Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A Royal Mummy Murder Mystery: Was Pharaoh Ramesses III Assassinated?


It's a question that has bothered Egyptologists for over one hundred years: was Ramesses III murdered?

The Mummy of Ramesses III
Certain papyri record the trials of men and women involved in a plot to assassinate the pharaoh, but from these alone, it is difficult to tell whether the king survived the attempt on his life. One thing is sure, however, this was a large scale harem conspiracy, centred on a lesser royal wife called Tiye, who hoped to place her son, Prince Pentaweret on the throne; she was aided, not by a few scheming nobles, lurking in the shadows of the palace, but by a host of high ranking members of the administration, recruited by the chamberlain to the plot. Members of the treasury and army were also involved, as well as palace serving staff and scribes. Not content to rely solely on physical strength to overcome the king, the conspirators stole books of magic from the royal library, and used the instructions within to form wax figurines, designed to harm the royal bodyguard, and wax gods to hurt the king.

Whatever happened to Ramesses III, the plot was ultimately unsuccessful, and Ramesses IV, the intended heir to the throne succeeded him. The conspirators were sentenced to death, forced to commit suicide, or mutilated. Punishments were extended to family members too.

Now, when trying to determine whether Ramesses III survived the plot or not, you'd think that having his body would be a definite advantage, but no, all examinations proved inconclusive. When Gaston Maspero partially unwrapped the body in 1886, he found its bandages had hardened due to a thick resin coating; much to his disappointment I'm sure, the linen couldn't be removed without damaging the mummy. He did find 'mysterious figures drawn onto the bandages, however, and an image of the god Amun as a winged ram. These were unusual additions to the usual 'mummy package' and again raised the question, what had happened to the king?

This question couldn't be answered. Until now. 

Published in BMJ (Dec 2012, http://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e8268), a recent study of Ramesses III's mummy, using CT-scanning and forensic analyses, has shown the unfortunate king to have a deep wound at his throat, perhaps caused by a knife. The attacker, it seems, sliced into the pharaoh's neck, cutting through his trachea, oesophagus, and large blood vessels, undoubtedly killing the king immediately. The royal embalmers, unwilling to commit their king to eternity with a gaping wound, placed a wedjet-eye (The Eye of Horus) into the cut to magically re-seal it (the Eye represents a return to completeness), and wrapped multiple layers of linen around his neck. Today, adorned with his linen scarf, Ramesses looks chic enough for a causal stroll down the banks of the Seine;  he only lacks his beret and cigarette. No wonder no one believed he'd been murdered, he seems far too serene.

But murdered he was, if the report is to be believed, and not only him - the research team also think they've found the body of Prince Pentaweret, previously known only as Unknown Man E. His DNA showed him to be related to Ramesses III, and there is a good chance that he died by strangulation (though the trial papyri state that Pentaweret killed himself, making strangulation a rather unlikely cause of death). His body was then mummified. Badly. As if the embalmers, were instructed to "get it done, but don't waste too much time on it." His internal organs and brain, typically removed during mummification, were left within, and his body was then covered with a 'ritually impure' goatskin.  In this condition, he was found in 1886, stored in the royal mummy cache at Deir el-Bahri (DB 320) alongside his father.

So now the arguments can begin afresh. Will the academic community challenge the results of the study? What further interpretations can be read into the evidence at hand?

Have we heard the final word on the demise of Ramesses III?