5,000-Year-Old Wine Jars Unearthed at Queen Merneith's Tomb
An important discovery at Umm Al-Qaab in Abydos, promises to add to the story of Queen Merneith, an Egyptian consort and regent, who could have also been the first or second queen of Egypt. A joint Egyptian / German-Austrian archaeological team has unearthed hundreds of sealed jars believed to contain the remains of ancient wine. In addition, an inscription adds to evidence of her eminently high status.
In a statement from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Dr. Mustafa Waziri, the Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Archaeology, confirmed the significant nature of the discovery. According to this release, the jars were found in excellent condition and the wine remnants inside are roughly 5,000 years old. Alongside these jars, the team has also unveiled a collection of funeral furniture that sheds light on the burial practices and beliefs of the period.
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Further revelations came from Dr. Dietersh Rao, the director of the German Institute in Cairo. Rao explained that the excavations have provided fresh insights into Queen Merneith’s (or Maret Neth) life and her reign. Inscriptions on a plaque from Merneith's tomb underscore her prominent role in the central government. These inscriptions state that she had a “great position as she was in charge of offices of the central government.” Thus, the discovery is adding details to the life story of this enigmatic, but evidently very important ancient ruler.
Queen Merneith’s tomb has been excavated within Umm Al-Qaab in Abydos. (Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)
Merneith’s Tomb Contributes to Growing Evidence of Queen Merneith’s Reign
Regent or consort, Merneith stands out in Egyptian history with her name connected to the goddess Neith, meaning “Beloved by Neith.” She is believed to have assumed the reins of power in Egypt around 3050 to 3000 BC after the demise of her husband Djet, likely the 3rd or 4th pharaoh of the First Dynasty, as their son, Den, was too young to ascend the throne. This period of stewardship would have only lasted until her son came of age.
However, records remain inconclusive on whether Merneith was the first or possibly the second queen to rule Egypt in this fashion. Some Egyptologists have argued that Neithhotep or Neith-hotep was the first female pharaoh during the First Dynasty of the Old Kingdom.
For a long time, Egyptologists believed that women had not ascended to power until a few centuries after the reign of the First Dynasty in ancient Egypt. However, information about powerful female rulers during this era eventually became an accepted fact as evidence emerged.
Meanwhile, the most compelling testament to her existence and potential rulership lies in Abydos. Nestled among male royal resting places, Tomb Y bears the name of a ruler: Merneith. Meanwhile, artifacts inscribed with her name, including jars, stone vessels and seals, were excavated from mastaba 3503. The new find of wine jars within Merneith’s tomb adds to this evidence.
Merneith's legacy seemed to have dimmed by the New Kingdom era. While she's absent from certain ruler lists, the renowned Palermo Stone from the Old Kingdom does carry her name. Further evidence of her influence emerges from a seal found in King Den's tomb, which lists rulers of the First Dynasty. Here, amidst unquestionably male rulers linked to the god Horus, Merneith's distinct title reads: “King's Mother.”
Yet, the debate rages on. Some scholars argue against her solo reign, pointing to another seal that lists First Dynasty rulers, conspicuously excluding Merneith. Whether a forgotten ruler or purposefully omitted, Merneith's presence in history remains a tantalizing enigma.
Queen Merneith’s tomb is located at Umm Al-Qaab in Abydos in Egypt and is marked with the letter Y. (PLstrom / CC0)
Does Merneith’s Tomb Belong to Egypt’s First Queen?
Queen Merneith’s tomb was discovered at Umm el-Qa'ab, Abydos, in 1900 by Flinders Petrie, in an area associated with other pharaohs of the First Dynasty. Some of the compelling evidence was found in two stone stelae identifying the tomb as hers. It was only the unearthing of later clues that revealed she might have been one of the first Egyptian queens.
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Constructed mainly of raw bricks, clay and wooden planks, Queen Merneith tomb holds a unique distinction. It appears to be the only royal tomb of a woman from the First Dynasty to have been discovered in Abydos to date. Significantly, the tomb complex also houses 41 other graves believed to have housed her entourage and servants, suggesting these burials took place over various timeframes.
The latest discovery promises to add further clarity to certain aspects of early dynastic Egyptian history and offers a deeper understanding of the era's royal burial practices. With the mission still ongoing, the archaeological team hopes to unveil more secrets surrounding the history and identity of Queen Merneith.
Top image: Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of ancient wine jars in Queen Merneith’s tomb. Source: Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
By Gary Manners