To be clear, pharaohs exist in the National Geographic Museum’s new exhibit, “Queens of Egypt.” But they’re decidedly overshadowed by the women — legendary queens like Nefertari and Cleopatra VII, and the ordinary mothers, sisters and daughters who lived 2,000 to 3,500 years ago. “I enjoy that we put the pharaohs’ role second, because that usually comes first,” says exhibition content specialist Erin Branigan. “It’s really about women in Egypt and the many roles they occupied,” brought to life through more than 300 artifacts, such as jewelry, statues and sarcophagi (stone coffins). The 14,000-square-foot exhibit, which opens Friday, is one of the largest in the museum’s history. Here’s a closer look at some of the objects on display.
Nefertari’s grave goods
Queen Nefertari was the first “great royal wife” of Pharaoh Ramses II. (The pharaohs typically had numerous wives — each serving a different purpose, like political advancement — but one was designated the primary, or great royal, wife.) When Nefertari died, she was buried in a spectacular tomb in the Valley of the Queens. Her grave was robbed soon after it was sealed, but a handful of objects that may have belonged to the queen were recovered when the tomb was discovered in 1904, including sandals (she wore a size 9), a pair of mummified lower limbs and a djed-pillar amulet that symbolized stability. Also recovered were 34 wooden shabtis, small figures designed to perform physical labor for the deceased in the afterlife. “They wanted the afterlife to be a life of leisure, so they came up with these little shabtis to activate,” Branigan says. When the deceased were inevitably called upon to do work by a god, the shabtis would handle the tasks instead.
This gold and steatite ring — made around 1292 B.C. — was likely worn by both men and women to confer protection and indicate prosperity and status. (Gold was worn only by the wealthy elite.) The ring invokes protection from Khepri, the scarab beetle god, whom the Egyptians considered responsible for the sun rising each day. “The scarab pushes a little ball of dung in front of itself, which it lays its eggs in,” Branigan says. “So they thought there was a great celestial scarab that pushed the ball of the sun over the horizon and across the sky. They were sun worshippers.” An engraving on the ring reads, “May you become a praised one, enduring in the temples.”
Statue of Bastet
Many Egyptian gods had animal forms and characteristics — like Bastet, the goddess of domestic joy, who appeared as a cat or a woman with a cat’s head. She was associated with the moon, birthdays and healthy pregnancies, Branigan says, and was “reputed to possess the magical power to stimulate love.” No wonder she was popular. In one myth, the lion-headed goddess of battle, Sekhmet, was sent to Egypt to fight the enemies of her father, the sun god. She “became so bloodthirsty that she tried to destroy all of mankind,” Branigan says. “To control her, the gods gave her red beer, which she mistook for blood.” She downed it all, got quite drunk and turned into Bastet, the goddess’s gentle, domesticated form.
Statue of Mut
Ancient Egyptians worshipped an array of gods and goddesses who each served a unique, important purpose. Mut, whose name means “mother,” was a goddess of war and considered the “mistress of all the gods,” a role model for Egyptian women. A heavy limestone statue of Mut is featured at the center of the exhibit; she is distinguished by her headwear, a double crown that represents upper and lower Egypt. “It was originally part of a couple’s statue, so it would have had two figures,” Branigan says, noting that the other half represented the god Amun-Ra, Mut’s husband. The location of the other half of the statue is unknown.
The ancient Egyptians believed the deceased couldn’t reach the afterlife unless their body was preserved — which meant that when someone died, he or she underwent a 70-day mummification process. Embalmers washed the body, waxed the skin and removed the internal organs, Branigan says, and the corpse was dehydrated for about 40 days before being wrapped in linen and resin. A layered case featured in the exhibit showcases the components of a typical Egyptian burial: The top layer contains the coffin lid, followed by a false lid for additional protection, the mummy mask and several amulets that provided protection and luck, and beneath that, the mummy itself — in this case, a man named Petament. The bottom layer is the coffin base. “We’re able to show how the mummy would have been encased,” Branigan says. “The coffins they used were sort of like Russian nesting dolls.”
National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW; Fri. through Sept. 2, $15.