A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Was a mummy found in less-than-royal wrappings a disgraced prince who plotted to murder his father, Ramesses III?
On a day at the end of June 1886, Gaston Maspero, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, was unwrapping the mummies of kings and queens found in a cache at Deir el-Bahri, near the Valley of the Kings. Inside a plain, undecorated coffin that offered no clues to the deceased's identity, Maspero found something that shocked him. There, wrapped in a sheepskin--a ritually unclean object for ancient Egyptians--was a young man, hands and feet bound, who seemed to be screaming. There was no incision on the left abdomen, through which the embalmers normally removed the internal organs; the man had not been afforded the traditional mummification. Maspero was convinced there had been foul play, as he wrote in Les Momies Royales de Deir-el-Bahari (1889):
All those who saw him first hand thought that [he] looked as though he had been poisoned. The contraction of the abdomen and stomach, the desperate movement with which the head is thrown back, the expression of excruciating pain spread over the face hardly allow for any other explanation.
Daniel Fouquet, the physician who examined the mummy at the time, agreed that he had been poisoned and said, "the last convulsions of horrid agony can, after thousands of years, still be seen." A chemist named Mathey, who did some analyses on the mummy, felt that "the wretched man must have been deliberately asphyxiated--most likely by being buried alive."
All three investigators had let their imaginations run wild. A quarter century later, the mummy was examined by the anatomist Grafton Elliott Smith, who was far more experienced than Maspero, Fouquet, and Mathey. Smith quickly dismissed their theories about the cause of death, pointing out in The Royal Mummies (1912) that "a corpse that was dead of any complaint might fall into just such an attitude as this body has assumed." The real questions remain to this day, Who is this mummy, and how did his unembalmed body, wrapped in a sheepskin and buried in an unmarked coffin, come to rest with the greatest kings and queens of Egypt?
Many have speculated about the identity of Unknown Man E (designated such by Maspero, who assigned letters to each of the half dozen anonymous mummies in the cache). We know from the royal archives of the Hittite Empire, found a century ago at Bogazkoy in central Turkey, that a prince was sent to Egypt to marry the widow of Tutankhamun, but he was murdered on the border of Egypt. Some have suggested that Unknown Man E is that prince, and that is why he, a foreigner, was buried in a sheepskin. As evidence, they point to the Egyptian papyrus known as "The Tale of Sinuhe." In it, the pharaoh tries to convince Sinhue, a former friend and confidant who has been living abroad, to return to Egypt. The king says, "You shall not die in a foreign land...you shall not be placed in a sheepskin as they make your grave."
Another explanation that has been offered is that Unknown Man E was an important personage who died abroad, perhaps on a military campaign in a region with limited knowledge of, or access to, mummification technology. The local priests did what they could to preserve the body, added the sheepskin because it was appropriate in their beliefs, and shipped it home.
Maspero suggested that the mummy was that of Prince Pentewere, the son of Ramesses III (1185-1153 B.C.) who was involved in a conspiracy against his father. The conspirators, including Queen Tiy and her son Pentewere, were caught and either executed or, in the case of the highest-ranking ones, such as Pentewere, allowed to take their own lives. But would a convicted criminal be buried with the royal family?
Much of the speculation about Unknown Man E stemmed from the fact that no one had seen the mummy in nearly a hundred years. All we have had to go on are the early reports and a few photos taken more than a century ago. In late 2004, with the permission and assistance of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, I had the opportunity to examine him. My hope was that we might find clues to the date, cause of death, and identification of the mummy and explain how such a burial could happen. While I cannot prove with the current evidence that this is the mummy of Pentewere, that identification seems to fit the curious facts of Unknown Man E.
Bob Brier is Senior Research Fellow at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University and is also a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.