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Book Review


Richard H. Wilkinson, Editor. Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xii + 145. $28.72 (Hardcover).


     Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt surveys the latest research from an international group of respected Egyptologists. Their findings reveal an emerging portrait of Tausret, a pivotal figure enmeshed in intrigue and conflict at the close of the 19th Dynasty (1296–1186 B.C.E).  One of only three women to rule Egypt as pharaoh, Tausret presents Egyptologists with a microcosm of New Kingdom (Dynasties 18–20, 1550–1069 B.C.E.) culture as she progresses through a series of increasingly powerful roles from queen consort (or "King's Great Wife"), to regnant queen ruling with the young Siptah, to a ruling pharaoh who may have directly engaged in battle (45). A dense narrative presents multiple aspects of ancient Egyptian culture, including: the unusual legal agency of Egyptian women, the central role of maat as the unifying philosophy of religion and politics, the significance of royal architecture and iconography, the ephemerality of the trappings of power, and the intricate gears of the "afterlife machinery of the pharaohs" (92). Infusing this research about Tausret and her world is a discourse of erasure. This discourse reveals how even the powerful can be forgotten and how the forgotten can be discovered and remembered anew by their descendants and subsequent generations of historians. In re-discovering those who have been erased we reanimate their histories.

     In an ambitious first chapter, "Foremost of Women: The Female Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt," Joyce Tyldesley (University of Manchester, UK) seeks to contextualize Tausret within the whole of pre-Roman Egyptian history. Tyldesley begins by observing an existential bias towards the powerful when re-constructing the past since most of the women in Tausret's society left no mark in what remains for us to discover. She writes: "As their traditional duties of child care, cooking, and laundry have had little impact on the archaeological record, these illiterate women tend to be invisible to us" (6). One of the two predecessors to Tausret who ruled as "female kings" was Hatshepsut (1473–1458 B.C.E.) of the 18th Dynasty who was considered, until recently, to have been the subject of a damnatio memoriae: "the deliberate erasure of a dead person's memory that would cause the individual to die a second death in the Afterlife" (16).  Tyldesley reports it is now generally accepted by most Egyptologists that Hatshepsut's  successor, Thutmose III, was "simply relegating Hatshepsut to what he perceived as her rightful place as a queen who enjoyed temporary rule rather than as a female pharaoh" when he had all mentions of her rule as pharaoh removed from all royal iconography (16).

     Brute force purging from the historical records was not a fate reserved only for royal women of ancient Egypt. In the second chapter of Tausret, "Female Horus: The Life and Reign of Tausret," Gae Callendar (Macquarie University, Australia) reports that there was a damnatio issued against Siptah: "the name of Siptah was omitted from various types of official records: it was as if he had never existed" (29). Callendar suggests Siptah might have suffered this fate by association if his father were indeed Amenmesse who was "considered an 'Enemy' [whose] records were either damaged or his name was removed from public records" (29). Precedent for such erasure by paternal association exists with the famous Tutankhamen who "was omitted from later records because there had been a damnatio deleting the memory of his father, Akhenaten" (29). Callendar also includes an intriguing section about "The Great Chancellor of Egypt, Bay" who, though not a native Theban, served under Sety II and eventually facilitated the establishment of Siptah upon the throne after the death of Merenptah. Evidence from a thrilling discovery indicates Bay, "Great Chancellor of the Entire Land," was killed by Siptah during his fifth year of rule and shortly before the pharaoh himself died. "While a political assassination is not uncommon in our own national histories," writes Callendar, "nothing like this had ever been found before in Egyptian historical records. Work on Bay's incomplete tomb in the Valley of the Kings was halted and his tomb inscriptions were eventually erased" (35). Thus, political intrigue surrounding Bay set in motion events which facilitated Tausret's historic rise to power. And yet both Bay and Tausret would have their accomplishments purged by the next regime.

     In addition to leaving no evidence or explanation regarding her origins or her death, Tausret was the posthumous target of multiple erasures and displacements. After her reign, most evidence of it was destroyed or, perhaps more tellingly, altered. This is due in part to the fact she was the final pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty. Her successor, Sethnakht, could legitimize his own rule by "painting out" (46) references to, and symbols of, Tausret. But Sethnakht's reign was only four years, precious little time to establish a legacy, never mind construct an elaborate tomb of his own. Callendar suggests that it was likely Sethnakht's son, Ramesses III, "who altered her cartouches and transformed her name and her figures into those of Sethnakht" (46) in preparation for usurping her tomb as a way to quickly provide a proper burial for his father, the founder of the 20th Dynasty. Tausret was deprived of her own sarcophagus and her mummy has yet to be located or identified. One of the few references to Tausret in the historical record since the time of her death comes not from an Egyptian, but from the ancient Greek poet Homer who misattributed her gender. Short of being forever lost to oblivion, it is difficult to imagine a more thorough annihilation. And yet, by scrutinizing past work and making shrewd connections with recent findings, scholars have now re-discovered Tausret. 

     Catharine H. Roehrig (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) contributes Chapter 3 of Tausret, "Forgotten Treasures: Tausret as Seen in Her Monuments." Roehrig agrees with the other contributors—that the monuments of Tausret, like those of Hatshepsut before her, were vandalized by successors. She also agrees with her collaborators that Tausret's unique path from "Queen's Great Wife" of Sety II, to Regnant Queen with Siptah, to sole ruler as Pharaoh enriches the historical record with the life a strong, dynamic woman who smartly rose to meet the challenges of her unstable, disruptive era.  Roehrig argues that the women who ruled Egypt would not easily be forgotten because they were exceptional: "To the ancient Egyptians, a female ruler, however long or short her reign, would have been extraordinary—someone worthy of stories to be passed on by word of mouth, from generation to generation" (66). Thus, Roehrig introduces the factor of cultural memory into this work's collective effort to derive, by archaeological and historical deduction, the life of a person from the scarce and scattered evidence available for her. The artifacts Roehrig reviews include the multiple building phases of Tausret's tomb (KV 14); The Statue of Tausret Holding Siptah on Her Lap; The Reliefs at the Temple of Amada; The Headless Statue from Medinet Nasr; Inscribed Material from Western Asia; The Naophorous Statue of the High Priest of Ptah Iyri; Her Temple of Millions of Years; and The Sarcophagus of Tausret Found in KV 13.

     Roehrig also raises an intriguing ritualistic possibility. For the ancient Egyptians, the pharaoh and the queen were society's sole conduit to their pantheon of gods and as such were semi-divine figures themselves. As Tyldesley explains in Chapter 1, the king was considered the living god Horus and the son of the solar god Re, while the queen and queen mother were associated with Hathor, the solar goddess with a dual bond as mother or wife of Horus. In order to carry the burden of maat, the overwhelming responsibility of a ruler was to intercede with the gods and thereby maintain social order while also providing protection from foreign enemies (6), the king required a queen to fulfill some ritual duties. In the case of a female king, their daughters were able to fill this important role. "In the case of Tausret, there appears to have been no daughter," Roehrig observes, "and, perhaps, Tausret filled the double role of king and queen, at least for ritual purposes" (62). This represents a potentially unique occurrence in all of ancient Egyptian history in which the entire responsibility of maat resided with a single person: Tausret.

     Hartwig Altenmüller (University of Hamburg) contributed the fourth chapter of Tausret, "A Queen in a Valley of Kings: The Tomb of Tausret." One of only two women with tombs in the Valley of the Kings, Tausret's tomb is among the largest of the decorated tombs in the complex with three successive burial chambers documenting her rise to power. "In fact, it is the only royal tomb that documents the rise of a member of the royal family to pharaoh," notes Altenmüller (90). Altenmüller's survey of the decorations found within the tomb's chambers reveal remarkable insights about the metaphysical disposition of Tausret herself towards the complex afterlife machinery through which she would need to navigate. Analyzing the decorations of her tomb reveals that the cartouche names of Sety II had been superimposed over those of Siptah, a king who ruled after him. "…The simplest and most convincing explanation for the name change from Siptah to Sety II in the tomb of Tausret," explains Altenmüller, "is Gardiner's assumption that Siptah was depicted in the tomb because the tomb was decorated during his reign. By including the king in the decoration, Tausret was legitimizing the construction of her tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes. When Siptah died, her deceased husband Sety II assumed the role of legitimization posthumously" (80). But it is Altenmüller's analysis of Tausret's repurposed sarcophagus in this chapter that is perhaps most haunting and notable. He includes both a photograph and an illustration of the artifact with notes on the meanings of its symbols. Given that her sarcophagus was found in the nearby tomb of Chancellor Bay, "It is thus unknown if Tausret was ever laid to rest in the tomb so extensively prepared for her" (89).

     "The 'Temple of Millions of Years' of  Tausret" is the focus of this book's final chapter, contributed by the book's editor, Richard Wilkinson (University of Arizona) whose team has been the most recent to excavate portions of the temple's site in western Thebes. "While earlier kings had constructed pyramids with directly adjoining mortuary temples," Wilkinson explains, "New Kingdom monarchs build their 'temples of millions of years' at a distance from their tombs" (92).  The afterlife machinery of the pharaohs was intended to accommodate the continuation of both their bodies and their spirits. Tausret's expansive tomb was meant to serve  the first purpose, while her "Temple of Millions of Years" was intended to "honor and sustain her spirit throughout time" (92). And like her tomb, her temple also suggests phased expansion as her influence and power increased. But as with so many aspects of Tausret, her temple also contributes to the discourse of erasure found throughout this book. In a section entitled "Excavating A Lost Temple" Wilkinson notes: "The temple of Tausret was, in a sense, doubly lost to history" (93). In the first instance, and as a result of Wilkinson's work, what was likely a nearly completed structure was demolished so that the stone could be re-used by subsequent pharaohs for their own construction projects. But in a second instance, the temple was lost again for the purposes of modern scientific archaeology (3,300 years later) as a result of "William Flinders Petrie's exploration of the site, which was not thorough enough to properly discern the true nature of the temple's past history" (93).

     Two findings of the University of Arizona Egyptian Expedition led by Wilkinson are of particular note.  An inscription found in one of the temple's remaining foundation blocks "indicates a longer reign for Tausret (of at least nine, and possibly ten or more, years) than has been previously realized" (98). Also, many chunks of the temple's stone walls indicate they had been plastered but not decorated. In a textbook example of deductive insight, this suggests not only that the structure was nearing completion—because the walls would not have been plastered without a roof—but the fact they were undecorated "represents a tantalizing clue to the point in her reign at which Tausret died naturally or was overthrown in a power struggle which led to the rule of Sethnakht and dynastic change" (101–102).

     Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt, edited by Richard H. Wilkinson, is a subject for advanced students of archaeology or history that presents an inquiry into New Kingdom Egyptology which begins by placing the subject in broad historical and gendered context. Each chapter reveals increasingly detailed evidence for a the life of an extraordinary and complex woman who became a king. The contributors assume the reader has a background in Egyptian archaeological studies and do not always explicitly define key terms (such as cartouche, hieratic text, ka, ostrakon, stele.)  This book is otherwise accessible to the serious student. It presents a fascinating narrative filled with intrigue, possibility and revelation examined from multiple expert perspectives. Tausret includes illustrations and images throughout, including a central gallery of glossy color plates. This book is an excellent resource for discussions of deductive methodology, ancient religions, the role of iconography in cultural studies, gendered history, historical biography, Egyptology, or Orientalism. I join Altenmüller in commending to readers and teachers Kent Weeks' Theban Mapping Project, which includes vector schematics of tomb KV14 built for Tausret (but used for Sethnakht), in the online Atlas of the Valley of the Kings. Even though we still know so little about her, Tausret is unforgettable.

Christine Newton Bush is an independent writer, researcher and information developer living in Silicon Valley. Her interests include cartography, postcolonial studies, and open educational resources. She blogs at Her contact email is


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