Ramesses III, Egypt's last great pharaoh, had his throat slashed
in a royal coup led by his son and one of his wives, according to new forensic analysis.
Computed tomography (CT) imaging revealed a serious wound in the throat of pharaoh's mummy, just beneath the larynx.
Possibly caused by a sharp knife or a blade, the injury was about 2.75 inches wide and extended almost to the spine, cutting all the soft tissue on the front of the neck.
"Accordingly, all organs in this region, such as the trachea, oesophagus, and large blood vessels, were severed," a team of Egyptian and European researchers led by Albert Zink, a paleopathologist at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman of the European Academy of Bolzano in Italy, wrote in the current issue of the British Medical Journal.
"The extent and depth of the wound indicated that it could have caused the immediate death of Ramesses III," they added.
The second Pharaoh of the 20th dynasty, Ramesses III ruled from about 1188 to 1155 B.C. He was the last significant king of the New Kingdom.
Ancient documents describe him as the "Great God" and a military leader who defended Egypt from repeated invasion of an ethnic group that the Egyptians called the Sea Peoples.
He was about 65 when he died, but the cause of his death has never been clear.
Ancient documents including the Judicial Papyrus of Turin clearly state that in 1155 B.C. members of Ramesses III's harem attempted to murder him as part of a palace coup to change the line of succession.
According to the documents, the coup failed, but it is less clear whether the assassination was successful.
Some some texts says it was, while other accounts imply that the king survived the attack, at least for a short while.
The Judicial Papyrus tells of four separate trials and lists the punishments reserved to those involved in the conspiracy, which included queen Tiye, one of the king's two known wives, and her son Prince Pentawere.
To resolve the 3,000-year-old puzzle, Zink and colleagues carried anthropological and forensic cold case analysis on the mummy of Ramesses III and the unidentified remains of a younger man buried nearby in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.
Called man E, or Screaming Mummy for its open mouth and contorted face, the mummy was believed to be the pharaoh's son Pentawere.
CT scans and DNA tests on the mummies, which are now kept at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, produced important results.
The researchers could see a Horus eye amulet embedded in Ramesses III's wound. The charm symbolized royal power, protection, and good health.
"Most probably, the ancient Egyptian embalmers tried to restore the wound during mummification by inserting the amulet, generally used for healing purposes, and by covering the neck with a collar of thick linen layers," the researchers said.
Although it is possible that the throat was cut after his death, the Zink and colleagues believe this is highly unlikely.
"A treatment in which the throat was cut by the embalmers has not been described in any other Egyptian mummy," they said.
DNA analysis showed that Ramesses III and unknown man E shared the same Y chromosome and 50 percent of their genetic material, strongly suggesting that they were father and son.
According to the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, Pentawere was found guilty at trial, and then took his own life.
About 18-20 years old, the mummy of man E had a very strange, reddish color and was covered by a goat skin, a material regarded as ritually impure.
"He was badly treated for a mummy," Zink said.
Moreover, the young man had unusual compressed skin folds and wrinkles around his neck as well as an inflated chest.
According to the researchers, this may suggest he was strangled to death.
"However, the lack of further evidence for strangulation, such as fractures in the laryngeal skeleton, and the gas formation in the body caused by decomposition processes does not allow any clear conclusions regarding the cause of death," the researchers said.
They added that the unusual mummification and the use of the impure goat skin to cover the body might have been a some sort of a punishment. Indeed, the mummy underwent a non-royal burial procedure.
"Together with the genetically proven family relationship with Ramesses III, we therefore believe that unknown man E is a good candidate for Pentawere," the researchers concluded.
Egyptologist Susan Redford from Pennsylvania State University, author of The Harem Conspiracy: The Murder of Ramesses III, agreed with the identification of Pentawere.
"One thing does give me pause," she told the daily USA Today. "In the ancient texts of the trial transcripts it states clearly that Pentawere was allowed to commit suicide. As far as I know — one cannot strangle oneself to death — so we have a problem here."
Photo: Mummy of Ramesses III, Cairo Museum Credit: G. Elliot Smith/Wikimedia Commons.