. Every king had his tomb in the valley and the temple outside.”

Tausert’s Temple

Wilkinson had been excavating royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings for about 15 years before he turned his attention to Tausert. Historians and archaeologists had little information about her. She was known at the time of Homer, who referred to her in the Odyssey as king of Egypt — and assumed she was a man.

Tausert was at first the wife of a reigning king. When her husband died, his son Siptah — Tausert’s stepson — ruled as king and “she acted as regent, the power behind the throne,” Wilkinson says. “The stepson died and she took over.”

Homer confused the relationship, and in his Odyssey “talks about the King of Egypt and his wife, referring to Tausert as King, and the young boy, Siptah, as the wife.”

In the 19th century, the noted archaeologist William Flinders Petrie concluded that the forgotten queen’s mortuary temple had never been built. Wilkinson now believes that Petrie made only a superficial excavation of the site — or maybe never even inspected it firsthand.

“I’m not sure Petrie was really present,” he says.

Dubious of Petrie’s conclusions, Wilkinson analyzed some satellite images and saw, to his excitement, that “you can see much more in the satellite,” indications of structures beneath the ground that Petrie never found. And six years of excavation have definitively proved Petrie wrong.

Tausert had built herself an elaborate mortuary temple, modeled on the temple of her ancestor Ramses the Great, “one of the greatest kings in Egyptian history.”

“Her temple is an exact copy of the inside of the temple of Ramses,” Wilkinson says. “It’s propaganda: it links her to her great ancestor.” She even wrote her name, in hieroglyphs, in cartouches, in such a way that “it looks like Ramses’ name.”

Besides mapping out the temple’s walls and courtyard, the UA Egyptian expedition workers — including UA students, scholars from other universities, and a team of some 70 local workers — have dug up thousands of objects inside the architectural ruins, and have discovered important texts there.

The team also has found “intrusive burials. Elites of later ages came to bury their dead there.”

And they’re beginning to understand how Tausert was virtually erased from history. Her reign was apparently uncontested. Wilkinson has found “no evidence of rebellion against her, and we’re finding that she ruled longer than we thought.”

Her troubles evidently began only after she’d died. The subsequent king tried to destroy all memory of her by taking over her tomb and destroying her temple. “It was a period of dynastic transition,” Wilkinson says.

“We’re finding evidence that the temple was pulled apart. She had the misfortune of being at the end of a dynasty. The next (king) took her tomb for his own use and her temple seems to have been pulled over.

“It’s important” to restore her. “Before, we knew so little about her. She was one of the few queens in 4,000 years. Anything would add to our knowledge.”

Wilkinson worked in Tausert’s tomb one season, and examined it in detail, he says. “It was a beautiful tomb, one Egypt of the most beautiful. A German scholar found her sarcophagus in a nearby tomb, but the queen’s body has never been found.”

Even without an authenticated body, “we’re bringing her back,” he says. “We’re bringing her name to light.”

Wilkinson first tried archaeology as an undergrad, working on an excavation in Jerusalem. “I loved it,” he says, and never turned back.

In turn, he gives his UA students life-changing experiences. Damian Greenwell, an independent archaeologist who has excavated in the U.S. Southwest, Peru, and Cyprus, started digging in the Tausert mortuary temple as a graduate student back in 2004. Wilkinson quickly promoted him to assistant director of archaeology.

“He’s the best project director I have ever worked for,” Greenwell says. “He is extremely patient and goes the extra mile to make sure everyone is comfortable in doing their assigned task. His knowledge of Egyptian art and archaeology is immense.”

Private Support for the Egyptian Expedition

The project’s main donor is a UA alum who at first dreamed of becoming an Egyptologist, but ultimately decided on the law.

A 1974 grad with a degree in anthropology, Stephanie Denkowicz is now an attorney in New York City. She never studied with Wilkinson, but she says her donations “support a true leader in the field who [is] doing the type of work I had wanted to do,” and allow her “to give back to the UA at the same time.”

As a result of the support of Denkowicz and other dedicated donors, Wilkinson expects to wrap up the Tausert dig in another season or two, and he’s already at work on book number nine: an as-yet untitled volume on the female pharaoh. It will be collaboratively written with four other scholars, including the German who found her sarcophagus.

The book will be published next spring, leaving time for Wilkinson to add new data freshly unearthed in the upcoming season.

Oxford University Press accepted the book sight unseen. “Oxford is excited,” he says. After all, once the book is out, “the world will know a lot more about a forgotten pharaoh-queen.”

Editor’s note: Margaret Regan’s daughter is a member of the UA Egyptian expedition.