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This is the mummy of Ramses III. The conspiracy against him is believed to have been led by one of his wives and Prince Pentawere, their son, whose body may have been found at last.
By News editor
updated 12/18/2012 6:54:54 PM ET 2012-12-18T23:54:54

Solving a centuries-old murder mystery, researchers say Egyptian King Ramses III's throat was likely slit by conspirators in his harem.

Moreover, the body of the pharaoh's traitorous son, Prince Pentawere, may have finally been found.

Scholars have long been puzzled about the death of Ramses III, believed to have ruled from about 1186 B.C. to 1155 B.C. during Egypt's 20th dynasty. While ancient papyrus court documents show that members of the king's harem plotted to kill him as part of a palace coup, it has remained unclear whether the assassination scheme was successful.

Researchers revisited the mummy of Ramses III looking for answers. Their computed tomography (CT) scans revealed a serious wound in his throat. (Horus was the patron god of kings in ancient Egypt.)

"The large and deep cut wound in his neck must have been caused by a sharp knife or other blade," the team wrote in a paper on their findings, published in the British Medical Journal on Monday. They added that the cut, which severed his trachea, esophagus and large blood vessels, would have killed him instantly. [ See Images of Ramses III Mummy & Scans ]

The researchers also found an amulet bearing the eye of Horus lodged in the mummy's throat and think it served as a lucky charm.

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"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 wrote.

The conspiracy against Ramses III is believed to have been led by one of his wives, secondary queen Tiye, and Prince Pentawere, their son. Ancient texts suggest Pentawere was found guilty at trial, and then took his own life, but his body has never been definitively identified.

The researchers of the new study also examined a mummy suspected to be Pentawere, dubbed "unknown man E."

A genetic analysis of this mummy showed he shared the same paternal lineage as Ramses III, "strongly suggesting that they were father and son," noted the researchers.

Because of his contorted expression, some scientists have speculated that unknown man E was poisoned or buried alive. The new analysis did not provide a more conclusive cause of death, but they did find that his lungs were overinflated, which could be a sign of death by suffocation or strangulation, perhaps consistent with a suicide.

Man E was also buried in goat skin, a material regarded as ritually impure in ancient Egypt. This might be interpreted as evidence for a punishment in the form of a non-royal burial procedure, the researchers said, concluding that man E is a "good candidate" for Pentawere.

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Explainer: Chilling tales of real-life mummies

  • Universal

    In "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," Han, the Dragon Emperor, wakes from a 2,000-year-old curse and threatens to plunge the world into his unending, merciless service. Explorer Rick O'Connell and his family battle the resurrected mummy from the catacombs of ancient China into the frigid Himalayas. The movie is pure fiction, inspired by the famous terracotta army that guards the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Real-life mummies have fascinated the public for decades — often with their own horrific tales. Click on the "Next" label to learn about eight of their stories.

    — By John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • King Tut exposed for the world to see

    Nasser Nuri  /  Reuters

    The mummy of King Tutankhamun, the 19-year-old pharaoh whose life and death have captivated audiences ever since his gilded tomb was discovered in 1922, went on public display for the first time in November 2007. He was placed in a climate-controlled box in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Tut's blackened, leathery face and feet, shown here, poke out from a linen covering. CT scans of his body in 2005 ruled out murder as the cause of his death in 1323 B.C. More likely, archaeologists said, was a broken left thigh bone that may have caused a fatal infection.

  • Ramses II's hair found for sale on the Internet

    Ben Curtis  /  AP

    How much is the lock of hair in this photo from the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II worth? According to Frenchman Jean-Michel Diebolt, the answer is about $2,600. He put the locks, along with some linen bandages and resins used in the mummification of Ramses II, up for sale on the Internet. Diebolt's late father, a French researcher, had examined the mummy in 1976 and apparently kept the mementos. Egyptian antiquities officials retrieved the lost artifacts in April 2007. Ramses II ruled from 1270 to 1213 B.C. and is celebrated as one of Egypt's most powerful pharaohs. His legacy includes some of Egypt's grandest monuments, including the Ramesseum temple complex.

  • Mummy of Queen Hatshepsut found?

    Nasser Nuri  /  Reuters

    Queen Hatshepsut ruled ancient Egypt for about 20 years as a female pharaoh after she stole the throne from her young stepson, Thutmose III. But after her death, in 1458 B.C., all trace of her name was obliterated from the records in what archaeologists believe was an act of revenge by her stepson. In June 2007, Egyptian authorities announced the mummy in this picture, unearthed a century ago, is the long-lost queen. The claim was based primarily on CT scans that showed, for example, a gap in her mouth matches a tooth in a jar with her insignia on it.

  • Chinchorro were the first to mummify their dead

    Image: mummified Chinchorro baby
    Ivan Alvarado  /  Corbis

    In the arid coastal stretches of modern-day Chile and Peru, an ancient fisherfolk known as the Chinchorro took the mummification of their dead seriously and spared no one from the practice. They were the first culture known to purposely preserve their dead — the earliest examples date to around 5000 B.C. All members of society, from the elite to children and miscarried fetuses, were mummified. The technique changed over the years, but internal organs were commonly removed and replaced with vegetable fiber and hair.

  • Were Incan children fattened up and sacrificed?

    Natacha Pisarenko  /  AP

    The 15-year-old girl known as "La Doncella," shown here in a photo from a museum in Salta, Argentina, along with a 6-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy, were apparently "fattened up" before being sacrificed at the top of the Llullaillaco volcano on the border of Argentina and Chile, according a recent analysis of hair samples found with their mummified remains. In the months before their deaths, more than 500 years ago, their diet shifted from potato to corn and perhaps llama meat — an indication of elevated status. The mummies, called the Children of Llullaillaco, were dressed in fine clothes and given corn alcohol before they were left to die on the 22,080-foot volcano.

  • Ice Maiden found inside Peruvian volcano

    Joyce Naltchayan  /  AFP - Getty Images file

    Hailed by Time magazine as one of the top 10 scientific discoveries in 1995, Juanita, the Ice Maiden, remains one of the most spectacular mummies ever found. Anthropologist Johan Reinhard and climbing partner Miguel Zarate uncovered the 12- to 14-year-old girl from the crater of Mt. Ampato, a Peruvian volcano. She was apparently sacrificed by Inca priests to appease the gods sometime between 1440 and 1450. There she froze, her body preserved for 500 years.

  • Oetzi the Iceman murder mystery solved?

    South Tyrol Museum Of Archaeology  /  AP

    How did Oetzi the Iceman, seen in this photo from the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy, die? According a story patched together from a pair of detailed examinations published in 2007, the 5,000-year-old mummy most likely took a fatal blow to the head after an arrow lacerated an artery below his left collarbone. Hikers in 1991 discovered Oetzi in the Italian Alps, face down with his left arm across his chest. Scientists believe he fell backwards, but was rolled over by his attacker who pulled out the arrow, leaving the arrowhead imbedded in Oetzi's shoulder.

  • Lindow Man, Britain's best bog body

    Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

    In August 1984, workers cutting peat at Lindow Moss bog in northwest England hit upon the well-preserved body of a man, about the age of 25, who died sometime between A.D. 20 and 90. Lindow Man, as he became known, is Britain's best known bog body, one of several dead people kept remarkably intact due to the acidity, cold temperature and lack of oxygen in the bogs. Detailed studies of Lindow Man conducted at the British Museum suggest he died a horrific death. He shows evidence of two blows to the head and a third to the back. He was then strangled with a thin cord that snapped his neck, had his throat cut and was placed face down in the bog. Some scientists suspect this was a ritualistic killing.

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