Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery - June 2016

Princess Ba-ta-anta's tooth

Ba-ta-anta tooth & letter

June’s Object of the Month has been chosen by Geraldine Ashby, collections volunteer at the museum. Geraldine was given the opportunity to investigate the archaeological collections held at the museum. While going through the objects stored in the basement, she stumbled upon a 3,000 year old tooth of a mummified Ancient Egyptian princess.

Inside an envelope was a little leather pocket containing the tooth of Princess Ba-ta-anta from Thebes. Enthralling as it is to unwrap the remains of a mummy; it was upon reading the content of the accompanying letter that the whole story came to life. The letter had been written in the manner of an adventure novel and contained a description of the discovery of the princess’s tooth. The letter told of an outrageous tale of tomb raiding where thieves plunder ancient Egyptian sepulchres for riches:

“These tombs were forcibly opened…and most wantonly ravaged in search of treasure. The mummied Queens were dragged from their coffins, and in some cases torn limb from limb, in the eager search for bracelets, beads, and scarabs”.

The story of Princess Ba-ta-anta, most commonly known as Bintanath, is fascinating in its own right. However, the veracity of the account and the historical background are difficult to ascertain. Ba-ta-anta is often said to be the daughter of Ramses II (1279-1212 BC) and Queen Isetnofret. The pharaoh is believed to have had 119 children and Ba-ta-anta was apparently the first and most beloved of his daughters. Furthermore, following the royal traditions of the period, Ramses II also married close family members such as a sister (Henutmire) and three of his daughters (Bintanath, Meritamun and Nebettawi). Ba-ta-anta became his third great royal wife. It must be noted that such unions were extremely rare and that their meaning is not fully understood. As a matter of fact, only in the case of this particular union is there any suspicion of a child. Finally, Princess Ba-ta-anta has been linked with biblical history where she is speculated to have adopted and raised Moses as a son. For these reasons, Ba-ta-anta became a major character in Georg Ebers’ novel entitled “Uarda: A Romance Of Ancient Egypt”.

The tooth held by the Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery was allegedly found by H. R. G. Gresley who wrote the accompanying letter in 1884. However, in the register it is also mentioned that the tooth was discovered by Rev. N. W. Gresley. The tooth was subsequently exhibited by Rev. N. W. Gresley and given to the museum in 1946 by Mrs Stafford Gresley c/o the Westminster Bank in Mount Ephraim, Tunbridge Wells. The conditions under which it was discovered are gruesomely depicted in the letter:

“…at the time of her burning her skull must have accidentally fallen from the fire, and the lower jaw rolled into a corner of the dark funeral chamber, where it remained unnoticed until March, 1884, when it was the good luck of the writer to spy it out and carry off the teeth contained in it to England”.

Geraldine says of her choice: "On my second week, while going through the objects stored in the basement I came across an old envelope in a drawer entitled “Tooth of Princess Ba-ta-anta from Thebes.” This piqued my interest due to the fact that Ancient Egyptian history is of particular interest to me. It was the story behind this particular object that made me chose it as the object of the month."

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