Archaeology Professor Finds 3,400-Year-Old Egyptian Treasure

(to appear in the April issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine)

On her recent trip to southern Egypt, Professor Betsy Bryan would sometimes look up to see a hot air balloon, filled with tourists, hovering above the clusters of tall yellow grasses and taller archaeology students.  She spent some evenings watching birds on the nearby lake, perched on reeds waiting eagerly for dinner to surface from below. These occasional lulls undoubtedly gave the seasoned archaeologist a much-needed respite, after long days of digging on the ancient temple grounds.

On January 3rd, Bryan and her 17-member team of Hopkins graduate and undergraduate students began the sixth round of excavations behind this sacred lake, in the ancient Nile city of Luxor. For the better part of three weeks they worked in adjacent trenches, about 15-feet square, digging a bit more every day to slowly uncover the ruins of a temple to the goddess Mut. By January 21st, the trenches were about 12 inches deep, and exposed the tops of some of the temple’s interior walls. The crew had already found a bronze-handled vessel, and decorated blocks of limestone and sandstone. But while sifting through the rubble on the temple’s platform that chilly morning, they unexpectedly unearthed a treasure of far greater value: a 3,400-year-old life-size statue of a beautiful Egyptian queen.  

The crew had actually seen the first part of the facedown figure—an inscription from 1000 BC that ran along its back pillar—the day before, but didn’t realize what it was. After cleaning it more thoroughly, though, they realized they had found something much grander, and older, than the inscription indicated. Before them was a full-size, finely carved statue. Two cobras, representing the goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt, were carved on her headdress, next to a vulture whose feathers surrounded her face. She also bore the telltale signs of Egyptian female royalty: her left hand, resting on her chest, held remnants a fly whisk; and more importantly, she donned a large cylindrical crown inscribed with the name of one of the period’s most powerful pharaohs, Amenhotep III.

Amenhotep III ruled Egypt for almost 40 years in the 14th century BC, a time of unprecedented prosperity and splendor. Because the statue has multiple inscriptions of his name, Bryan theorizes the beauty is none other than Tiy, the chief queen of Amenhotep III and the grandmother of Tutankhamun. “Tiy was so powerful that, as a widow, she was the recipient of foreign diplomatic letters sent to her from the king of Babylonia,” Bryan says. “Some indications, such as her own portraits in art, suggest that Tiy may have ruled briefly after her husband’s death, but this is uncertain.”  

When news of the find spread to the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, Bryan reports a large crowd arrived to see it, and even lifted it up from the rubble in enthusiastic cheers.  After a thorough cleaning, it was wrapped in plastic and carried in a processional ritual through the temple gates to a truck headed for the Luxor Museum. On the team’s daily-updated website (http://www.jhu.edu/neareast/egypttoday.html) Bryan wrote: “We later rode to the museum, and I reluctantly signed the release papers turning over the statue to the museum. We hope that she will stand on display very soon.”