In 1908, an intact burial of a woman and a child was discovered by a team of Egyptian excavators and British archaeologist W.M. Flinders Petrie in Qurna, Thebes, Egypt.
At the time, it was described as ‘the richest and most detailed undisturbed burial that has been completely recorded and published.’ The contents of the burial – over a hundred objects – have fascinated researchers ever since they were discovered.
The objects are an important source of information about a less understood period of history, when Egypt was politically divided (c. 1600 BC, about 275 years before the burial of Tutankhamun). The burial also tells us a lot about the cultural connections between Egypt and the powerful Kingdom of Kerma in Nubia (ancient Sudan).
The identities of the woman and child are a mystery, but the wealth of objects buried with them suggests that they were probably members of the royal court.
In the winter of 1908, William Matthew Flinders Petrie and a team of Egyptian excavators were working in the hills to the north of the road which leads to the Valley of the Kings, on the west bank of Thebes (modern Luxor). These smaller valleys had not been excavated before. Petrie hoped to find remote tombs in the area, but initially they found very little.
On 30 December 1908, the team uncovered a burial under a rocky outcrop on the north side of the valley. They removed several large boulders and found the burial in a shallow trench.
The excavation of the burial was given more care and attention than was usual at the time, probably because of the fragility of some of the objects, but ultimately it was cleared in just ‘around five hours’ according to Petrie.
Photographs, descriptions and illustrations help us understand how the objects were found: tightly grouped in and around the woman’s coffin. The next day, the objects were drawn and some were photographed.
At the time, Egypt was under British rule and finds from archaeological excavations were typically divided between the Egyptian Antiquities Service and the foreign excavation team. Since the Head of the Antiquities Service did not want the burial group to be split up, he agreed that it could go to the UK provided that it was kept together.
The coffin contained the remains of a woman, around five feet tall, aged about 18-25. With her was the white-painted rectangular coffin of a 2–3-year-old child.
Both were wrapped in linen. They had been mummified but not successfully, so their remains were skeletal. The woman and child wore elaborate jewellery and the coffins were surrounded by objects, including furniture, imported pottery, and food.
The variety of objects buried in the grave suggest that they were members of the royal family at Thebes, with the wealth and trade connections required to own so many luxuries. The grave was also excavated near an area where other royal burials had been found. As such, the woman has become known as the ‘Qurna Queen’.
The coffin of the woman has a hieroglyphic inscription in a vertical column down the centre. A name should appear at the end of this, but it was damaged and lost, probably because of the placement of the child’s coffin on top. Since the text that would reveal the woman’s identity is gone, we can only suggest who she might have been.
The length of the gap in the inscription indicates that it contained a substantial title before the name. There is a tantalising hint provided by one hieroglyph that suggests it may have read ‘united with the white crown’, a title used for royal women at the time.
From other inscriptions and objects, we have put together a list of women who held this title to try and narrow down who the woman was. This list includes Haankhes, Nubemhat and Sobekemsaf. It is difficult to be certain though as there may also be royal women who Egyptologists do not know about yet. They were all part of the Theban royal family and lived around the same time. It is likely some of them knew each other, with probably only a maximum of thirty years separating them.
The Qurna coffin is a beautiful example of a style known as a rishi coffin that was common in this period (c1700-1550 BC). Rishi is the Arabic word for feather, an apt term for the large, feathered wings which wrap around the lid of such coffins.
There are several theories about the meaning of the feather pattern. It could indicate an association with the ba, an aspect of the person’s spirit that could take the form of a human-headed bird, or the bas of the gods Osiris and Ra, as referenced in a funerary spell from this period.
The Qurna coffin is large, measuring over half a metre taller than the woman who was buried in it. It was made from two whole tree trunks which were skilfully carved to fit together. The base is made from sycamore fig and the lid is made from tamarisk. The lid is gilded with gold leaf and painted with expensive pigments, particularly Egyptian blue and orpiment yellow.
The coffin shows the owner wearing the striped royal nemes-headcloth; a large, beaded collar; and a gilded pectoral in the form of a gilded vulture with its wings outstretched.
The foot of the coffin is decorated with figures of two mourning women, probably the protective goddesses Isis and Nephthys. The base of the coffin is painted uniformly in blue, with a red line along the lip, which was intended to provide a magical protective seal.
When the coffin was excavated, some areas of the paint and plaster had been worn away. They were later restored by conservators (read more in this blog). The child’s coffin is much plainer than the woman’s, but the white plaster which covers it hides planks and dowels of exotic woods such as East African ebony and cedar from Lebanon. It is shaped like a temple shrine.
The woman wore a magnificent gold necklace, two penannular gold earrings, four gold bangles, an electrum girdle, an electrum button, and a glazed steatite scarab.
The necklace is formed of 1699 individual gold ring-beads strung in four strands and secured with a clasp ingeniously designed to blend in completely with the ring-beads.
The necklace and earrings must have been almost entirely new or very little used when they went into the burial, while the bangles show wear marks indicating they were probably worn in life. The girdle shows so much wear that it may have been handed down as an heirloom.
The ‘Qurna Queen’ would probably have been at the cutting edge of fashion in her time. She wore very early examples of earrings, which only became common after her lifetime, and the style of bead used on her girdle (known as ‘wallet beads’) are probably the earliest surviving examples.
The child wore a gold/electrum necklace, two gold earrings, three ivory bangles, a faience bead girdle, and faience bead anklets.
The girdle suggests that the child was considered female. The earrings were probably re-purposed necklace clasps, serving as stand-ins. Even though we cannot be sure about the child’s identity, since their set of jewellery was intentionally assembled for the joint burial from reused and recycled elements, this suggests that it was intended to link the identities and status of the woman and child.
The woman and child were buried with grave goods that indicate exceptional wealth. These include both luxuries and more everyday objects like baskets, bread, fruit and even a ball of string.
Numerous carved stone vessels held cosmetics, some of which are still sealed with their contents intact. A beautiful bowl made of a stone called anhydrite is decorated with figures of baboons. A container made from a cow’s horn is fitted with an ivory carving of a bird’s head topped with a spoon and a small hole to allow the contents to flow into it.
Some items are extraordinary because they are so seldom preserved elsewhere. Ten net bags made from linen string were used to hold various pottery vessels, suspended from a wooden carrying pole. Similar net bags are known from both Egypt and Nubia.
Furniture was also found in the burial. While the three stools might seem rather ordinary, wood was scarce in Egypt, so any furniture would have been relatively expensive.
Most people made do with sitting and sleeping on the ground, sometimes on woven reed mats. These stools are made from cedar imported from Lebanon, so they would have been particularly costly and desirable. The beautifully carved cow/bull-feet on the largest stool had gone out of fashion in Egypt, but were popular in Nubia at the time. This may indicate influence from Nubian fashions.
The headrest, used to support and protect the head during sleep (possibly used with linen padding), is made of local acacia wood but inlaid with expensive imported materials: ebony and ivory.
Triangle pattern decoration occurs across both Egypt and Nubia early in their history, but, at the time of the burial, this pattern of inlays is known only in Nubia. All these items of furniture suggest influence from Nubian culture.
Andydrite bowl decorated with baboons.
Cow horn container.
Bowl of dates, grapes, and possibly peaches.
Basket of coiled grass.
Obsidian kohl pot.
Nubia was Egypt’s nearest neighbour to the south, in the area of northern Sudan and southernmost Egypt today (read more in this blog). The burial of the ‘Qurna Queen’ contained six exquisite beakers that came from the Kingdom of Kerma in Nubia.
The presence of Nubian pottery in her grave has previously been used to argue that the woman was a Nubian princess who married into the Theban royal family, even though the burial itself was Egyptian in style. However, this theory assumed that the Nubian Kingdom of Kerma was culturally and politically subservient to Egypt.
Earlier in the 20th century, the colonial attitudes of European and American Egyptologists meant that they assumed that Egypt was culturally linked to Europe and that it must be more ‘civilized’ than the rest of Africa. Indeed, the first excavator of the site of Kerma in Sudan originally assumed that it was an Egyptian colony. This has since been proven to be incorrect.
Further excavations have shown that Kerma was the site of a wealthy and powerful kingdom with its own unique culture. The Egyptian objects that were found there seem to be luxury imports that were used to express their owners’ status and wealth.
Could the Kerma beakers found in the Qurna burial actually be luxury imports too? In the past, Egyptologists could not imagine an ancient Egyptian choosing to be buried with Nubian objects, even though Mycenean and Cypriot vessels excavated in Egyptian graves have generally been seen as imports.
Since we now know that Kerma was just as powerful and influential as Egypt, it makes sense that Nubian items would have been considered desirable. Indeed, the delicate and beautifully formed Kerma beakers have been described as 'among the finest ceramic art forms ever created'.
Other items from the burial have often been assumed to be specifically either Egyptian or Nubian but are actually not so easily categorised. Earrings did not exist in Egypt before the Qurna burial and the idea seems to have come from Nubia, or possibly western Asia. The inlaid headrest looks Egyptian but has Nubian-style inlays. The cow/bull-legged stool is a style that was used in Egypt several hundred years earlier but was popular in Nubia at the time. The carrier net-bags have parallels in both Nubia and Egypt.
All these objects may indicate shared aspects of Nubian and Egyptian culture. Although Egyptology has often approached Nubia as ‘foreign’, re-examination of the objects from the Qurna burial suggests a greater extent of mutual influence and shared cultural heritage across the Nile Valley.
In addition to helping us reassess Egypt’s cultural connections with Nubia, the objects from the burial of the ‘Qurna Queen’ are important sources of information for Egyptologists for several reasons. Since the Qurna burial had remained untouched since antiquity, like an ancient time capsule, the many objects found in it have been very useful in dating and interpreting similar objects in other museum collections.
Furthermore, the burial dates to a period when Egypt was politically divided between competing rulers in different parts of the country, including occupiers from Western Asia in the north. Thebes was the seat of power for kings who ruled the southernmost part of Egypt.
Egyptologists know less about this period, known as the Second Intermediate Period, since the lack of political stability meant that fewer objects and text survive from this time.
The burial group is an important source of evidence for our understanding, showing that the Theban royal court was not completely isolated or at conflict with its neighbours. They still had access to skilled craftspeople, resources and trade connections beyond Egypt, but they also reused and recycled things that were harder for them to access at this time.
Although the identities of the ‘Qurna Queen’ and child remain a mystery, their burial sheds light on many fascinating aspects of ancient Egyptian culture.
Believed to be from the 17th Dynasty (c. 1600 BC), about 275 years before the burial of Tutankhamun
In 1908 at Thebes (modern Luxor) in an area referred to as Qurna
Coffin made from
Two whole tree trunks – a tamarisk and a sycamore fig – carved, painted, and gilded
Purchased from the British School of Archaeology in Egypt
Ancient Egypt Rediscovered, Level 5, National Museum of Scotland
Did you know?
The Qurna Burial group came to the Museum in Edinburgh because the Egyptian Antiquities Service insisted that the objects be displayed together as a group, which other leading UK museums were not willing to do.