Actor Sam Waterston narrates the story of the famous Egyptian queen Hatshepsut.
Nimet Habachy: Hatshepsut was not the first, or the last, or even the most famous female ruler of ancient Egypt, but she was without doubt the most important. She lived in the early fifteenth century B.C., a thousand years after the pyramids were built, and she oversaw an era of relative peace and economic prosperity that was reflected in the remarkable sculpture and decorative arts of her time. One of the most enduring architectural marvels in the world, Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, has fascinated tourists for centuries.
But how had a woman come to rule Egypt? Hatshepsut lived at the beginning of the New Kingdom in the early Eighteenth Dynasty. She was the eldest daughter of Thutmose I, a powerful ruler who had helped secure Egypt's borders, leading an expedition all the way to the Euphrates River in western Asia. She became the principal queen of her younger half-brother, Thutmose II. When her husband died after a very brief reign, Hatshepsut, who had no sons of her own, became regent for her stepson and nephew, Thutmose III, who was a young child. Sometime in the first seven years of Thutmose's reign, Hatshepsut took the titles of king for reasons that are still unclear. By doing this, she was not deposing her nephew, but was acting as the senior of two kings, a role she played for the next fifteen years.
About twenty years after Hatshepsut's death, her name was erased from inscriptions and her statues were smashed. This destruction was ordered by her nephew, Thutmose III, for reasons that can only be guessed at. Hatshepsut's name was omitted from the Egyptian king lists, and only a vague memory of a great female ruler persisted in ancient historical sources. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that her identity was rediscovered and, bit by bit, her story was pieced together.
In the early twentieth century, more than 3,500 years after Hatshepsut's death, an American Egyptologist from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Herbert Winlock, made a stupendous discovery that changed our perception of Hatshepsut's legacy forever. Winlock's team of archaeologists had been working in the area of Deir el-Bahri for several excavation seasons. This site contains two great temples—one built in the Eleventh Dynasty by King Mentuhotep II, and one built about 500 years later in the Eighteenth Dynasty by Hatshepsut. Winlock was concentrating on the Eleventh Dynasty temple and cemeteries when he began the 1922–1923 excavation season, but he was soon sidetracked by what appeared at first to be an annoying distraction.
Here to read from the writings of Herbert Winlock is actor Sam Waterston.
Sam Waterston: "That branch of the Museum's Egyptian Expedition which excavates in the Theban Necropolis has finished its fourth-consecutive season on the cemeteries of the Eleventh Dynasty. This year we planned to put all of our efforts into carrying on in the same way, and everything was in our favor so far as we could see, when we fell into a hole dug by Hatshepsut and were engulfed for half of the season. Sometimes we almost thought of it as a pitfall maliciously set for us, and we were impatient at being trapped and unable to get away to our Eleventh Dynasty goal. Looked at with less ill feeling after the excitement of the dig is over, it appears as one of the most interesting things we have ever found."
Nimet Habachy: As often happens in archaeology, Winlock's discovery was made completely by accident. In order to proceed with the excavations at the Eleventh Dynasty temple of Mentuhotep, he had to find a place to dump his debris. A perfect location seemed to be the gap between the two raised avenues that led to the temples.
Sam Waterston: "This hollow between the avenues was exactly right, for, hidden as it was between the two high banks, it had every appearance of always having been just what we wanted to use it for again—a dumping place. We merely had to take the precaution of assuring ourselves that there was nothing of importance in it. It was, in short, one of those routine jobs which take time and promise nothing of interest.
"As the men cleared along, we began to find broken ex-votos from the Hathor Chapels up at Deir el-Bahri. Among them there were innumerable scarabs, mostly of Thutmose III, but also bearing nearly all of the other royal names of the Eighteenth Dynasty. At first they seemed to lie against the sides of the Mentuhotep bank, but eventually pockets of dirt containing them were found deeper and deeper in the bank itself, until finally the foundation stones of the Eleventh Dynasty wall actually hung suspended in air straight above the men sifting Eighteenth Dynasty scarabs and beads out below.
"Now, if there is one self-evident axiom in digging, it is that things on top are later than things underneath. Yet here was an Eleventh Dynasty wall, meters above scarabs of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Everything had gone topsy-turvy. Were we to believe that the Eleventh Dynasty followed the Eighteenth?
"The next day, the explanation of the hole became more or less evident. Hatshepsut's engineers had first been faced with the task of making a roadway to the site of her temple before they could haul up the massive granite and the heavy sandstone they were to build with. To grade this road, the little valley in front of the temple site had to be filled. The 500-year-old Mentuhotep embankment was temptingly near and easy to dig. The hole, then, dates from Hatshepsut's reign."
Nimet Habachy: As the excavation season progressed, more and more objects connected with Hatshepsut were found in what became known as the "Hatshepsut Hole," and a new picture of what the temple must have been like in her lifetime began to take shape.
Sam Waterston: "The tourist and the student are both familiar with the way the masons hacked every mention of Hatshepsut off the walls of Deir el-Bahri, but walking about the deserted colonnades of the temple, one is likely to forget that when it was originally built it must have been a veritable forest of her statues. What had become of them we discovered when we came to clear out the hole in the Mentuhotep causeway. Thutmose's masons had done away with them most efficiently by breaking them up and burying them in the hole her own engineers had dug.
"Every day we found scraps of magnificent limestone statues. Some were fragments of colossal Osiride figures of the Queen and others were from a set of her statues about twice lifesize, of delightful workmanship and brilliant coloring. Today they are only maddening relics of Thutmose's spite, for limestone had been easily smashed into little bits. With hard stone it was somewhat more difficult for the iconoclasts. There had been a row of red granite figures of the Queen, probably between the columns of one of the colonnades, for there were certainly at least ten of them. All were alike, showing Hatshepsut kneeling and offering to some god a large, globular vase with a spout on the front shaped like an ankh amulet. Each had been carved with an oblong base. The destruction gang first threw them all on their sides and then hammered them on their hips with a big maul until they snapped asunder at their weakest points, usually the waist and neck, and always along the top of their bases. We never discovered what became of the latter. Probably, being fairly regularly shaped oblong blocks, they made excellent corn grinders and were taken off to the city. The other bits were just a convenient size for one man to lift and were carried off to the great hole and dumped into it."
Nimet Habachy: Over the next few years, the Metropolitan's excavation team uncovered tens of thousands of stone fragments and began the tedious and often daunting task of reconstructing Hatshepsut's statues.
Sam Waterston: "The task of piecing together the fragments already found is going to be long and sometimes very discouraging. Imagine nearly a hundred jigsaw puzzles—every one of them lacking some parts—all mixed up together. Picture some of the pieces no bigger than the tip of your finger and others so heavy that it takes a large derrick to move them. Then consider that the edges of these pieces are often so delicate that they crumble away unless they are handled with the most delicate care—even when they weigh a ton or more. That will give some idea of the work that has been going on at our camp at Thebes for the last two seasons, and will have to go on for several seasons more before we can be satisfied that we have made the most out of our find."
Nimet Habachy: By 1930, the recovery of fragments and the reassembling of the statues were largely complete. In the division of finds with the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, the most complete examples were given to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. A number of nearly complete and fragmentary statues were given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Winlock's sleuthing work extended to Europe, where he was able to reunite fragments of Hatshepsut sculptures he had found at Deir el-Bahri with pieces that had already made their way to collections in Berlin and Leiden. Winlock's work on Hatshepsut's statues was one of his greatest contributions to the study of Egyptology and to our knowledge of one of the greatest female rulers in history.
This is Nimet Habachy of 96.3-FM WQXR, the classical radio sponsor of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Thank you for joining me today. This has been an Antenna Audio production.