Was Tutankhamun’s wet-nurse his own sister?
Cat mummies were big business in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The cemeteries of these wonderful curiosities were on the must-see list of many well-to-do European visitor. One of the biggest cat mummy necropolises was the Bubasteion at Saqqara - the sacred precinct dedicated to the goddess Bastet.
During the Late and Ptolemaic Periods (the eighth to the first centuries B.C.), hundreds of thousands of cat mummies were crammed into "cat pits" - the corridors and shafts of earlier, New Kingdom tombs, turning them into vast cat catacombs.
The Bubasteion was long neglected by Egyptologists. Digging among cat-mummies was particularly unpleasant work, and they figured that since the tombs had been re-used so heavily over such a long period, it was unlikely that much of anything would be left inside.
They were quite wrong.
In the 1980s, French Egyptologist Alain Zivie turned his attention to the Bubasteion and quickly realised that the rock-cut tombs were originally created not for animals, but for important courtiers and high-ranking officials of the 18th and 19th Dynasties.
In 1996 he began exploring a newly-uncovered rock-cut tomb (I.20). Incredibly, this sepulchre belonged to the wet-nurse of the boy-king Tutankhamun. The tomb even features a relief depicting her sitting on the royal throne with the child pharaoh on her lap.
Excavators stumbled upon a fragment of a canopic jar; but the mummy of Maia was nowhere to be found in the tomb which, like many others, had been repurposed as a catacomb for felines. Does this mean Maia’s mummy and burial contents were shifted elsewhere?
Her large and elaborately decorated tomb implies that Maia was a very important figure in the young pharaoh’s life, not just because she nourished the young king, but because she herself was a member of the royal family.
The canopic jar fragment carried the titles, "wet-nurse of the king, educator of the god's body and great one of the harem". This gives her a significantly higher status than wet nurse - even when the nursee is a future pharaoh. Intriguingly, Zivie believes that the depictions of Maia on the reliefs bear a striking resemblance to Tutankhamun: " The extraordinary thing is that they are very similar. They have the same chin, the eyes, the family traits."
On a battered wall, in the communal royal tomb of Akhenaten, Tutankhamun's father, a wall carving shows the burial of Maketaten, second daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, which is attended by a woman breast-feeding a baby. She is identified as Meritaten, the eldest daughter of Akhenaten. A fan-bearer nearby suggest that the baby she is feeding is of royal birth. Is it Tutankhamun? If true, that would make Tutankhamun's wet-nurse his sister or half-sister.
The original walls of Maia's tomb were obscured by Ptolemaic-era walls and pillars erected to support the rock ceilings which by then were in danger of imminent collapse. These new walls, added when the tomb was converted to a resting place for cat mummies, helped preserve the original wall decorations.
It has taken close to 20 years to fully excavate, clean and shore up the structure to make it safe for visitors. The tomb was unveiled to journalists in December, 2015 and is now open to the public. It is well worth the 30-kilometre drive south of Cairo to explore this amazing new facet of the life of young King Tutankhamun.
Anand Balaji is based in Bangalore, India. He holds degrees in world history and journalism, and has researched many facets of ancient Egypt, but maintains a special interest for the Amarna period.