The still-regal mummified head of a woman who lived over 3,300 years ago attests to the beauty and poise she must have had in life. Her name was Thuya (also transliterated as “Tjuyu”), and she was a noblewoman of the 18th Dynasty of ancient Egypt. Thuya is best known for being the mother of Queen Tiye, grandmother of the heretical pharaoh Akhenaten, and great-grandmother of King Tutankhamen. But merely defining her in terms of her family relationships–which were admittedly quite crucial in ancient Egypt–misses what an interesting woman she must have been.
Thuya was definitely not a stay-at-home mom. Hieroglyphic records show she held numerous religious and political offices, including “Superintendent of the Harem of the God Min of Akhmin,” which sounds like the title of a Nile song. Whatever she did in this capacity was probably directed toward consolidating her and her family’s political and cultural power over the fractious kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt which were imperfectly unified. And, as their cults of death and afterlife were a virtual obsession for aristocratic Egyptians, she probably spent a lot of her time conducting rituals and worshiping the dizzying pantheon of bizarre gods that formed the rich cosmology of this civilization.
Thuya most likely lived to see her daughter Tiye marry the pharoah Amenophis III, whose long reign began about 1388 BCE. Tiye was undoubtedly the most powerful woman in Egypt. Thuya died, historians and archaeologists believe, about 1375, probably after the death of her powerful husband Yuya, who was buried in the same tomb, KV 46. Their tomb was robbed, as almost all Egyptian tombs were, in antiquity. The thieves made off with most of the fabulous objects with which the royal couple would have been buried, but they were unable to open Thuya’s coffin. When the tomb was rediscovered in 1905 by British archaeologist James Quibell, she was still wearing her gold-inlaid cartonnage mask depicting her face in life.
Ancient Egypt is a fascinating society, extremely complex and so strange to us in the modern day that Egyptians may as well have been from another planet. (I don’t mean that literally; “ancient aliens” theories are rubbish from start to finish). Because so few records have survived thousands of years, there’s much about Egypt we don’t know. Perhaps someday a future archaeological discovery will shed more light on the life of this interesting woman and her equally interesting times.