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The Female Pharaoh Volume 59 Number 1, January/February 2006
by Blake Edgar

[image] A red granite statue of Hatshepsut from her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri in Thebes depicts her wearing a traditional pharaonic headdress. (Courtesy M.H. de Young Memorial Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

After the death of Hatshepsut, Egypt's most famous female pharaoh, her stepson and successor, Thutmose III, looking for a return to tradition, set out to erase the identity of this aberrant ruler by defacing her monuments and omitting her from an official record of kings.

"Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharoah," at San Francisco's rebuilt M.H. de Young Memorial Museum (through February 5), celebrates this singular ruler and the richness of her time. A collaboration of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the exhibition features some 250 objects, from tiny ornaments to colossal statuary, loaned from museums in the United States, Europe, and Egypt.

Hatshepsut came to power in the 18th Dynasty (1539-1292 B.C.), an era of prosperity and expansion when traditions in art and politics alike were both respected and reinterpreted. As principal queen to Thutmose II, Hatshepsut's ascension followed his premature death, providing an opportunity for her to share power with her stepson, Thutmose III, who was too young to rule alone. Gradually, Hatshepsut became senior coregent and assumed the name, powers, and even the likeness of a king. Her reign (1473-1458 B.C.) was a relatively peaceful one.

In the show, Hatshepsut appears in various statuesque guises, from that of a sphinx and that of Osiris--whose beard and crown show damage from efforts to destroy the statue--to a muscular masculine form with a false beard. Most striking is a seated granite figure--one of two female depictions from her innovative, monumental mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri in Thebes--in a shapely sheath, with only headdress and uraeus (serpent emblem) revealing her royal identity.

Several figures on display depict a crucial courtier, Senenmut, who helped orchestrate Hatshepsut's rise to power. In one statue, he holds her daughter, Neferure, on his lap; in another, he carries a surveyor's tape to measure grain harvests.

While the exhibition ably shows how 18th Dynasty rulers cultivated artistry--in the form of delicate gold sandals, papyri in an astonishing state of preservation, and radiant faience bowls decorated with lotus flowers--accompanying graphic panels could have delved deeper into the politics behind Hatshepsut's fate, and what, besides diplomacy and a shrewd mind, distinguished this pharaoh from others in Egypt's golden imperial age.

"Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh" is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from March 21 through July 9, and at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, from August 27 through December 10.

Blake Edgar is coauthor of The Dawn of Human Culture.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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