This Egyptian queen's tomb lay untouched for more than 4,000 years

Shortly after the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb, another intact royal burial was found—this time in the shadow of the Great Pyramid at Giza. The golden treasures inside belonged to Hetepheres, a queen of Egypt's Old Kingdom.

Published 31 Mar 2022, 17:43 BST
Khufu
Khufu's Great Pyramid looms over three smaller pyramids. The tomb of Hetepheres (G7000X) was discovered near G1a, the small, partially collapsed pyramid.
Photograph by Alamy, ACI

Howard Carter's sensational 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s treasure-filled tomb sparked a fascination with all things ancient Egyptian. 

Hopes were high that more exciting discoveries were coming, not least amongst the archaeologists working in sites across Egypt. A spirit of intense rivalry marked relations among this group of largely Western scholars, who all jockeyed for the most promising sites while jealously monitoring their competitors’ progress.

From the early 1900s, the Giza plateau, site of Egypt’s three iconic pyramids, was being systematically excavated by an international group of scholars. A part of this vast terrain fell to the American archaeologist George Reisner. On February 2, 1925, Reisner’s photographer, Mohammedani Ibrahim, was working near the Great Pyramid, erected by Pharaoh Khufu in the mid-third millennium B.C. Ibrahim looked down and noticed his tripod was resting on a white layer of plaster, possibly the top of a structure hidden below.

An archaeologist's 1926 sketch shows the grave goods in Hetepheres's tomb.
Photograph by Alamy, ACI

The boss had to be informed, but there was one problem: Reisner was, at that moment, not in Egypt, but in Boston, carrying out his duties as professor of Egyptology at Harvard University. His team started digging in his absence and found an irregularly cut, narrow shaft that went down 85 feet. It was filled with rubble. This sign was a strong indication that they had discovered a tomb—but since Giza had been extensively looted over thousands of years, the chances of an intact burial were very low.

On Saturday, March 7, as Reisner was preparing his Monday-morning lecture, thousands of miles away his team finally excavated the full shaft and were awestruck by what they found. T. R. D. Greenlees recorded the moment in his diary:

At 3:30 p.m. it was observed that the rock surface on the south... fell away at an angle, and immediately afterwards the top of the door to a chamber was revealed.

One limestone block was loosened and removed in order to see in. A large chamber is visible extending up a little to east and west of the door. It is possible to see what appears to be a sarcophagus in the foreground upon which are several staves or maces with gilded tops. A good deal of gilding appears on other objects upon the ground. It is certain that the burial is intact.

For the excavators, it was their moment of triumph, but later that week, Reisner sent a telegraph from Boston ordering that the work halt in Egypt. The tomb would be resealed.

The interior of Hetepheres’s tomb in Giza, near Cairo, was packed with grave goods when it was first seen by George Reisner in January 1926. Water had damaged many of the objects, but several items were later painstakingly reconstructed.
Photograph by Mustapha Abu el-Hamd/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Reisner described the burial chamber and its contents as follows: “Partly on the sarcophagus and partly fallen behind it lay about twenty gold-cased poles and beams of a large canopy. On the western edge of the sarcophagus were spread several sheets of gold inlaid with faience, and on the floor there was a confused mass of gold-cased furniture.”
Photograph by Alamy, ACI

Ancient and modern

Born in 1867 in Indianapolis, George Reisner commanded huge respect in Egyptology circles, having carried out a major archaeological survey of the Nubia region (today in southern Egypt and Sudan). In 1902 French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero divided out the Giza plateau among the best excavators of the time, in a bid to prevent looting and deterioration. The central section of the huge site was awarded to Reisner.

Reisner was working in the new era of 20th-century technology: He could use the telegraph to send transatlantic communiques with his team. But he was modern in another way too: Carter’s stunning find of Tutankhamun’s tomb had made Reisner realise the power of public relations. His decision to reseal the intact tomb (officially labeled G7000X) was based on several factors, including his belief that he was the only person sufficiently competent to undertake the full excavation.

This gold falcon, which was discovered at the Tomb of Hetepheres, is now at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Photograph by Scala, Florence

By delaying the dig until he could travel to Egypt, Reisner could also control the narrative. Media relations were a key part of that process. Leaks from Reisner’s own team—who let a U.S. news photographer snap them—led to revelations in the London press of a major new find. Speculation swirled that the tomb was that of 4th-dynasty pharaoh Snefru. From Boston, Reisner countered by asserting his belief that it belonged to a royal woman.

Reisner’s duties in the U.S. delayed the reopening of Tomb G7000X until January 1926. On finally entering the chamber containing the sarcophagus, Reisner discovered that the gold-cased furniture inside was damaged by water and in such poor condition that he feared it would crumble. The delicate work to retrieve the fragments of wood and inlay was painstaking. 

In addition to a canopy and bed, an armchair and an elaborate carrying chair were recovered. The tomb’s owner was inscribed on the carrying chair, and it confirmed Reisner’s notion that the tomb belonged to a woman: “Hetepetheres,” who was the mother of Khufu, the second king of the 4th dynasty and builder of the Great Pyramid. Her tomb had lain hidden in the shadow of that monument for over four millennia.

Hetepheres's carrying chair, made of gilded wood with inlaid faience, includes decorations of falcons perched on papyrus columns.
Photograph by Alamy, ACI

Missing body

Hetepheres’s alabaster sarcophagus was opened in March 1927, but it contained no human remains. Historians still debate what might have happened to them. Reisner suggested Hetepheres was originally buried near her husband, Snefru, at Dahshur; Khufu then created the new burial site at Giza, but the remains of his mother were never transferred there. Others propose she was buried in the small pyramid G1a, at the foot of the Great Pyramid.

(This pharaoh's painted tomb was missing its mummy.)

Following the excavation, the armchair was restored and is now displayed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. After Reisner’s death in 1942, renewed interest in the retrieved fragments from Tomb G7000X spurred the mammoth task of reconstructing the elaborate carrying chair, in all its golden splendour. It is housed today at the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

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