Getting high on ancient Egypt’s stereotype-busting women


Getting high on ancient Egypt’s stereotype-busting women

From Cleo's drug parties to no-nonsense she-kings, here's a peek into the forgotten lives of female potentates

Bettany Hughes

Thick, curly, strawberry blonde hair. Not what you’d expect on the head of a 3,400-year-old mummy from Ancient Egypt. But when I watched as the lid of the golden coffin of Tutankhamun’s great-grandmother was gingerly lifted, that gorgeous coiffure is what struck me first – after the smell.

Buried for 34 centuries in the Valley of the Kings, Tjuyu’s coffin is still pungent with resin (plant extracts mixed with frankincense), used to help preserve the noblewoman’s tiny body, and bitumen to seal the coffin. Egypt’s embalmers did a great job; the ancient matriarch is smiling on her journey to the afterlife, minus one mysteriously missing toe.

I came face-to-face with Tjuyu on my quest to understand Ancient Egypt as it was actually experienced by the ancient Egyptians, for a new documentary series. A place where women as well as men, commoners as well as pharaohs had a cogent part in the story of civilisation. Because this really was a culture where both sexes could make their mark. Ancient Egyptian women had rights under the law. They could own land. Many were literate. Tjuyu – who, I noted, when her mummified face stared back at me, passed her high cheekbones and overbite to her more famous great-grandson, Tutankhamun – commanded power in court. Not officially a queen (despite being mother to one, Tiye), she held many influential roles, including Chief of Entertainers and Superintendent of the Harem...

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