Indiana Jones, the dentist

April 1, 2011
This article is about a woman who lived 3,500 years ago. It's a double mystery with an amazing dental forensics connection.

by Bill Landers
[email protected]

This article is about a woman who lived 3,500 years ago. It's a double mystery with an amazing dental forensics connection. The woman's name was Hatshetsup (hat'shep sup), meaning "Foremost of Noble Ladies." and she became the fifth Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Egypt in 1479 BC. You may not know her name, but you've probably seen pictures of the world famous temple she built to honor herself at Luxor.

Egyptian kingship was inherited through the male line, so the first mystery is how a woman became Pharaoh and king of Egypt. After the death of her father (Pharaoh Tuthmose I), her half brother by one of her father's lesser wives was first in line for the throne. He became Pharaoh Tuthmose II. As was the custom in ancient royal Egypt, the new Pharaoh married his father's eldest daughter to keep the royal blood line within the family. So Hatshetsup married her half-brother and became queen of Egypt. Her brother's reign was short, however. He died of an illness just 14 years into his reign.

Though he never had a son and heir, her brother did have a son with a concubine named Isis. Upon his father's death, that son (Hatshetsup's stepson) became Pharaoh Tuthmose III. Too young to actually rule in his own right, his stepmother, Hatshetsup, governed as his regent. She must have been extremely good at it because just two years later, Hatshetsup proclaimed herself king complete with all the titles, ruling as Pharaoh Khnemet-Amun-Hatshepsut, meaning she who embraces Amun (the sun god), the foremost of women. That's how a strong woman overcame 1,000 years of tradition to become the god-king of Egypt. Incidentally, she did have a daughter by her brother named Neferure who, according to custom, was also married off to her stepson.

The second mystery is whatever became of her? After she died, her stepson destroyed all official records of her reign. Her face was even chiseled off of monuments and her corpse was removed from her tomb. Poring over what evidence they had, archaeologists suspected that her body might be one of the thousands of unidentified mummies in the massive crypts beneath the Cairo Museum. Because of the special mummification rituals reserved for royals, they were able to narrow the search to just four mummies. Using CT scans, they determined that just two of the mummies had the inbred family's physical traits and that both came from the tomb of Hatshetsup's nanny. But was one of them actually Hatshetsup?

During mummification, embalmers removed the major internal organs and sealed them in canopic jars and boxes. One of the boxes from the nanny's tomb bore Hatshetsup's name and, inside the box, a CT scan found a mysterious radiopaque object. A dentist identified the object as a molar with a missing root. Going back to the CT scans of the two mummies, they found that one of them had a missing molar with a retained root that exactly matched the dimensions of the tooth in the canopic box with Hatshetsup's name. Thus, one of the greatest mysteries in archaeology was solved by a dentist!

Bill Landers has been president of OraTec Corp. since 1992. He is also a leading expert on chairside and laboratory periodontal risk assessment technologies, and his essays on periodontal disease have been published in several dental hygiene journals. Landers is a popular speaker and has presented hundreds of continuing education seminars on the microbiology of periodontal diseases.

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