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Queen for Eternity: Digital Archaeology and the (After) Life of Meresankh III of Egypt

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QE 1Thursday March 13th, Egyptologist Rachel Aronin visited Roanoke College and gave a discussion on The Giza Project undertaken by Harvard University. The lecture highlighted the discovery of Meresankh III’s tomb, which revealed new insight into the lives of upper-class women in Egypt about 4,500 years ago.

Aronin began the lecture asking the audience to name various Egyptian Pharaohs that they were familiar with. Among some of the leaders named were King Tutankhamun, Ramses II, Khufu, Cleopatra, and the female king Hatshepsut. She went on to briefly overview Ancient Egyptian history, a period covering 3 millennia of rule separated into 31 dynasties.

Aronin next commented on the narrow scope of perspectives in Egyptian records. Ancient historic text tended to reflect only the interests of the male elite who were in fact writing them. Similarly, art in Ancient Egypt was usually commissioned by men and carried out by male artists, for often social and propagandistic purposes.

Women were largely overlooked and played little roles in government; however, there were those few who managed to take advantage of their status as Queen – Meresankh being one of such women.

Aronin then transitioned to discussing the unearthing of Meresankh’s tomb. On April 23rd, 1927, the last day of a 3-month-long excavation at the Giza Plateau, Archeologist George Reisner discovered a tomb dedicated to the Egyptian Queen Meresankh.

It was groundbreaking for Egyptologists because her burial chamber was one of the most beautifully decorated female tombs ever found. Meresankh’s tomb was so well preserved and contained such rich history that it was chosen to be reconstructed into a digital 3-D model. From the interior wall paintings and sculptures, researchers were also able to create an animated avatar of the 4th dynasty queen, clothed in ancient dress and jewelry of the time.

The tomb was originally meant for Meresankh’s mother Hetepheres, but because Meresankh died before her, Hetepheres dedicated it to Mersesankh instead. Though the chamber was most certainly painted by men, they were able to depict the interests of upper-class women at this time unlike ever before.

This can be seen in the chamber’s nearly universal focus on Meresankh in its paintings and sculptures. There are also various depictions throughout the tomb of Meresankh and her mother paired together holding hands, illuminating the strong connection between these women that was to be carried on into the afterlife.

One of the most controversial findings in Meresanhk’s burial chamber was that her husband is not mentioned in text or depicted in any of the art in her tomb. This led to some uncertainty concerning his identity. Researchers were able to narrow the identity of her husband down to either her uncle Khafre or his son Menkaure.

Regardless of who she was actually married to, Egyptologists still find this deliberate omission of such a power male influence quite odd. One reason behind this was thought to be that Meresankh wanted to emphasize her own royal heritage by leaving out relationships that she found less important. In contrast, Aronin jokingly remarked, “She didn’t want to spend eternity with him – marriage, right?”

Another interesting characteristic of Meresankh’s tomb, which the digital model proved especially helpful in reconstructing, was that it didn’t contain a customary burial shaft within or in front of the tomb; instead, her burial chamber was subterranean, located beneath the floor of the westernmost offering room in the chapel. When sun shone through the easternmost window directly opposite of this room, it would illuminate a false door which was positioned directly above her resting spot below.

In Ancient Egyptian religion, the daily journey of the sun corresponded to the life cycle of every being; west represented death, east represented resurrection. This correlation was significant in Meresankh’s tomb because when journeying into the afterlife, her spirit was thought to have ascended and then would have been bathed by the light of the sun god Ra as she passed on from this realm to the next.

Aronin concluded her lecture reflecting on how the software used in creating such 3-D models as Meresankh’s tomb have allowed for total visualization and experimentation that was never before possible. This technology, which was originally used for creating hyper-realistic video games, could now be used to reconstruct various structures of the ancient world.

More astonishingly, it could even be used to go back in time and position celestial bodies, thus obtaining an approximation of when and where the sun would’ve had to have been to fall precisely on the false door in Meresankh’s tomb. Aronin lastly stated that only about 30% of what Egypt has to offer has been discovered. She remarked, “There are still amazing things to be found!”