Here in the technological comfort of the modern world, a time 4,500 years in the past may not seem very relevant to daily life. But a previously unknown ancient Egyptian queen named Khentkaus III is sparking conversation about how our civilization could fall into ashes and dust — just like hers.
That’s because her world, which suffered its own doomsday 200 years after her death, was eerily similar to our own: plenty of wealth and strength in a fragile environment altered, and ultimately destroyed, by civilization through climate change.
Is this ancient story a prediction of our own doomsday, a couple centuries in the future? At the very least, the archaeologist examining Queen Khentkaus‘ tomb and remains, Professor Miroslav Barta, thinks it should provide a cautionary tale, he told CNN.
“If we accept collapse as a fact, we will understand collapses as being a part of the natural course of things, and one of the needed steps in the process leading towards ‘resurrection.’ Then, we shall be able to do something about it.”
In other words, we may think we’re far removed from Queen Khentkaus and her ancient world, but we’re just repeating a very old story. And it doesn’t have to end in doomsday.
The tomb of Queen Khentkaus was discovered in early January after a couple months of speculation about the location of her resting place. The tomb was unearthed in Abu-Sir, southwest of Cairo, 650 feet away from her husband, Pharoah Neferefre, BBC reported at the time.
Czech archaeologists knew who she was based on some graffiti inscribed on the wall of her tomb, identifying her name and rank. The location of Queen Khentkaus’ grave also made them think she was the pharaoh’s wife. Before she was found, archaeologists had no idea who Pharoah Neferefre’s wife was, Agence-France Press stated.
She lived during a tumultuous “black patch” during the Old Kingdom era, about 4,500 years ago, or around 2640 to 2150 BCE. During the Fifth Dynasty, Queen Khentkaus witnessed the construction of the pyramids, several of them had been built near the place she was buried, one for her husband.
At the time of her discovery, archaeologists said she could shed some light on the Fifth Dynasty. Weeks later, her bones are already talking: her world was a crumbling one headed for doomsday, an ancient victim of climate change.
Barta explained that several things were going on during this period of the Old Kingdom. Democracy was on the rise, nepotism was rampant and had “horrific” consequences, and interest groups played a huge role in society. But climate change brought the Old Kingdom empire — as well as those in the Middle East and Western Europe — to its knees.
Two centuries after her death, the Nile dried up and drought parched the kingdom, ushering in doomsday. The pyramid builders disappeared next.
“Without reasonable floods, there were no reasonable harvests and therefore very bad taxes; without appropriate taxes there were no sufficient means to finance the state apparatus and maintain the ideology and integrity of the state,” he said.
The fate of the Old Kingdom echoes today, in the state of the modern world and how climate change is already affecting the entire planet — not just Queen Khentkaus’ Nile — potentially nudging us toward doomsday.
“You can find many paths to our modern world, which is also facing many internal and external challenges. By studying the past you can learn much more about the present. We’re not different [from them]. People always think ‘this time it’s different,’ and that ‘we’re different’. We are not.”
Barta hopes her tomb will provide some lessons and help us avoid doomsday. Researchers will examine her remains to determine her age, whether she was ill, and how many children she had; they’ll attempt to reconstruct her face, but it was crushed by tomb raiders, so is likely impossible. They’ll also examine the pottery, woodwork, copper, and animal bones that make up her “funerary repast.”
[Photo by Albin Hillert/Shutterstock]