In 1904, a group of archaeologists entered one of the largest tombs, and the most richly decorated, in Egypt’s Valley of the Queens at Thebes. In this small wadi, a dried riverbed in the western Theban desert, Egyptians of the New Kingdom (c.1539-1075 BC) buried members of the royal family and high-ranking officials and courtiers. Nearly 100 tombs were cut into the rock of the main wadi, most with a series of rooms leading to a burial chamber, where an eminent figure was interred in a stone coffin.
It was in this wadi, known to the ancient Egyptians as Ta-Set- Neferu (‘The Place of Beauty’), that a team from the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy, was given license to excavate by the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Their mission was to explore the valley systematically and publish their findings, but also to acquire artefacts for the museum, to fill in chronological gaps in its collection, while obtaining important contextual data that would be lacking for objects that had been acquired on the antiquities market in Egypt, fairly common practice for museums of the time. And so the director of the museum, Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli, started digging in the valley with his team over three seasons between 1903 and 1905. They investigated several tombs, including those of Princess Ahmose, four children of Ramesses III, and Imhotep, the vizier under Thutmose I, but perhaps their most significant discovery was in the 1904 expedition, when, led to the right place by a local guide, they excavated the great tomb of one of Egypt’s great queens: Nefertari.
As Schiaparelli wrote in his report on the work of the Italian Archaeological Mission:
On the lintel, on either side of the rising sun that was shown flanked by two sacred eyes and adored by the two sisters Isis and Nephthys, we read the name of the famous spouse of Ramesses II. The name of the Queen was also provided by the inscriptions that were engraved and painted on the jambs of the door.
‘The noble of lineage, the greatest of favours, the lady of goodness, of gentleness and love, the sovereign of the South and the North, the deceased spouse, justified, lady (of the Two Lands) Nefertari Merenmut, true of voice before the Great God…’
From two galleries, going down a few steps carved between two pillars, one could reach the lower part of the room, which was also the deepest part of the tomb [...] Various large fragments of the sarcophagus lid, of beautiful pink granite, were still lying there in the middle of the room…
Finds from the tomb (QV66) were taken to the Museo Egizio, and some of the material from these excavations, and other artefacts from the museum, is now on view at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas as part of a touring exhibition, Queen Nefertari’s Egypt, introducing both the queen and life in the New Kingdom Egypt.
Nefertari Meritmut (or Merenmut) – meaning ‘beautiful companion’ (never, or ‘beautiful’, appears in many queen’s names, including that of Nefertiti) and ‘beloved of Mut’ – was the first of the Great Royal Wives of Ramesses II (r. 1279-1213 BC), the third pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty. Little is known about her background, but she was so well-regarded by the pharaoh that she was celebrated – along with the goddess Hathor – in a temple next to his own in Abu Simbel, and when she died around 1255 BC she was honoured with a sumptuous tomb (and, with a burial chamber around 85m² in area, a spacious one), providing her with everything a noble queen could need in the afterlife.
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