3,000-year-old murder solved

Egyptologists say they believe they’ve established the truth about the death of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses III 3,000 years ago. And, just as an ancient papyrus suggests, they say, conspirators murdered him by slitting his throat.

The papyrus, now in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, describes what’s known as the harem conspiracy. It says that Tiy, one of the Pharaoh’s wives, plotted to murder him and put her son Pentawere on the throne.

According to the document, the conspiracy was discovered and all those involved brought to trial and punished. It’s silent, though, on what happened to the king himself.

But an international team has now carried out computed tomography scans, molecular genetic analysis and radiological investigations, to discover that the mummy’s throat was cut while he was still alive.

“The neck wound only became visible through the use of computed tomography,” says Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, a former general secretary of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.

“It was clear that Ramesses had died in 1156 BC, roughly at the age of 65, but the cause of his death had not been known.”

More evidence for the theory that the king was murdered came with the discovery of an amulet representing the Eye of Horus – a common symbol for guarding against accidents and for the restoration of physical strength. The amulet was discovered in the wound itself.

“The slashed throat and the amulet prove clearly that the pharaoh had in fact been murdered,” says Albert Zink, 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.”

And there’s even evidence for the claim that Ramesses III was indeed murdered as a result of the harem conspiracy. A DNA analysis showed that Ramesses III was directly related to a mummy so far known as ‘Unknown Man E’, but suspected to be Pentawere.

“The mummy is therefore, in all probability, a son of Ramesses III,” says Carsten Pusch, a molecular geneticist at the University of Tübingen. “To achieve a certainty of 100 percent, one would need to sequence the genome of the mother.” Unfortunately, this isn’t yet possible, as Tiy’s mummy has not been found.

The mummy identified as Pentawere does, though, appear to have committed suicide.

“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,” says Zink.

“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.”

This undignified burial may mean that, as one of the instigators of the conspiracy, he was offered the chance of suicide to escape worse punishment in the afterlife.