Nefertiti. Cleopatra. The names of two of history’s most famous women are well-known even to those unfamiliar with ancient Egypt. They are striking figures not only for their political accomplishments, but also for their status as powerful women in a male-dominated world. According to award-winning Egyptologist Joann Fletcher, however, women in ancient Egypt “enjoyed levels of freedom totally unknown in the ancient world”- including the freedom to rule as pharaoh. Fletcher and colleague Stephen Buckley, an archaeological chemist, elaborated on the role of women rulers in ancient Egypt in their March 29 Winslow Lecture “Egypt’s Female Pharaohs.” The lecture was sponsored by the Classics Department.
Fletcher revealed that ancient Egyptian women could not only rule the nation-state, but were also allowed to own property, designate heirs in a will, and were even paid the same wages as their male counterparts. Equitable gender roles were at the very base of Egyptian society, according to Fletcher: ancient Egyptian religion stressed the role of the creator goddess Ma’at, whom pharaohs invoked as a descendant to establish a connection with the gods. The warrior goddess Skehmet was depicted with the head of a lioness, and there are ancient visual depictions of Egyptian women going into battle.
“Women did operate in a way that was unparalleled—even today,” Fletcher said. “Certainly female rulers were quite accepted in a world that was both male and female.”
Fletcher recognizes 12 female pharaohs, a higher number than most Egyptologists, including not only Cleopatra (both the one immortalized in Shakespeare’s play and her identically named predecessors) and Nefertiti, but also several lesser-known women pharaohs who paved the way for their more famous successors. In particular, Fletcher was quick to point out Khentkawas, who had a pyramid built for herself at Giza, and Hatshepsut, a successful pharaoh who once claimed that “‘no one rebels against me in any land.’”
Fletcher’s most fascinating and controversial research, however, is on the subject of Queen Nefertiti. Nefertiti, wife of the pharaoh Ahkenaten, was long thought to have mysteriously disappeared midway through her husband’s rule, never to be seen again. Fletcher, however, believes that Nefertiti actually acted as co-regent with her husband and continued to rule after his death. The masculinization of Nefertiti’s image after her appointment as co-ruler explains her apparent “disappearance.”
“Early Egyptologists,” Fletcher said, “assumed (Ahkenaten’s co-ruler) had to be a man!”
In 2003, Fletcher and Buckley re-evaluated three mummies in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings (the necropolis for many of Egypt’s pharaohs) and concluded that one of the mummies was, in fact, the long-sought body of Nefertiti. As Fletcher and Buckley’s research developed, they discovered another intriguing feature of the body: it appeared to have been embalmed in a much different fashion than many other mummies.
Although most scholars believed that the bodies of pharaohs were covered in natron salt to dry the body out, Buckley believes that the bodies were actually submerged in a solution of natron salt and water, which allowed the salt to soak into the very tissues of the body, preserving it in a way that dry salt could not.
Buckley conceded that it is “counterintuitive” to preserve a body in a water-based solution, but backed up his theory with over 200 separate experiments on dead pigs, which are a good analogue for human bodies. After the pig experiments yielded positive results, the next step was to test his mummification technique on a human body.
Alan Billis, a terminally ill taxi driver, donated his body to Buckley’s team to mummify. They submerged Billis’ body in a natron solution for approximately 30 days in order to gauge the effectiveness of the mummification technique. What they found was spectacular: a “fantastic degree” of presentation, according to Buckley. Buckley’s experiment was turned into a television documentary entitled Mummifying Alan: Egypt’s Last Secret, which aired on the British network Channel 4 on October 24, 2011. The documentary netted Buckley and Fletcher an award from the Royal Television Society, roughly equivalent to an American Emmy.
During the course of the mummification process, both Fletcher and Buckley were struck by the strong symbolic power of the rediscovered mummification technique. By submerging the body in a saline solution like that of the womb, ancient embalmers were, in effect, signaling a rebirth of the corpse for its new existence in the afterlife. According to Buckley, the “female aspect to mummification…very much replicated key elements of Egypt’s symbolic landscape,” further underlining the inherent equality of the sexes in ancient Egypt.
“It’s a fitting tribute to the power of the female in the ancient culture,” Buckley said.
“Despite ignorance, censorship, and untruth, women did rule independently (in ancient Egypt),” Fletcher concluded. “To acknowledge this fact is the least we can do.”