The enigma surrounding a 3,000-year-old royal murder seems to have been solved.
Nevine El-Aref looks at the latest evidence
Forensic technology has recently been playing a major role in Egyptology. After centuries of ambiguity and mystery surrounding several chapters of ancient Egyptian history, modern science has finally cleared up many of the enigmas and provided a better understanding of some important episodes in this great civilisation.
Modern methods have recently succeeded in identifying several royal mummies, detailing their lineages and recognising the diseases from which they suffered in life as well as solving the paradoxes behind some mysterious deaths.
Among these achievements has been solving the enigma of the early death of the boy king Tutankhamun, including the symptoms that led to his demise in early manhood as well as the identity of the mummies of his two unborn children.
It also identified the mummy of the monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten, and proved that he was Tutankhamun’s father by a secondary wife.
The mummies of Queen Hatshepsut and Pharaoh Amenhotep II, the grandfather of Tutankhamun, have also been identified.
This week scientific researches, archaeological reviews, DNA analyses, CT images and forensic, anthropological and genetic studies have put an end to the long-debated mystery over the death of Pharaoh Ramses III, a conundrum that has perplexed Egyptologists ever since the discovery of the king’s mummy in the Deir Al-Bahari cachet in Luxor in 1886. The events recorded on the harem conspiracy papyrus now exhibited at the Turin Museum further deepened the mystery.
Ramses III, the second Pharaoh of the 20th Dynasty, is considered the last New Kingdom ruler to hold substantial authority over Egypt.
His 31-year reign saw several invasions from the Sea Peoples and Libyan tribes that weakened the country’s economy, and which in turn contributed to the decline of the Egyptian empire in Asia. Internal conflicts and strikes eventually led to the collapse of the 20th Dynasty.
The Pharaoh’s death was overshadowed by a plot called the Harem Conspiracy, as described in the Judicial Papyrus of Turin. Despite the information in the papyrus it could not be determined whether Ramses III escaped or was killed during the plot.
According to the Judicial Papyrus, also known as the Trial Transcripts Papyrus, a plot to kill Ramses III was woven in 1155 BC by top officials of the palace and army standard bearers, as well as his secondary wife Tiya and her son Prince Pentawere. The plan was to end the life of the king and place his son Pentawere on the throne in his stead.
The papyrus asserted that the coup failed and the defendants were rounded up and sent for trial, but it was unclear whether the assassination was successful.
It goes on to recount four separate trials and lists the punishments meted out to the criminals. Some were sentenced to death while others were sentenced to commit suicide. Among the latter was Pentawere.
The papyrus also relates that the court received direct instructions from the Pharaoh, but this fact does not in itself pinpoint the exact time of the king’s death and whether it took place during the court trials or later.
Previous Egyptological studies on the papyrus have shown that a sentence about “overturning of the royal bark” suggests a possible metaphor for an assassination.
Because of the lack of a concrete cause of death found in previous forensic studies on the king’s mummy, Egyptologists have surmised that the Pharaoh was injured in the plot and then succumbed his wounds, or that the coup was foiled, or that it was a complete success. What has made the interpretations more difficult is that the mummy of Prince Pentawere had not yet been identified to help settle the Egyptologists’ argument. It has been now been determined, however, that the unidentified mummy E, known as the “screaming mummy” and also found in the royal cachet at Deir Al-Bahari in Luxor, is a possible candidate for Pentawere.
The mummification process for this corpse was unusual in that it was found wrapped in impure goat skin, which according to ancient Egyptian rituals is evidence of a punishment.
Studies carried out on the mummy suggest that the deceased might have been poisoned or buried alive because its contorted facial features reflect pain and discomfort, while the mouth is wide open — hence the nickname “screaming mummy”.
Two years ago, following the success forensic technology had gained in similar cases (as in determining the cause of Tutankhamun’s early death), an international scientific and archaeological team led by renowned archaeologist and former minister of state for antiquities Zahi Hawass and radiologist Ashraf Selim carried out a large scale study analyses on Ramses III’s mummy and the “screaming mummy” using CT scans, X-ray images, and anthropological, radiological, forensic and genetic methods. The results of the studies were published last week in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
Selim told Al-Ahram Weekly that CT scans on Ramses III’s mummy had revealed a deep, serious wound almost 70mm wide in the throat of Ramses III’s mummy, directly under the larynx and extended to the spine. The trachea was clearly cut and its proximal and distal ends were retracted and separated by about 30mm. The trachea, oesophagus and large blood vessels were detached.
“The extent and depth of the wound indicated that it could have caused the immediate death of Ramses III,” Selim says. He adds that studies on the unknown mummy suggest that he died between the age of 18 and 20, and that the body underwent a mummification procedure unusual for the 20th Dynasty. The skin had a reddish colour and the body was wrapped in a goat skin. Remains of the brain and inner organs were still inside the body, while there was no trace of embalming materials inside the body cavities. Unusual compressed skin folds and wrinkles were visible directly under the right mandible and on the right and left neck regions.
According to the report published in the BMJ, scientists suggested that the red colour could have been caused by a mixture of natron, crushed resin and lime, which had been detected under a layer of bandages during the unwrapping in 1886.
“The scans also revealed taphonomical changes in the mummy, as shown by gas formation in the abdominal cavity, bladder, hip and lower neck. “The thorax also seemed to be strongly inflated with air, together with widened intercostal spaces and a lateral shifting of the scapulae,” the BMJ report said.
Paleoanthropologist Albert Zink from the EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Italy, one of the team members, says this effect could be due to postmortem processes of degradation in the mummy, but that other reasons for the thorax widening should also be considered. In modern cases, diseases such as emphysema or death by suffocation can lead to overinflation of the lungs.
The report said that genetic kinship analyses revealed identical haplotypes in both mummies. The Y chromosomal haplogroup E1b1a was determined. The testing of polymorphic autosomal microsatellite loci provided similar results in at least one allele of each marker.
“This study provided the clues to solve a long debated issue among Egyptologists,” Hawass said. He noted that it had been a great success and proved to be another facet of science that served archaeology.
“We are changing a very important saga of ancient Egyptian history,” he said, adding that these recent results contradicted what was written in the trial papyrus, which suggested that Ramses III was not killed during the plot and continued to give directions during the trials.
Hawass said it was now obvious that Ramses III was killed during the coup by a sharp knife or blade that cut his neck from the back. Damage to the throat after death appears to be unlikely because the collar around the mummy’s neck was intact and undamaged at the unwrapping in 1886.
“The presence of an udget eye of Horus inside the soft tissue of the wound, together with homogenous materials and other amulets featuring the four sons of Horus is further evidence of the assassination, according to Hawass. Embalmers inserted such an amulet in the mummy in order to heal the king’s wounds in the afterlife. In ancient Egyptian belief, the eye of Horus was a magical amulet that served as a metaphor of royal power, protection and good health.
Hawass said the studies also revealed that the screaming mummy was indeed that of Ramses III’s son, Prince Pentawere. Genetic analyses showed parental lineage on both mummies for a father and son, while the unusual mummification process of the shown by the use of the impure goat skin to cover the body and the presence of the internal organs was evidence of punishment in the form of a non-royal burial procedure.
The findings are backed up by historical evidence. It is known that Pentawere was the only one of Ramses’s sons to revolt against his father and to have been part of the Harem Conspiracy. His inflated thorax and the skinfolds found around his neck point to violent actions that led to death, such as strangulation.