Was Meret-Neith the first female pharaoh?

Was Meret-Neith the first female pharaoh?

The tomb complex of Queen Meret-Neith in the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Abydos © EC Köhler

Around 4,900 years ago there lived a queen on the Nile, whose meaning and role is still controversial today. Now new finds in the tomb of Meret-Neith in Abydos prove that she was buried with unusually rich grave offerings. Inscriptions in the grave also confirm their responsibility for central government offices in the empire at the time. This supports the assumption that Meret-Neith could have been the first female pharaoh of ancient Egypt, as archaeologists explain.

What role did the 2900 B.C. Queen Meret-Neith lived? Seal finds and some Egyptian chronicles indicate that this woman may have once ruled Egypt alongside the Pharaoh Wadji from the First Dynasty. But was Meret-Neith just an ordinary royal wife? Some archaeological finds suggest that the queen may have played an even more important role. Evidence of this is provided, among other things, by a large memorial stone dedicated to her, which was discovered a good 120 years ago in the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Abydos. Such stelae were typically reserved only for the kings of Egypt.

Wine jugs
5000 year old wine jars in the tomb of Queen Meret-Neith in Abydos. © EC Köhler

Monumental grave complex like for a king

It has long been suspected that Meret-Neith may have ruled Egypt as the sole ruler, at least for a time. This would also explain why she was buried like a male pharaoh and was the only woman to have her own monumental tomb in Egypt’s first royal cemetery at Abydos. In the mastaba, built from unfired mud bricks, clay and wood, the queen’s burial chamber is surrounded by eight storage rooms for grave goods. The graves of 41 senior court officials, servants and the queen’s dogs are grouped around this central part – such secondary graves were common for (male) rulers at the time. Meret-Neith himself was buried in a sarcophagus located centrally in the main burial chamber, which also corresponded to the traditions for male pharaohs.

A German-Austrian team led by Christiana Köhler from the University of Vienna hopes to find out what Meret-Neith was all about and what role she played during her lifetime. They have recently been excavating the tomb of Queen Meret-Neith. Thanks to the careful excavation method and various new archaeological technologies, the team has already shown that the tombs were built in several construction phases and over a relatively long period of time. Current excavations have now revealed more information about this unique woman and her time.

Rich offerings and hundreds of jugs full of wine

In the storage rooms in Meret-Neith’s grave, Köhler and her team discovered a huge amount of grave goods, including hundreds of large wine jugs. Some of them were in very good condition and even had their original seals. Remains of 5,000-year-old wine were preserved in the large clay jugs, and some even contained well-preserved grape seeds, as the archaeologists report. The researchers also came across inscriptions showing that Queen Meret-Neith was responsible for central government offices such as the Egyptian treasury during her lifetime.

According to Köhler and her colleagues, these finds confirm that the ancient Egyptian queen was buried with a level of splendor that was unusual for a woman of that time. This supports the idea that this queen from the first dynasty ruled Egypt as pharaoh, at least temporarily, and thus had special historical significance. If this is confirmed, Meret-Neith could have been the first female pharaoh of ancient Egypt and thus the predecessor of the later Queen Hatshepsut from the 18th Dynasty.

Source: University of Vienna

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