On the last day of excavation in the winter of 1927, archaeologists working at the Giza Plateau were clearing the area between two tombs of sand to survey for next season when they came across an unusual discovery: a small door was carved in the tomb wall, completely filled with sand and debris.
The excavators cleared the doorway just enough to fit their heads inside. When they looked in, they saw the most elaborately decorated tomb at Giza--and anywhere in Egypt for over 1,000 years.
For how striking the tomb was in its beauty, it was equally unique in its carvings and wall paintings--unlike anything they had seen before at Giza.
Photograph of Sand Blocking the Entrance to the of Tomb of Queen Meresankh III. This is a photograph of the rediscovery of the Tomb of Queen Meresankh III by the Harvard University - Museum of Fine Arts excavations in 1927. This photograph shows the original cone of sand and debris that blocked the tomb door when the archaeologists uncovered the tomb.. View item.
The Discovery of the Tomb of Queen Meresankh III
One of the archaeologists present recalled, "As soon as the debris in the doorway was photographed, we cleared away enough of the sand at the top to crawl in; and getting our heads one at a time, just inside the doorway, we saw a rock-cut offering chapel consisting of three rooms. The entrance to the main room was blocked by a cone of sand and stone, on the top of which we were lying. Our eyes were first started by the vivid colors of the reliefs and inscriptions around the northern part of this large chamber. None of us had ever seen anything like it."
For one thing, the tomb's wall paintings were almost perfectly preserved in the state that they had been created over 4,500 years ago. The tomb's painting depicted the tomb owner, Queen Meresankh III, granddaughter of Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid towering over her tomb outside on the Giza Plateau.
Mother and Daughter: Meresankh and Hetepheres
Meresankh is painted several times with her mother, Queen Hetepheres II, who you can see in a striking gown with tall white shoulders. Elsewhere she is shown embracing Meresankh, riding with her on the Nile in a shallow boat, and performing other rituals. In the walls of the tomb, there are statues of Meresankh and Hetepheres carved holding each other and joining hands.
The style of this dress and the wig that Hetepheres is wearing have long interested researchers and sparked many controversies. To learn more about it, continue reading about who Meresankh was in life and her afterlife.
In the inner chamber on the north end of the tomb, the excavators were astonished to find a line of stone statues: 10 female figures cut into the living rock of the wall. Many have speculated who these statues could represent. Some argue that they are the female members of the family of Meresankh, with Meresankh's youngest daughter on the left and Hetepheres on the far right.
One archaeologist argued that the first three figures on the right represent Hetepheres, then the next four represent Meresankh, and the final three represent the daughters of Meresankh.
Others believe instead that these statues may instead represent the life of Meresankh at different ages and possibly on the far right, the figure with the braids is the representation of Meresankh continuing in the afterlife. Many other interpretations exist.
Inside the tomb was also found a beautiful sculpture of Meresankh and Hetepheres depicted together embracing each other. This statue was broken into pieces but archaeologists were able to restore it to what you can see today. The statue is currently in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, United States.
This is a unique sculpture because it's one of the only ones depicting Meresankh and Hetepheres, mother and daughter, together, embracing each other.
Unlike other tombs from the time period, Meresankh's husband is only depicted a few times, as one archaeologist notes, "a rather fat and coarse old man." Unlike other tombs where the tomb owner and spouse are depicted sitting together, accepting offerings, and giving honor to various gods and goddesses, in Meresankh's tomb, she is depicted instead with her mother, Hetepheres, pulling papyrus and performing rituals.
Notably her tomb makes no reference to her former husband, the Pharaoh Khafre, who built the second largest pyramid next to the Great Pyramid at Giza. Only Kawab is mentioned.
Archaeologists argue that Meresankh probably had three children with her royal husband, perhaps all six of her children, but his name isn't mentioned anywhere in the tomb. That Meresankh would leave out the name of the King that she married seems strange since many other tombs at Giza beneath the pyramids stake claim to their relationship to royalty.
An Unfinished Tomb
The next most striking feature about the tomb is how it was never finished. In the inner room to the west of the rock cut chapel and above the burial shaft, the relief carvings on the wall were never completed. They were stopped mid-construction and left in the state that you can see today.
Similarly, in the inner chamber with the 10 female statues, none of the walls were decorated and still show the chisel marks of the stone-cutters who sculpted them.
On a sad note also is that in the sarcophagus discovered in the tomb, the name of Meresankh's mother Hetepheres was scratched out and Meresankh's name was written instead. Does this indicate that Meresankh possibly died an early and possibly unexpected death before her mother?
One archaeologist writes, "A very unusual, if not unique, feature of the tomb of Queen Meresankh is provided by two inscriptions, one on each side of the outer doorway, which give the date of the death of the queen and the date of her funeral. On the front of the right door-jamb, a vertical line in the hieroglphics reads, 'The king's daughter, Meresankh: year 1, month 1 of the third season, day 21: her ka was at rest and she proceeded to the wa'abet (place of embalmment).' On the left a similar line reads, -- 'The king's wife, Meresankh: year 2, month 2 of the second season, day 18; she proceeded to her beautiful tomb.' Thus 272 days (nine months and two days) elapsed between the death of the queen and her burial in the tomb. This is a much longer period than could have been required by the embalmment, and it is possible that the tomb itself was prepared during the time."
The remains of the mummy of Meresankh were found in the sarcophagus in the tomb, but no coffin was present. The mummy is of a woman, maybe in her mid-50s.
The bones of the body were found disjointed and piled in the north end of the sarcophagus. The robbers who had broken into the tomb previously had stolen much of the offerings that she was buried with, but there were still many artifacts remaining.
The Artifacts Discovered in the Tomb
Along with the brilliant tomb paintings and carved statues, excavations in the tomb found burial artifacts that were meant to accompany Meresankh into the afterlife. The majority of the artifacts were stolen, but a few remained, such as the alabaster canopic jars that were buried with Meresankh, many amulets and scarabs, amulets made of faience, and a bronze sphinx.
Ptolemaic pottery Ptolemaic pottery that was uncovered in the Tomb of Queen Meresankh III. …
Copper tool: adze blade Copper adze [blade]; in fragments. Object was broken by plunderers, when green …
Head of limestone statue Head [and right shoulder] of small limestone statue; [striated wig with evidence …
Black granite sarcophagus and lid of Meresankh III Black granite sarcophagus and lid of Meresankh III; decorated and inscribed.
Fragments of limestone pair statue of Hetepheres II and Meresankh III Two fitting fragments of figure of Hetepheres II, lower part (part of …
Limestone canopic jar and lid Limestone canopic jar and lid; complete, mouth and sides damaged.
Stone and Glass Amulets Stone and glass amulets that were uncovered in the Tomb of Queen …
Along with Meresankh's jewelry and other belongings, many of these artifacts held religious significance to the Ancient Egyptians to serve the Queen in the afterlife.
There is a heart scarab, which was buried with the Queen to ensure she passed through judgement into the afterlife: in Ancient Egyptian religion, they believed that to pass into the afterlife, one had to weigh their heart against a feather, and only those who were guilt free and had a heart as light as a feather could pass safely into the afterlife.
When a person that was buried with a heart scarab passed into judgement, the god Horus who weighed their heart would instead take the scarab in place of the heart, and the scarab was supposed to be as light as a feather. So if any lived a life with some guilt or wayward decisions, they could still pass into the afterlife by being buried with a heart scarab.
There were also several ushabtis that were found in the tomb. An ushabti is a small sculpture that looks like a person with magic spells carved into it, and in the afterlife, it was believed that the ushabti would perform a day of work for the deceased. Wealthy Ancient Egyptians were buried with one ushabti for each day of the year in their calendar.
We also know what was buried with her because it's painted on the walls of her tomb. For instance, a large canopy over a bed with lion-legs is painted here, and it's likely that it was buried with Meresankh before being plundered by tomb robbers.
Photograph of Canopy that was Buried with Queen Meresankh III. This is a photograph of the canopy that was buried with Queen Meresankh III. In the excavation report, it is described as the following: "There is a canopy supported by bulb-headed tent-poles, covering a bed with lion-legs higher at the head-end, an armchair, but with a lion under the arm instead of papyrus flowers, a carrying-chair,a …. View item.
These burial items are almost exactly the same as those discovered in her great-grandmother's tomb nearby at Giza, so we can compare them to what was excavated there.
Unfortunately, otherwise, in Meresankh's tomb, many of these artifact were never recovered, however, because the burial chamber of the tomb had already been robbed when it was discovered.
The Artists and Priests that Created the Tomb
Unlike in other tombs, the artists that created the Tomb of Meresankh left depictions of who they were. In the south end of the tomb, we have a rare insight into the names of the artists that carved and painted these walls.
Photograph of Artists Polishing the Sarcophagus of Queen Meresankh III. On the walls of Queen Meresankh III's tomb, there are several scenes depicted of the artists that created the tomb and offerings inside. In this wall relief, artists are polishing the sarcophagus that was given to Queen Meresankh III by her mother, Queen Hetepheres II.. View item.
Here workmen are polishing the red granite sarcophagus that Meresankh was buried in. Above two of the men is an inscription that reads, "the sculptor, Yenkaf." Similarly, on a nearby wall, there is a carving of a man seen painting a statue and his inscription reads, "the painted, Rahay".
Photograph of Scribe Statues in the Tomb of Queen Meresankh III These statues of scribes are carved on the South Wall of the …
Photograph of Scribe Statue in the Tomb of Queen Meresankh III Photograph of a seated scribe on the south wall of the Tomb …
Underneath, there are six male statues carved, seated like scribes beneath the reliefs and paintings on the wall. These were likely meant to represent the priests that performed the burial rituals for Meresankh.
Similarly, in the inner western room looking east, there's a later added scene of the chief priest that buried Meresankh reading to her from a papyrus.