Archaeologists Discover 2,000 Mummified Ram Skulls in Temple of Ramses II

The skulls were likely left as offerings about 1,000 years after the pharaoh’s death

Skulls view
A view of the more than 2,000 mummified ram skulls found at the temple in Abydos Egyptian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

For anyone who studies ancient Egypt—and even many who don’t—the name Ramses II looms large. Also known as Ramses the Great and Ozymandias, this New Kingdom pharaoh embodies many modern perceptions of ancient Egypt: militarism, diplomacy, advanced infrastructure, vast wealth.

Ramses II died in 1213 B.C.E., and his celebrity status has endured ever since. And now, a new discovery is shedding light on perceptions of the ancient pharaoh during the Ptolemaic period, about 1,000 years after his death.

Archaeologists from New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) have uncovered over 2,000 mummified ram skulls at a temple in the ancient city of Abydos.

The large number of skulls was “surprising even for Egyptologists,” excavation leader Sameh Iskander tells CBS News’ Ahmed Shawkat.

Single ram skull
One of the mummified ram skulls found at the site Egyptian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“We came across some random pieces of skulls first,” he says. “We didn’t know what they were, but as we continued our excavation and exploration, all of [a] sudden we found a whole area filled with ram skulls.”

These skulls may have served as votive offerings to accompany the pharaoh in the afterlife, per a statement from Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

This temple is not the burial site of Ramses II, though the city of Abydos was the final resting place for many of Egypt’s earlier pharaohs. Ramses II constructed the temple during his unusually long 66-year rule and dedicated it to the god Osiris and his father Seti I

A statue of Ptolemy I housed in the Louvre  Public domain

Architectural feats were a substantial part of Ramses II’s legacy: His funerary temple known as the Ramesseum and the numerous statues of him around Egypt were some of his most notable achievements. In popular culture, Ramses II has often been named as the biblical pharaoh whom the prophet Moses confronted on behalf of the Hebrew people.

The ram skulls themselves, along with the skulls of mummified dogs, goats, cows, gazelles and mongooses, date to much later, showing that devotion to Ramses II extended into the Ptolemaic period, which spanned from around 332-30 B.C.E. This was a period in Egyptian history after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E., when his conquests around the Mediterranean were divided up among his generals. Egypt went to Ptolemy, who declared himself pharaoh and began what is considered the last dynasty of ancient Egypt.

The researchers also uncovered bricks from a wall dating from the Old Kingdom, long before Ramses II came to power, though they are uncertain about why it was built.

Statue of Ramses
A statue of Ramses II from the city of Memphis, Egypt Vyacheslav Argenberg via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

“It’s possible that this was a wall of the ancient Abydos, which was never found,” Iskander tells CBS News. “Could it be something else? Maybe, that’s what we are working on now.” 

The discovery of the wall could help “reestablish the sense of the ancient landscape of Abydos before the construction of the Ramses II temple,” says Iskander to Ahram Online’s Nevine El-Aref.

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