A pharaonic murder mystery that was solved with forensic analysis

Red granite sarcophagus of Ramesses III at the Louvre.  Image credit: Korribot on Wikipedia.

Red granite sarcophagus of Ramesses III at the Louvre. Image credit: Korribot on Wikipedia.

Forensic analyses of two Egyptian mummies published in the British Medical Journal in 2012 may have answered questions scholars had about the outcome of an ancient conspiracy against Pharaoh Ramesses III and the identity of a contorted mummy believed to be his “murderous son.” A team comprised of egyptologists, geneticists, biologists, and paleoanthropologists conducted a forensic examination on both mummies that included an anthropological examination, CT scans, and DNA tests (Hawass et al., 2012).

Ramesses III (1217 BC – 1155 BC) was the second pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty. Considered to the “last great king” of the New Kingdom, he ruled during a difficult time of economic instability and national turmoil caused by drought and war (Al Jazeera 2012). But his rule was cut short by treacherous acts committed by members of his own family and palace staff.

Ramesses III had chosen Ramesses Amonhirkhopshef (Ramesses IV), his son with Queen Tyti, to be his successor. But Queen Tiye, his secondary wife, wanted her son, Pentawer, to inherit the throne. To do this, Queen Tiy and Pentawer enlisted the help of numerous palace administrators and servants. In 1155, the conspirators made their move in what is known as the Harem Conspiracy. Historical records state that when Ramesses III was in his royal harem he was attacked and his throat was cut, but it was not known if Ramesses died or survived the attack-even for a short time (Hawass et al., 2012).

The conspirators were captured and were prosecuted in four trials, which were recorded in the Judicial Papyrus of Turin (Hawass et al., 2012). The Judicial Papyrus of Turin also implies contradictory outcomes for Ramesses III. Parts of the document suggest that he died before or during the trials and other parts indicate that he gave the court “direct instructions (Hawass et al., 2012).” Due to the inconsistent statements of the papyrus regarding Ramesses’ fate, historians debated on whether or not he died immediately, lingered an died a while later, or survived entirely (Hawass et al., 2012).

In 1886 the body of Ramesses III and an unidentified body known as the Screaming Mummy, or Unknown Man E, were discovered. The Screaming Mummy got his morbid nickname because his facial muscles were twisted into an eternal scream. Scholars believed it was possible that unidentified mummy was Pentawer’s body but they had no evidence. To answer questions about Ramesses’ death and the identity of Unknown Man E, the international team examined both mummies (Hawass et al., 2012).

Although the mummified body of Ramesses III was unwrapped when it was discovered in 1886, the linen around his throat was not touched so CT scans were needed for a complete examination (Bossone 2008 and Hawass et al., 2012). The scans revealed a large cut about 2.7 inches wide right below the larynx (Hawass et al., 2012). The wound was so deep that it severed the trachea, esophagus, and arteries hitting fifth through seventh vertebrae. This injury was fatal and likely caused immediate death (Hawass et al., 2012). The team also found an Eye of Horus amulet in the wound. The Eye of Horus was used has a symbol of “royal power, protection, and good health in ancient Egypt (Hawass et al., 2012).

The body of the Screaming Mummy confirmed to be Pentawer.  Image credit: Khruner on Wikipedia.

The body of the Screaming Mummy confirmed to be Pentawer. Image credit: Khruner on Wikipedia.

When the Screaming Mummy was found in 1886, the body was found wrapped in a goat skin with his hands and feet tied. The goat skin is unusual, especially for a royal burial, because it was considered “ritually impure (Hawass et al., 2012 and Brier 2006).” CT scans showed that the body belonged to a male between 18 and 20 years old based on the incomplete fusion of the long bones. The research team also found that the brain and organs were still intact, which they interpreted as evidence of a hasty mummification. But they could not find any indication of his cause of death.

Bone samples were taken from both bodies and genetically tested.   Investigators discovered that bodies of Ramesses III and the Screaming Mummy shared the same Y chromosome and half of their DNA, consistent with father son relationship (Hawass et al., 2012 and Roberts 2012).

According to the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, all of those involved in the Harem Conspiracy were tried and found guilty. The main conspirators were given the choice of committing suicide or facing the executioner. Some believe that Pentawer committed suicide by hanging himself, and his body was hastily embalmed so that he would continue to pay for his crimes for eternity (Al Jazeera 2012).

Works Cited

Rameses III ‘assassinated’ in a royal coup. (2012). Retrieved from: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/12/2012121882115867502.html

Bossone, A. (2008). “Screaming Mummy” Is Murderous Son of Ramses III? Retrieved from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/11/081121-screaming-mummy-ramses-missions.html

Brier, B. (2006). The Mystery of Unknown Man E. Retrieved from: http://archive.archaeology.org/0603/abstracts/mysteryman.html

Hawass, Z., Ismail, S., Selim, A., Saleem, S.N., Fathalla, D., Wasef, S.,…Zink, A.R. (2012). Revisiting the harem conspiracy and death of Ramesses III: anthropological, forensic, radiological, and genetic study. BMJ 2012: 345.

Roberts, M. (2012). King Ramesses III’s throat was slit, analysis reveals. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-20755264


Categories: Archaeology, Forensic Science

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