In a plot seemingly straight from the pen of Shakespeare, the mystery of the murder of Egypt’s King Ramses III, who ruled from about 1187 until 1156 B.C., has been solved.

Papyrus trial documents have shown that in 1155 B.C., members of Ramses' harem hatched a plan to take his life as part of a palace coup to change the line of succession. The conspiracy was spearheaded by Tiye, the less powerful of his two known wives, and her son, Pentawere.

However there hasn’t been enough evidence to show whether or not the plan was pulled off, and if so, what method of murder was used. The speculation has stumped Egyptologists for years, and although there have been examinations of the mummy, no trauma to the body has ever been discovered. 

Enter modern science. Dr Albert Zink, a paleopathologist from the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman of the European Academy of Bolzano/Bozen in Italy and a team of researchers undertook anthropological and forensic analyses of the bodies of Ramses and the man assumed to be Pentawere. Working in Cairo, the researchers were able to run CT scans and DNA tests on the mummies to determine the cause of death and whether the two bodies were related.

The findings of their work, published in the British Medical Journal, show CT scans revealing that Ramses' throat, neck and arteries were violently slashed, causing an immediate death. A deep, 2.7-inch wide wound to the throat just under the larynx was found, which the scientists say was most likely caused by a sharp blade.

"Damage to the throat after death appears to be unlikely, because the collar around the mummy's neck was intact and undamaged at the unwrapping in 1886, where a thick layer of bitumen was removed with a hammer from the mummy," Zink said. "Further evidence of an assassination comes from the presence of a Horus eye amulet in the wound. The presence of the amulet deep in the soft tissue of the wound together with the homogeneous material that penetrated the wound up to the bone substantiate the supposition that the wound was already present at the time of embalming."

The study also reports that the unusual mummification of Pentawere, whose DNA does indeed match Ramses', suggests a non-royal burial that included using a goat skin to cover his body. (Using goat or sheep skin was rare for dynastic burials because the materials were considered impure.) The procedure appears to be a punishment for conspiring against the king, according to the researchers.

After his death, Ramses was succeeded by another son, the one who was his preferred heir. (All’s well that ends well?)

Related post on MNN: Did Alexander the Great die from West Nile?

Mystery of King Ramses III assassination finally solved
One of history’s most notorious cold cases is cleared up with modern-day forensics.