A team of scientists has shed light on one of the most abiding mysteries of ancient Egypt: what happened to Pharaoh Ramesses III?

Ramesses, who reigned from approximately 1186 BCE-1155 BCE, is regarded by Egyptologists as Egypt′s last great monarch. But the later years of his reign appear to have been a time of disarray. The increasingly penurious state found itself unable to pay the workmen who built the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, which resulted in the first recorded strike in history.

Amidst this general turmoil, members of his court planned a coup to replace him with one of his sons, Prince Pentaweret. The details of the conspirators′ trial are preserved in three documents, the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, the Rollins Papyrus, and the Lee Papyrus. Thanks to these records, we know that the accused included a wide range of individuals, from royal women to palace officials. At some point during the course of the trial, some of the women seem to have tried to seduce the judges, who suffered the loss of their noses and ears as punishment for consorting with the accused. As for the hapless Prince Pentaweret, he was said to have committed suicide (probably in lieu of execution). We do not know what became of his mother, Queen Tiye, who appears to have been the driving force behind the plot.

But the biggest mystery of the whole affair is what happened to Ramesses III himself. The official records are silent as to his fate, though they imply that he died during the course of the trial. This led many scholars to wonder if the coup failed, or if it merely took a while for the king to die.

Now, thanks to the recent CT scans of the king′s mummy, we have the answer: his throat was slit. The wound was so severe that it went all the way down to the spine, severing the trachea, esophagus, and major blood vessels. The result would have been almost instantaneous death. Until now, the wound was overlooked because the neck retained its original bandaging. Interestingly, the CT scan also revealed that the embalmers placed an Eye of Horus amulet in the wound, perhaps to ensure that it healed in the afterlife.

“[The cut] might have been made by the embalmers but this is very unlikely,” said Dr. Albert Zink, a paleopathologist at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Italy who took part in the investigation. “I’m not aware of any other examples of this.”

The researchers also made another surprising discovery: an unidentified male mummy found in an unmarked coffin is probably Prince Pentaweret. The body had not undergone the usual mummification process, and was found wrapped in a goat skin, which was considered ritually impure by the ancient Egyptians. Marks on his neck suggest that he might have been strangled, though the lack of fractures to the laryngeal skeleton make it impossible to say so with certainty.

Furthermore, genetic analysis indicated that Unknown Man E and Ramesses III were closely related. ”From our genetic analysis we could really prove the two were closely related. They share the same Y chromosome and 50% of their genetic material, which is typical of a father-son relationship,” said Dr. Zink.

Although the genetic data does not prove that Unknown Man E is in fact Pentaweret, his dishonorable burial would seem to be consistent with that of a condemned criminal. Burying him in an unmarked coffin without the usual mummification process was probably intended to deny him a posthumous existence in the afterlife.

A full report of the team’s findings can be found on the website of the British Medical Journal.


Image Courtesy : G. Elliot Smith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons