Tomb Hidden by History, Now Revealed: Wet Nurse of Tutankhamun May have been His Own Sister

by Liz Leafloor
Ancient Origins

The famous Egyptian boy king, Pharaoh Tutankhamun is believed to have been wet-nursed by a woman named Maia—who may have been his sister. The tomb of this mysterious woman has been opened to the public for the first time since its discovery in 1996, revealing ancient engravings and paintings.

The tomb in Saqqara, a necropolis located 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Cairo, was discovered almost 20 years ago and is set to be opened to visitors for the first time. The tomb of the wet nurse was uncovered by French Archaeologist Dr. Alain Zivie, Head of the French mission in Bubastis at Saqqara since 1996, who was there for the unveiling to journalists last week in Egypt, reports science website

Images at the entrance of the tomb of the wet nurse, called Maya, shows the 
pharaoh Tutankhamen seated on her lap. It's now believed that 
Maya may have been Tutankhamen's sister, Meritaten. (Public Domain)
“Maia is none other than princess Meritaten, the sister or half-sister of Tutankhamun and the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti,” Zivie said.
Paintings and inscriptions within the newly opened Maia’s Tomb. (Credit: Ministry of Antiquities)

In a ministry press release, Egypt's antiquities minister Mamdouh el-Damaty described the grand unveiling of the tomb as being very important, and referred to a potsherd found within the tomb during cleaning. On the sherd was inscribed the title “Great one of the Harim,” and researchers believe that “Maia” wasn’t simply the private wet nurse to Tutankhamun, but a woman of high status, and likely his eldest sister Maia (also known as Maya, Matia or Meritaten).

Bust of Meritaten, daughter of Pharaoh Akhenaten. (CC BY-SA 1.0)

Experts point to one scene on the royal tomb at Tal Al-Amarna (Amarna) that features the burial of Meketaten, eldest daughter of Pharaoh Akhenaten. In the same scene “Merit Aten” is seen holding a baby and breastfeeding it, and it’s believed the baby is the future king, Tutankhamun, notes the press release. writes that Zivie’s conclusions on the brother-sister relationship were based on the carvings of Tutankhamun and Maia on the walls of Maia's tomb.
“The extraordinary thing is that they are very similar. They have the same chin, the eyes, the family traits. The carvings show Maia sitting on the royal throne and he is sitting on her lap,” Zivie said.
A bust said to be of an Amarna Princess (CC BY-SA 3.0)

History buried the tomb, but it is now revealed

The richly-decorated tomb consists of three rooms, with a staircase descending to the burial chamber. DailyMail reports the first chamber is dedicated to the woman’s life, the second shows her burial rites with attendants bearing offerings. The third, and largest chamber contains four pillars decorated with images of the wet nurse. The staircase leads to the burial site, which was largely undecorated.

A gallery of images can be seen at DailyMail.

CBC reports that when the tomb was found the scenes and original inscriptions had been covered up with stones and construction material during the time of the Greek and Roman civilizations so as to repurpose the area as a cat cemetery. Careful restoration revealed the original art and messages.

Mysterious Maia

Stele: Akhenaten sits on a stool on the left side, handing a jewel to his eldest daughter 
(and possibly Tut’s wet nurse) Meritaten, who stands in front of him. On the right plays with two of their daughters on her lap, Meketaten and Ankhesenpaaten. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Maia is known for her titles as “wet nurse of the king”, “great one of the harim”, and “educator of the god's body” – an allusion to breastfeeding. Maia’s parentage is unknown, and not much is known about the woman herself except for inscriptions and images from her tomb. Tutankhamun is mentioned several times from tomb writings, and is seen sitting in her lap in images.

Bust of the boy king, Tutankhamun found in his tomb, 1922. (CC BY 2.0)

The discovery of the riches-filled tomb and the mummy of Tutankhamun by British Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1922 spurred worldwide fascination. DNA analysis in 2010 revealed the boy king as the son of Akhenaten.

Akehaten’s tomb shows carvings of the death of a princess. Zivie says, “In these scenes there is a woman who is breast-feeding a baby, and this woman shown as a wet nurse is princess Meritaten, the eldest daughter of Akhenaten.”

Archaeologists still search for the mummy of Meritaten, and it’s wondered if it might rest in a secret chamber in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Hidden chambers are thought to exist in Tut’s tomb after recent scans revealed anomalous readings. It’s also speculated that such chambers may contain the burial site of Nefertiti, whose body has never been found.

Scans of the north wall of King Tutankhamun's burial chamber have revealed features beneath the intricately decorated plaster (highlighted) a researcher believes may be a hidden door, possibly to the burial chamber of Nefertiti. Credit: Factum Arte.

Maia’s tomb will be officially opening to the public next month, revealing the multi-layered lives of the royals of ancient Egypt.

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