CT Scan Shows Pharoah Ramesses III Was Murdered by Multiple Assassins

A missing toe reveals that the god-king was killed by more than one plotter

Ramses and Son
Ramesses III and his son in the afterlife Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis

The reign of Ramesses III, the second pharaoh in Egypt’s 20th dynasty, was not the most stable chapter in the empire's history. There were endless wars with the “Sea Peoples” (naval raiders in the Mediterranean region), which drained the treasury, bad weather that interrupted food supplies, along with political unrest. All this led to a successful murder plot against Ramesses III in 1155 B.C. Now, new CT scans of Ramesses III’s mummy are shedding more light on how this god-king met his end.

In 2012, eminent Egyptologist Zahi Hawass and Cairo University radiologist Sahar Saleem scanned Ramesses III mummy and revealed that an assassin cut through his esophagus and trachea, killing him almost instantly. But a new book by the pair, Scanning the Pharaohs: CT Imaging of the New Kingdom Royal Mummies makes the story a little more complicated, suggesting that the pharaoh was likely murdered by multiple assailants.

The mummy scans show that Ramesses III had one of his big toes hacked off, as Stephanie Pappas at LiveScience reports, and that the wound never had time to heal, meaning it likely happened at the same time his throat was slit.

“The site of [the] foot injury is anatomically far from the neck-cut wound; also the shape of the fractured toe bones indicate that it was induced by a different weapon than that used to induce the neck cut,” Saleem tells Pappas. “So there must have been an assailant with an ax/sword attacking the pharaoh from the front, and another one with a knife or a dagger attacking the pharaoh from his back, both attacking at the same time.”

While the assassins who wielded the weapons will probably never be identified, an ancient document titled the Judicial Papyrus of Turin details the plot to assassinate Ramesses III. It reveals that his secondary wife Tiye and her son Pentawere conspired with others to kill the pharaoh, who had selected a heir from a more senior wife. While the so-called "harem conspiracy" successfully killed Ramesses III, his heir, Ramesses IV survived any attempts on his life. When he took the throne, he put Tiye and Pentawere, along with many other members of the royal household on trial.

But it seems Ramesses III's embalmers didn’t want the royal squabble to follow the pharaoh into the afterlife. According to Discovery News they attempted to hide Ramesses wounds, performing a little post-mortem cosmetic surgery. They fashioned a fake toe out of linen and covered it in heavy layers of resin. When researchers in the 19th century tried unwrapping the mummy, they couldn’t get the linen off his feet. It wasn’t until the CT scan that researchers found out why.

“This hid the big secret beneath the wrappings,” Saleem tells Pappas. “It seems to me that this was the intention of the ancient Egyptian embalmers, to deliberately pour large amounts of resin to glue the layers of linen wrappings to the body and feet.”

The scans also reveal materials were stuffed under the deceased pharaoh's skin to make him more plump and attractive for when he met Osiris, a little nip and tuck trick that's found on several other mummies, including King Tut.

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