Thanks to ancient court documents, archaeologists have long known that there was a plot to assassinate Pharaoh Ramesses III - who ruled Egypt from 1186 BC to 1155 BC - because one of his wives wanted her son to take the throne instead. But it wasn’t until 2012 that computed tomography (CT) scans of the royal mummy revealed that the plot had likely gone ahead, with evidence of his trachea and oesophagus being severed by a sharp blade.
And now new evidence has shed more light on this gruesome encounter between Ramesses III and his assassins. Researchers have further examined his remains to suggest that he was outnumbered and attacked by multiple weapons at the time of his death, and likely had his toe hacked off by an axe.
“[T]he shape of the fractured toe bones indicate that it was induced by a different weapon than that used to induce the neck cut," Cairo University radiologist Sahar Saleem told Stephanie Pappas at Live Science. "So there must have been an assailant with an axe or sword attacking the king from the front, and another one with a knife or a dagger attacking the king from his back, both attacking at the same time."
Together with renowned Egyptologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, Zahi Hawass, Saleem has been gathering fresh evidence on what went down during Ramesses III’s final moments, which they first described in a paper published in the BMJ back in 2012, and now add greater detail to in a new book, Scanning the Pharaohs: CT Imaging of the New Kingdom Royal Mummies.
According to Pappas, the pair has studied royal mummies from the 18th to 20th dynasties of Egypt, spanning from about 1543 BC to 1064 BC and including famous rulers such as Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Tutankhamun, and Seti I, and have more recently been attempting to round out circumstances of Ramesses III’s death, based on evidence outlined in ancient court documents from the time.
The papyrus documents, known as the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, describe how one of Ramesses III’s harem of wives, Queen Tiye, was involved in a plot to oust the pharaoh and put her son, Pentawere, on the throne. Pentawere was in line for the throne after his half-brother and Ramesses III’s designated heir Ramesses IV, so the plan was to off both Ramesses III and IV and establish Pentawere as pharaoh.
But because of how the body had been prepared post-mortem, archaeologists couldn’t see any physical signs on Ramesses III’s mummy that the plot had gone ahead, until Hawass and Saleem performed CT scans in 2012 to get a better look.
Initially, the pair suggested that Ramesses III died instantly when his throat was cut, but their most recent scans suggest a more drawn-out struggle involving multiple assailants and weapons preceded his death, as Pappas explains:
"Part of his big toe had been hacked off and had not healed, meaning the injury happened around the time of death, Saleem said. Embalmers had fashioned a sort of postmortem prosthesis out of linen to replace it when they mummified him."
The court documents report that Ramesses IV quickly took control of the kingdom after the assassination, and assigned 12 magistrates to investigate and judge the case. Mummified remains that appear to have belonged to Pentawere suggest that he hung himself, possibly because he was convicted for murdering his king.
It’s actually no surprise that they missed something as conspicuous as a missing big toe the first time round - the pair report that the toe prosthesis was so expertly fashioned, attempts to unwrap or penetrate the thick layers of resin and bandages in the late 1800s had failed.
"This hid the big secret beneath the wrappings," Saleem says. "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.”
Just like Tutankhamun, Ramesses III appeared to have been given post-mortem 'cosmetic surgery' of sorts, his corpse plumped up and arranged into more 'attractive' angles, the researchers report.
I guess if you have to go out in a violent flurry of blades, severed toes, and cut throats, you’re probably in line for a bit of a touch-up job to get you ready for the afterlife.