According to CT scans of her mummy, Egyptian queen and pharaoh Hatshepsut died of metastatic bone cancer in 1458 B.C. She was in her 50s by then, obese, probably diabetic, and had arthritis and bad teeth. (In fact it was a broken molar found in a box with her name inscribed on it that allowed her mummy to be identified in 2007.)
Now researchers at the University of Bonn’s Egyptian Museum have added a chronic skin condition to the list of Hatshepsut’s ailments and the lotion she used to alleviate the heartbreak of psoriasis may be what killed her. The museum has a vessel from her tomb in the Valley of Kings in its permanent collection. It was thought to contain perfume, but after two years of study researchers determined that it contained a skin lotion, and not just a light moisturizer either.
Michael Höveler-Müller, curator of the Egyptian collection, enlisted experts from the university’s radiology department to CT scan to flask. Once they had the lay of the land, Höveler-Müller had a professor from the ear, nose and throat clinic slip an endoscope inside the vessel to extract a sample of the contents.
Dr Helmut Wiedenfeld from the pharmaceutical institute was the next to help out, analysing the contents. It was quickly apparent that it contained palm oil and nutmeg oil. “I immediately thought that no-one would put so much fat on their face,” said Wiedenfeld.
But further analysis revealed that the substance contained many unsaturated fatty acids which are used to treat skin diseases.
“It has long been known that Hatshepsut’s family suffered from skin complaints,” said Höveler-Müller.
The mixture however also include tar residue, a substance now banned in cosmetics because it can cause cancer – but still used on prescription to treat chronic skin diseases.
If Hatshepsut did indeed suffer from a chronic skin condition like eczema or psoriasis, she would have applied that lotion repeatedly over the years thus exposing herself constantly to the same tar residue found in cigarette smoke.
There are no written records of her cause of death. After she died, her stepson and disgruntled co-ruler Thutmose III had references to her kingship erased. His resentment of the woman who had declared herself king early in his reign (some time between the second and seventh years of his taking the throne after the death of his father, her husband and half-brother Thutmose II) and then ruled for 22 years with him as nominal, but powerless, co-ruler, may be the reason her mummy was so hard to find. Howard Carter discovered her tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1902, but her sarcophagus was empty.
The tomb of her wet nurse, In-Sitre, however, included an unidentified female mummy with one arm posed in the traditional burial posture of Egyptian pharaohs. It was that mummy which was found to have an empty socket in her jawbone that exactly matched the broken molar in the wooden box. The box was found in 1881 along with a cache of royal mummies in a nearby temple and was inscribed with her name. The tooth had probably fallen out during the mummification process.