A strange way to mummify: The mystery of Egypt's 'screaming mummy'

Nevine El-Aref , Monday 12 Feb 2018

The real story behind the unusual mummification of Unknown Man E, now on special display at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, revealed

The screaming mummy

Although the Grand Egyptian Museum overlooking Giza Plateau will celebrate a soft opening in December, it is the Egyptian Museum which will remain one of Egypt’s archaeological icons.

To highlight some of its distinguished treasured collections, the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir overlooking Giza Plateau is to exhibit at its foyer and on a weekly basis, three of its artefacts that were located in a hidden display area, repatriated from abroad and stored in the basement.

This week the mummy of Unknown Man E and a gilded cartonnage mask with a shroud are the selected objects going on special display.

Elham Salah, head of the Museums Sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, said the gilded cartonnage mask with a shroud was repatriated from the United States in 2017. The shroud looks like a net with beads used since the 21st Dynasty as a mummy cover.

Meanwhile, Unknown Man E is wrapped in sheepskin with trimmed toe nails dyed with henna and an open mouth which makes the mummy look as though he had been poisoned. The mummy possibly belongs to Prince Pentewere, a son of the 20th Dynasty King Ramses III, who had been involved in a conspiracy against his father.

“The gruesome mummy of Unknown Man E, also known as the ‘Screaming Mummy’, has long puzzled scholars,” renowned Egyptologist Zahi Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that this particular mummy is surrounded in mystery. Although he was re-buried in the royal mummy cache of Deir Al-Bahari, he was not wrapped in the usual fine linen bandages like the rest of the mummies. Instead, he was wrapped in sheepskin, which was considered impure by the ancient Egyptians. His hands and feet were tied with leather thongs. He was not even mummified, but was merely left to dry in natron and then had some resin poured into his open mouth.

“Such unusual mummification has perplexed Egyptologists and no one has succeeded in knowing the story behind such a mummy until the launch of the Egyptian Mummy Project several years ago under my direction to create a complete database of forensic information related to the mummy collection at the Egyptian Museum,” Hawass said.

The DNA, he explains, extracted from the bones of the mummies of the Unknown Man E and Ramses III to identify the familial relationship, if any, confirmed that Unknown Man E is indeed the son of Ramses III. Hanging marks around the mummy’s neck match the account of the Harem Conspiracy Papyrus, which mentions that Pentawere was sentenced to be hanged. Considering the mummy’s disgraced status, and the way he was buried, he can be identified as the conspirator, Prince Pentawere, who plotted the murder of his father Ramses III. The Harem Conspiracy Papyrus is currently on display at the Museo Egizio in Turin.

Hawass told the Weekly of a conspiracy plotted against the life of Ramses III by his second wife, Tiye, and her son, Prince Pentawere. The conspirators included several army commanders, soldiers, servants from the palace, women from the harem of Ramses III and magicians. According to the papyrus, the conspirators were captured, and the text deals with their trial proceedings. However, the text does not indicate whether Ramses III was murdered. It only mentions that the “royal barque was overturned”, and referred to the king as the “great god”. This ambiguity caused quite a number of scholarly arguments and controversies, until the launch of the Egyptian Mummy Project.

As part of the project, on examining the mummy of Ramses III, Hawass pointed out new evidence about his life and death. He died at the age of 60 and suffered from atherosclerosis. But he did not die of old age. Further examination of the neck region revealed that someone surprised the king from behind, and stabbed him in the neck with a sharp, pointed weapon, like a dagger. The width of the severe cut in the soft is 35mm, and it extends deep to reach the lower end of the fifth to seventh vertebrae. The wound severed all the structures of the neck including the esophagus, trachea and the large blood vessels.

CT-scans also showed that the mummy retained its entire original amulets. A Wedjat eye amulet, representing the eye of Horus, was inserted in the rim of the throat wound. The Wedjat eye is a symbol of protection and healing. It represents the eye of Horus that was wounded in one of the battles between Horus and Seth and magically restored by the god Thoth. By placing this amulet inside the wound, the embalmers hoped for the healing of the king’s wound in the afterlife. The scans also showed four amulets representing the four sons of Horus inserted in the chest among the bandages to protect the mummy.

This story was originally published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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