Ancient Dentistry Part 2: A Mummy, A Mystery and Queen Hatshepsut’s Molar

Ancient Egyptian dentistry.

An example of ancient Egyptian dentistry.

In Ancient Dentistry Part 1: Drills, Gemstones and Toothpaste!, we looked at how dentistry was practiced millennia ago in Pakistan, Slovenia, Algeria, France, North America and Egypt. Drilling, implants and tooth bling were some long ago procedures with fascinating modern day correlations.  Ironically, despite having toothpaste and dental procedures, it seemed that the Egyptians suffered a great deal of tooth discomfort, which was apparent from the formulas for pain potions found recorded on papyrus and in the condition of the teeth of many mummies.

Dental anthropology is a part of bioarchaeology, the study of human remains in historical settings.  These dental spelunkers examine teeth as a way to decipher a whole range of defining elements of a people and the times in which they lived.

What is it about teeth that render them such intimate scribes of a person’s time on earth?

The study of dental evidence is a form of storytelling, revealing characters, settings, even plotlines of lives. Identification of individuals, ancestry, race, ethnicity, diets, prevailing diseases, causes of death, environmental surroundings, migratory patterns, cultural habits and behaviors—all can theoretically be determined by a single tooth. To illustrate this point, let’s go back 3,500 years to discover how a single mummy’s tooth solved one of the greatest mysteries of ancient Egypt and, along with the unearthing of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, became one of the most remarkable finds of modern times. It is a story of untimely death, dynastic ambitions, eradicated memory and an historic injustice that rivals today’s bestselling detective novels.

Image credit: Anagoria on WikiCommons.

Image credit: Anagoria on WikiCommons.

The mystery began centuries ago with the whereabouts of the mummy of one of Egypt’s most important queens. Hatshepsut reigned in the 15th century BCE. Dressing in men’s clothing and wearing a beard with chin strap to symbolize her power (not to deny her sex), Egypt’s longest ruling female queen lived during Egypt’s Golden Age and was the first ruler to build a temple in the Valley of the Kings.

Daughter of Thutmose I, Hatshepsut had married her half-brother, Thutmose II.  She bore him a daughter, Neferure, but no sons. When Thutmose II died around 1479 BCE, his infant son Thutmose III, born to Isis, a secondary harem queen, became king. Hatshepsut acted as regent for the young king, but by the time he was seven, she had been crowned king herself. She was thirty years old.[1]

Kneeling Statue of Senenmut, Chief Steward of Queen Hatshepsut, Armant, Egypt, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Hatshepsut, c. 1473-1458 BCE.

Kneeling Statue of Senenmut, Chief Steward of Queen Hatshepsut, Armant, Egypt, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Hatshepsut, c. 1473-1458 BCE.

There is no explanation as to how Hatshepsut succeeded in changing roles and assuming the throne. She surely would have had to get the support of the ruling elite.  It is known that surrounding her were a group of loyalists controlling key positions in her government.  Most prominent among these was Senenmut, overseer of royal works and Neferure’s tutor. While speculation has swirled through the centuries that they were romantically involved, there is no evidence to substantiate this.[2]

Hatshepsut ruled during a period of great peace and prosperity in Egypt, expanding trade and launching massive building projects of grand design.  However, when she passed away, all evidence of her reign was, for some unknown reason, erased.  Written records were destroyed as were monuments to her rule. It was assumed that her stepson Thutmose III had resented her appropriation of the throne and had her killed in order to ascend in his own right. Until the cause of her death was found, the mystery would remain.  Further complicating the situation was the disappearance Hatshepsut’s mummy when her tomb was looted centuries ago.

Zahi HawassEnter Dr. Zahi Hawass, a well-known Egyptologist and archaeologist. In 2005 he was asked to be part of the National Geographic Society’s Egyptian Mummy Project. The Discovery Channel later contacted him about appearing in a documentary on Queen Hatshepsut, hopefully to find her remains.

He began searching in various tombs seeking clues to the location of her mummy. She had originally been buried in the Valley of the Kings in the tomb labeled KV20, which had been cleared in 1903 by Howard Carter, later the discoverer of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. In KV20 Carter found two mummies—one determined to be Hatshepsut’s wet nurse Sitre-In as indicated by an inscription on her coffin, the other an unknown, laying exposed on the floor of the tomb. The only evidence provided by that mummy was that she appeared to have been obese.2

After searching through other tombs, Hawass did what all great detectives do. He went over the evidence again, looking for that one clue that would break the case wide open. Let’s read about that Eureka moment in his own words:

One evening, I was sitting alone in the Egyptian Museum, where the CT machine is kept. I considered possible places where we could search for clues that would shed light on the identity of the mummies that we were studying. I suddenly remembered a small, wooden box that had been discovered in the DB320 mummy cache – this box was inscribed with the cartouches of Hatshepsut, and contained a small bundle that might have been a mummified internal organ. Although I did not know how, I felt certain that the box would help lead us to the mummy of the queen. I immediately asked for it to be brought into the lab and scanned. To our surprise, in addition to what appeared to be the remains of a human internal organ, the bundle in the box contained a molar tooth, to which a single root was still attached. Right away, we carefully examined the CT scans of the four unidentified female mummies to see whether one of them was missing a tooth. To our delight, KV60-A, the obese mummy from the Valley of the Kings, had an empty socket in her jaw – Galal El-Behri, a dentist from Cairo University, was able to determine that the socket was a perfect fit for the tooth in the box! As early as 1966, Egyptologist Elizabeth Thomas had suggested that KV60-A might be the mummy of the great female pharaoh. Now, modern forensic science was finally able to prove that this idea was true![3]

What did this discovery of Queen Hatshepsut’s mummy reveal as to the cause of her death? An abscessed tooth that was pulled. Despite having cancer, osteoporosis, possible diabetes and being obese[4], she died in excruciating pain from an infected tooth at the age of 50. This also answered the question of whether political intrigue could have led to her death. It now seems likely that her successor Thutmose III had not wanted a break in his family’s dynastic reign, so after her death records of her rule were expunged and carvings and other monuments destroyed, giving him a continuing line of succession from before her reign. There was no foul play.

So it was dynastic politics that attempted to toss Hatshepsut—the long-lost queen considered more powerful in her time than Cleopatra or Queen Nefertiti—into the dustbin of history. And it is a single tooth that solved the mystery of her death and resurrected her place among the rulers of Egypt.

Click here to see the Discovery Channel’s documentary on Dr. Hawass’ discovery of Queen Hatshepsut’s mummy.

Click here to read our blog on Eric A. Vassalo’s interview with Dr. Hawass.


[1] Tyldesley, J. (n.d.). Hatshepsut (ruler of Egypt). Retrieved September 4, 2014, from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/256896/Hatshepsut

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Quest for Hatshepsut – Discovering the Mummy of Egypt’s Greatest Female Pharaoh | drhawass.com – Zahi Hawass. (n.d.). Retrieved September 4, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

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