Friday, 2 May 2014

The death of Ramesses III.

Ramesses III is ruled Egypt from about 1186 to about 1185 BC. He was the second pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty, and generally considered the last significant monarch of the Young Kingdom. He ruled during a time of increasing political instability in the eastern Mediterranean, and fought numerous battles against foreign invaders, notably the 'Peoples of the Sea', whom he defeated in the fifth year of his reign, and tribesmen from the Libyan Desert, who attacked Egypt in the sixth and eleventh years of his reign. Ramesses also faced considerable economic disruption, both from the political turmoil engulfing neighbouring nations and from widespread crop failures, thought to have been caused by a major eruption on the Hekla Volcano in Iceland. The first recorded industrial strikes during Ramasses III's reign, with artisans and tomb builders refusing to work due to a shortage of provisions.

The Judicial Papyrus records the trial and punishment of a number of individuals involved in a plot to assassinate Ramesses III and replace him with one of his sons, Prince Pentawere, who was the son of a minor wife, Queen Tiy, and therefore unlikely to succeed his father. Unfortunately, like many Ancient Egyptian documents, the language in the Judicial Papyrus is somewhat florid, and it is unclear whether how successful the plot was and whether Ramesses survived the assassination attempt (the Egyptians were apparently uncomfortable discussing the deaths of their rulers, and were often rather circumspect about how Pharaohs met their ends.

When the tomb of Ramesses III was opened it was found to contain not just the Pharaoh himself, but that of a second man, referred to as ‘E’. The identity of E is uncertain, and he appears to have been mummified in a distinctly unusual way; none of his internal organs were removed (which was normally done to prevent post-mortem decomposition of the body), the body was wrapped in the skin of a Goat (an unclean animal that would not normally have been allowed anywhere near such a burial), and a layer of natron, crushed resin and lime was found between the skin and the bandages which wrapped it, leading to the skin being an unusual redish colour not usually seen in Egyptian mummies. The corpse had an expression of extreme anguish, which led to the suggestion that the man had been wrapped and entombed while still alive.

In a paper published in the British Medical Journal on 17 December 2012, a team of scientists led by Zahi Hawass of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities describe a re-examination of the mummies of Ramesses III and E carried out at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo with the intention of determining the fates of both men, and any possible relationship between them. Both mummies had previously been investigated in the 1880s, though techniques were somewhat less advanced at the time, and these facts were not established.

A deep stab wound was found in the neck of Ramesses III, which had severed the trachea, oesophagus, and large blood vessels. Such a wound would have been immediately fatal, and is therefore extremely likely to have been the cause of the Pharaohs death. It is possible that the wound occurred post-mortem, either deliberately or accidentally, but none of the clothing or wrapping found around the injury was damaged and no similar incision has been recorded in any other Egyptian mummy, making this somewhat unlikely. The injury had been covered by a layer of bitumen (which disguised the original investigators, but not modern scientists armed with CT scanning techniques), and an Amulet of Horus (associated with healing) inserted into the wound, probably in an attempt to ensure that the wound was healed in the afterlife.

Sagittal CT section image of the neck of Ramesses III. Arrows indicate a foreign object. Stars are wound margins; embalming material has seeped into wound and bone. Triangles indicate skin above and below the wound. Hawass et al. (2012).

The death of E was harder to explain. The body was partially decomposed, but showed no obvious physical injuries. The lungs of the corpse showed signs of overinflation, which is associated with diseases such as emphysema or death by strangulation or suffocation, though with no accompanying injuries the significance of this is hard to assess.

A genetic analysis of the two bodies suggested that they were in fact closely related, and shared a common Y chromosome, making it likely that E was a son of Ramesses III. The Pharaoh is known to have had several sons, though only Prince Pentawere is recorded as having rebelled against his father, so it seems likely that the apparently intentionally degrading way in which E was mummified does indicate that he is Pentawere.

Neck region of unknown man E. Arrows indicate skin folds and wrinkles under right mandible and neck region. Hawass et al. (2012).

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