By the time the Italian archaeologist Ernesto Schiaparelli discovered the tomb of Queen Nefertari in Egypt’s Valley of Queens in 1904, looters had ripped the queen’s mummified corpse apart and left her pink granite sarcophagus in fragments. Amid the rubble, archaeologists recovered a pair of sandals and some disjointed, mummified leg bones, which are currently housed at the Egyptian museum in Turin, Italy. Recently, a team of international researchers analyzed the more than 3,200-year-old remains for the first time using x-rays, radiocarbon dating and chemical analysis, among other techniques. Though they can’t be absolutely sure, the scientists concluded it’s “highly likely” the mummified knees belong to Nefertari, the famously beautiful queen of the 19th-dynasty pharaoh Ramses II.
Queen Nefertari—not to be confused with Nefertiti, the powerful queen who ruled alongside her husband, King Akhenaten, in the mid-14th century B.C.—was the first and favored wife of Ramses II, the warrior pharaoh who reigned from 1290 to 1224 B.C., during the early 19th dynasty. She contributed to Ramses’ enormous brood of children, giving birth to four sons and four daughters, and was a quiet force behind the throne, especially in foreign affairs.
Nefertari is believed to have died around 1250 B.C. when she was 40 to 50 years old, and her husband had ruled for some 25 years. Ramses II honored his beloved consort with a temple at Abu Simbel, in Nubia, as well as a magnificent tomb in the Valley of the Queens, near Thebes. Thanks to the gorgeously colored paintings on the walls, including astonishingly lifelike depictions of the beautiful queen herself, Egyptologists would rank Nefertari alongside Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Cleopatra as the most celebrated female rulers in Ancient Egyptian history.
The mummified remains Schiaparelli discovered in the tomb back in 1904 were housed at the Egyptian museum in Turin, Italy, under the assumption that they Nefertari’s. But the pair of legs—including fragmented thigh bones, a kneecap and a piece of the tibia (the upper part of the bone where it widens into the knee joint)—were never actually examined, and it remained unclear whether or not they actually belonged to the famous queen.
Burial sites in the Valley of the Queens, the Valley of the Kings and elsewhere in the region were repeatedly reused, according to Joann Fletcher, an archaeologist at the United Kingdom’s University of York and a co-author of the new study. As Fletcher explained to the Guardian, “You have got the effects also of very occasional but dramatic flash floods, when all sorts of material can be washed into tombs – so while things are found in a tomb it doesn’t necessarily follow that the human remains that you are finding are those of the individual portrayed in there and on the tomb walls.”
In an attempt to solve the mystery once and for all, Fletcher and her colleagues joined experts from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, the University of Adelaide in Australia and at the Egyptian museum, where the bones have long been housed, analyzed the more than 3,200-year-old remains for the first time. Their findings, published, included anthropometric reconstruction of the knees, which indicated that they belonged to a woman who stood some 165 cm. (5 ft. 5 in.) to 168 cm. (5 ft. 6 in.) tall—taller than some 84 percent of other women of the period.
X-rays of the mummified bones showed some evidence of arteriosclerosis, the thickening and hardening of the artery walls that typically occurs later in life. Not only were the materials and techniques used for the embalming process similar to known mummification traditions at the time Nefertari died, but they also indicated that the corpse belonged to an individual of high social standing. As Fletcher put it: “The expertise that had gone into that mummification – even judging from the legs – the care, the attention, the wrapping, the materials employed; they are strongly suggestive someone of incredibly high status.”
The researchers also examined the sandals found in Nefertari’s tomb, which were made of vegetal material, including grass, palm leaf and papyrus, in a style typical of the 18th and 19th dynasties of ancient Egypt. The high quality of the sandals’ materials and manufacture suggested they might well have been Nefertari’s (as assumed), and size was estimated to be a European size 39-40 (U.S. size nine), which would have fit someone of the queen’s stature.
Given all the evidence, the archaeologists concluded, “the most likely scenario is that the mummified knees truly belong to Queen Nefertari,” but they admitted that it was impossible to say with absolute certainty. Not only was the tomb site plundered and damaged by looters before the remains were discovered, but some of their analyses failed to confirm the identification. DNA testing was inconclusive, as the samples were contaminated and unsuitable for analysis, and radiocarbon dating indicated the remains predated the estimated lifespan of Nefertari’s by approximately 200 years. According to the study’s authors, however, this discrepancy between radiocarbon dating and traditional Egyptian chronology models is common, and has been the subject of long-running debate.