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Have scientists solved a mummy murder mystery?

18 February 2021

When the mummy of King Seqenenre Tao II was unwrapped in 1886, he immediately stood out from the other pharaohs discovered alongside him. Holes of various sizes penetrated his skull. His hands were twisted. His body appeared to have decayed before mummification. Scholars knew that the king had lived in turbulent times – his family, based in the south of Egypt, were at war with the Hyksos, foreign rulers who controlled the north. But no surviving records shed light on how he met his grisly end. This left his mummy as our only source of evidence. The body was examined. Scholars noted the angles of the impacts, and saw that a combination of Hyksos and Egyptian blades matched the shapes of Seqenenre’s wounds. Intriguingly, all of the blows were to his head. How could this be explained? Did the king die on the battlefield, valiantly fighting his Hyksos enemies? Was he assassinated in the palace? Or was he captured and ceremonially executed?

3D image of the pharaoh's skull.

3D image of the pharaoh’s skull.
Courtesy Sahar Saleem

Now, Sahar Saleem, a professor of radiology at Cairo University, and Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former minister of antiquities, have CT-scanned Seqenenre’s mummy to find answers. Published this week in the journal Frontiers In Medicine, their research has revealed additional wounds in Seqenenre’s skull, cleverly hidden by the embalmers. Seqenenre’s hands had been tied, they argue, and they confirm that he had been attacked by multiple assailants from different angles, armed with various weapons. They also confirm that only his head had been injured. In a press release, Saleem says that Seqenenre died as a result of ‘ceremonial execution’. This is good news for me (though obviously not for Seqenenre). As the Egyptologist who first developed the ceremonial execution theory, I was relieved that these discoveries haven’t consigned my work to the academic dustbin. More importantly though, this research is the latest example of how scientific techniques – especially non-destructive ones like CT scans – can help fill gaps in our knowledge, particularly regarding the pharaohs’ health problems and causes of death.

Take, for example, the case of King Ramesses III. Ancient papyri detail the trials of conspirators who plotted against this king. It was a high-level conspiracy, involving harem women, courtiers, military men and sorcerers armed with scrolls of magic. Their aim was to kill Ramesses and put a prince named Pentaweret on the throne. The plot failed. Most of the conspirators were captured and executed. But the fate of the king remained unclear. Did Ramesses’ enemies manage to kill him before being caught? CT scans helped to clear this question up in 2012: Ramesses’ neck had been slit by a knife. The wound was hidden beneath linen wrappings, like a fetching scarf, sealed solid to the body with resin. A follow-up study in 2017 revealed that the king was also missing part of his left big toe. It was perhaps severed by an axe during the assassination – ouch.

Another interesting example is that of Queen Hatshepsut. Initially queen regent for her young stepson, King Tuthmosis III, she was eventually declared king and ruled alongside him. After her death, her name was scratched from her monuments, leading scholars to wonder if Tuthmosis had removed her from power. Was there a coup? Was she murdered? In recent years, the common characterisation of Hatshepsut as ‘evil stepmother’ has been questioned. According to historical analyses, she became king slowly, over the course of years, and the attacks on her name occurred decades after her death. On top of this, in 2007 a mummy was identified as Hatshepsut. If this was truly her mummy, the CT scans showed that she didn’t suffer a violent death at the hands of Tuthmosis’s troops. The queen was obese, had a tooth abscess, and probably suffered from diabetes and cancer. She died sometime between the ages of 50 and 60 – a long life by the standards of ancient Egypt.

Of course, no royal mummy has received more attention than King Tutankhamun. His death at around 19 years of age has led to numerous theories on his fate, usually erring towards the dramatic. Was he murdered, or did he suffer a fatal accident? Perhaps an incurable disease? A CT study of Tutankhamun in 2005 found no signs that he’d been murdered, dismissing a popular theory that the king had died by a blow to the head. He did have health problems though. From the study’s results, Tutankhamun had a left club foot, which made it difficult for him to walk. To make matters worse, he broke his left leg close to the end of his life, leading to complications and perhaps even his death. A later blood analysis showed that he suffered from malaria as well.

Taken in isolation, the results of these scientific studies can of course be interpreted in different ways. Perhaps the mummy thought to be Hatshepsut is not actually her, and perhaps Ramesses III suffered a really bad shaving accident. It’s possible that Tutankhamun dealt perfectly well with his malaria and walking difficulties, and that they did not contribute to his death. But when combined with detailed analyses of the historical and archaeological records, they help us to establish on the most probable course of events. In the process, old assumptions are questioned, new reconstructions emerge, and the history books are again rewritten – just as will happen now for Seqenenre.