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Egyptian king had throat slashed, study finds

Dec. 18, 2012
Courtesy of the University of Tubingen
and World Science staff

A pa­py­rus doc­u­ment at the Egyp­tian Mu­se­um in Tu­rin, Italy de­scribes a crime that shook an­cient Egypt. One of the Pha­raoh’s wives, Tiy, de­cid­ed to kill her hus­band, the god-like King Ramesses III, so her son Pen­ta­were could seize the throne.

The plot was ex­posed, the doc­u­ment re­lates, and the con­spira­tors tried and pun­ished. But just what be­came of the mon­arch has re­mained a ques­tion mark. 

The mummy of Rames­ses III, from a photo in the 1912 book Gen­eral Cata­logue of Egypti­an Ant­i­qui­ties in the Cai­ro Mu­seum pub­lished by the French In­sti­tute of Ori­ental Arch­aeo­logy.


Sci­en­tists have now sub­jected his mum­my to com­put­ed to­mog­ra­phy scans, mo­lec­u­lar ge­net­ic anal­y­sis and ra­di­o­lo­g­i­cal tests. The in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­clud­ed that the king’s throat was slashed while he lived—and the son seems really to have hanged him­self, as the doc­u­ment states he was pressed in­to do­ing as ret­ri­bu­tion.

The pharao­h’s “neck wound only be­came vis­i­ble through the use of com­put­ed to­mo­g­ra­phy” or CT scans, said Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, a key mem­ber of the re­search team. 

Hawass has had ac­cess to the mum­my through his form­er po­si­tion as gen­er­al sec­re­tary of the Su­preme Coun­cil of An­ti­qu­i­ties un­der the Egyp­tian re­gime over­thrown last year.

“It was clear that Ramesses had died in 1156 B.C., roughly at the age of 65, but the cause of his death had not been known,” said Ha­wass, not­ing that neck ban­dages con­ceal the wound.

In the CT im­ages, sci­en­tists could fur­ther make out in the wound an am­u­let rep­re­sent­ing a so-called Eye of Ho­rus, in Egypt a com­mon sym­bol for guard­ing against ac­ci­dents and res­tor­ing strength. 

“The slashed throat and the am­u­let prove clearly that the phar­aoh [was] mur­dered,” said Al­bert Zink, col­la­bo­ra­tor in the work and a paleo­pathol­o­gist at the Eu­ro­pe­an Acad­e­my of Bol­za­no/Bo­zen. “The am­u­let was placed in the wound af­ter his death to en­a­ble him to re­cov­er fully for the af­terlife.”

But was he killed as a re­sult of the har­em con­spir­a­cy, as the Tu­rin Ju­di­cial Pa­py­rus sug­gests? The sci­en­tists said they found the ev­i­dence in an­oth­er mum­my. Test­ing DNA, they con­firmed sug­ges­tions that Ra­messes III was probably the fa­ther of an­oth­er, mum­mi­fied, 18-to-20 year old man hith­er­to dubbed “Un­known Ma­n E.” That would pre­sumably be Pen­ta­were, who al­legedly in­sti­gat­ed the con­spir­a­cy with his moth­er. Tests in­di­cat­ed a 50 per­cent match be­tween the two men’s ge­net­ic ma­te­ri­al. 

“The mum­my is there­fore, in all prob­a­bil­ity, a son of Ra­mes­ses III. To achieve a cer­tain­ty of 100 per­cent, one would need to se­quence the ge­nome of the moth­er,” said Car­sten Pusch, an­oth­er mem­ber of the re­search team and a mo­lec­u­lar ge­net­icist at the Uni­vers­ity of Tü­bin­gen in Germa­ny. 

The moth­er’s mum­my has nev­er turned up, though.

Zink and col­leagues al­so con­ducted ra­di­o­lo­g­i­cal tests on Un­known Ma­n E. “What caught our at­ten­tion was the fact that the body was rath­er in­flat­ed. In ad­di­tion, there was a strange skin fold on his neck. This could have been the re­sult of com­mit­ting su­i­cide by hang­ing. Fur­ther­more, his only cov­er was a goat’s skin – which was con­sid­ered im­pure – and he had al­so been mum­mi­fied with­out hav­ing his or­gans and brain re­moved,” said Zink. In oth­er words, he was bur­ied in a way not be­fit­ting a prince.

This, the re­search­ers added, fits with the pa­py­rus’s claim that he was one of the instiga­tors of­fered the chance of su­i­cide to es­cape worse pun­ish­ment in the af­terlife.


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A papyrus document at the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy describes a crime that shook ancient Egypt. One of the Pharaoh’s wives, Tiy, decided to kill her husband, the god-like King Ramesses III, so her son Pentawere could seize the throne. The plot was exposed, the document relates, and the conspirators tried and punished. But just what became of the monarch has remained a question mark. Scientists have now subjected his mummy to computed tomography scans, molecular genetic analysis and radiological tests. The investigators concluded that the king’s throat was slashed while he lived—and the son seems really to have hanged himself, as the document states he was pressed into doing as retribution. The pharaoh’s “neck wound only became visible through the use of computed tomography” or CT scans, said Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, a key member of the research team. Hawass has had access to the mummy through his former position as general secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of the Egyptian regime overthrown last year. “It was clear that Ramesses had died in 1156 B.C., roughly at the age of 65, but the cause of his death had not been known,” added Hawass, noting that neck bandages conceal the wound. In the CT images, scientists could further make out in the wound an amulet representing a so-called Eye of Horus, in Egypt a common symbol for guarding against accidents and for the restoration of physical strength. “The slashed throat and the amulet prove clearly that the pharaoh [was] murdered,” said Albert Zink, collaborator in the work and a palaeopathologist at the European Academy of Bolzano/Bozen. “The amulet was placed in the wound after his death to enable him to recover fully for the afterlife.” But was he killed as a result of the harem conspiracy, as the Turin Judicial Papyrus suggests? The scientists said they found the evidence in another mummy. Testing DNA, they confirmed suggestions that Ramesses III was probably the father of another, mummified, 18-to-20 year old man hitherto dubbed “Unknown Man E.” That would presumably be Pentawere, who allegedly instigated the conspiracy with his mother. Tests indicated a 50% match between the two men’s genetic material. “The mummy is therefore, in all probability, a son of Ramesses III. To achieve a certainty of 100%, one would need to sequence the genome of the mother,” said Carsten Pusch, another member of the research team and a molecular geneticist at the University of Tübingen in Germany. The mother’s mummy has never turned up, though. Zink and colleagues also conducted radiological tests on Unknown Man E. “What caught our attention was the fact that the body was rather inflated. In addition, there was a strange skin fold on his neck. This could have been the result of committing suicide by hanging. Furthermore, his only cover was a goat’s skin – which was considered impure – and he had also been mummified without having his organs and brain removed,” said Zink. In other words, he was buried in a way not befitting a prince. This, the researchers added, fits with the papyrus’s claim that he was one of the instigators offered the chance of suicide to escape worse punishment in the afterlife.