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Unknown Man E and the Harem Conspiracy
The Royal Cache of Deir el-Bahari
In 1881, a family of tomb robbers was caught near Luxor. After investigation it became clear that the robbers had made one of ancient Egypt’s greatest archaeological finds: they had found what became know as the Royal Cache of Deir el-Bahari. It contained more than 50 royal mummies and 6000 other artifacts. Situated in the Theban necropolis, it dated back to the 21st or 22nd dynasty. Originally, it had been intended as the tomb for Pinudjem II, but it was later used as a temporary holding place for these precious royal bodies. This was all part of a state-sanctioned project to plunder the old royal tombs. After the mummies had been stripped of any valuables they might have held, they were rewrapped and reburied. Among the royal mummies that were found in the cache, were those of some of the greatest pharaohs of the New Kingdom. To name just a few:
- Ahmose I
- Ramesses II
- Ramesses III
- Thutmosis III
Also, other mummified remains of princes, princesses, and court officials were found and most dated back to the 18th and 19th dynasties. The majority of the mummies could easily be identified, but a few of them remained unknown. One of these unidentified mummies has perplexed researchers ever since it was first unwrapped in 1886, and he became known as Unknown Man E.
Unknown Man E: The Screaming Mummy
Known as both 'Unknown Man E' and as the 'Screaming Mummy', it is the most enigmatic mummy ever to be found in Egypt. Over the past century, there has been much speculation about the cause of death and the identity of Unknown Man E. The tortured facial expression and the fact that he is so different from the other mummies in the cache, have led to many theories among scholars. The following particulars are worth mentioning:
- The cedar casket of the mummy is unmarked, meaning that there are no hieroglyphs on it. This is highly unusual because the markings would have been necessary to have a chance to be resurrected in the afterlife.
- The coffin was initially too small for Unknown Man E, the inside was re-cut to make it fit.
- The mummy was sown into a sheepskin, a sign of disgrace and impurity. It is a strong indication that Unknown Man E had committed an evil act during his lifetime.
- Unknown Man E was wearing gold earrings. This is indicative of high (possibly even royal) status.
- The mummification of Unknown Man E was not carried out properly. It appears to have been only a half-hearted attempt to preserve the body, and somewhat crude methods were used. The internal organs were all left in place. There was no attempt to remove the brain. Also, the dehydration process was not done very well. Overall, the embalming process appears to have been a hastily executed job.
- The hands and feet of Unknown Man E were bound at the time of his death.
- The hair of the mummy was braided and prepared with wax in order to preserve it.
- Unknown Man E was about 18 to 20 years old at the time of death.
- The position of the hands indicates that the mummy stems from the 20th dynasty.
The Cause of Death
The circumstances surrounding Unknown Man E's death have been shrouded in mystery, but whatever the cause, it appears to have been a painful death. The open mouth and horrific facial expression have led scholars to many theories as to how he died. The most common suggestions are:
- Asphyxiation by being buried alive
From an examination of the body done in 2012, it appears that the last option is the most likely. The inflated thorax and the compressed skin around the neck suggests a violent death, consistent with strangulation. However, the investigators do stress that there is no way to be certain at this point and that the cause of death remains a matter of speculation.
The Identity Revealed
Different candidates have been suggested for the identity of the mysterious Screaming Mummy, but only two of them were ever considered seriously.
The first option is that of a Hittite prince. After the death of Tutankhamun, his widow sent out a letter to the Hittite king asking him to send one of his sons to marry her. Eventually, the king did indeed order a son called Zannanza to go to Egypt, but he was murdered as soon as he crossed the border. This later became known as the 'Zannanza Affair'. The body of the prince was never recovered, and some believed that Unknown Man E was this Hittite prince.
A second option which was immediately suggested after the unwrapping of the mummy in 1886, was that Unknown Man E was prince Pentawer, the son of Ramesses III. Pentawer was one of the conspirators in the famous 'Harem Conspiracy', a plot to kill his father. After the murder, he was to take the throne of Egypt. The plot was uncovered and after a trial, from which the records have been preserved, Pentawer was sentenced to death.
In 2012 the final answer was given after DNA analysis. The mummy indeed belonged to a son of Ramesses III, and if this information is pieced together with all the other evidence, it is highly likely that Unknown man E was prince Pentawer.
Matching the DNA with Other Evidence
In the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, the court proceedings from the trial on the Harem Conspiracy, Pentawer's fate is discussed in the following phrase:
"Pentawer, who bore that other name.
He was brought in because of his collusion [with] Tiy, his mother, when she discussed the words with the women of the harem, being hostile against his lord. He was placed before the butlers, in order to examine him; they found him guilty; they left him in his place; he took his own life."
There are a couple of points to take note of here:
- The 'butlers' mentioned here are high ranking officials that were appointed to serve as members of the judicial court.
- The phrase 'who bore that other name' tells us that 'Pentawer' was not his real name. He was renamed in the records to erase the traitor completely from memory.
- Apparently, he was allowed or forced to commit suicide. Some of the other conspirators were not given this privilege, possibly because they were not of noble descent.
- The phrase 'they brought his punishment upon him' that is sometimes used in reference to other conspirators, is lacking in the case of Pentawer. This is an indication that Pentawer's corps was not destroyed. Destruction of the body would completely annihilate the criminal for all time to come because it would be impossible to reach the afterlife without an intact body.
Putting the Puzzle Together
If we combine all the evidence before us, there is a likely scenario that is consistent with the facts, and at the same time would explain most of the mystery surrounding Unknown Man E.
We can now safely assume that Unknown Man E is prince Pentawer. After the Harem Conspiracy was uncovered and failed to put him on the throne, Pentawer was sentenced to death. He was allowed to take his own life and it is likely that he did so by hanging himself. After his death, he was denied a proper burial and with it, a chance to reach the afterlife. However, a person of some influence took care of the body and made sure it was at least hastily mummified, rather than just leaving it to decay. When during the last years of the reign of Ramesses XI tomb robbery became a state sponsored project, Theban officials opened up all the royal tombs that were known to them and gathered up the precious mummies to strip them of their valuables. When they were done, they reburied the mummies in the Royal Cache of Deir el-Bahri.
It is hard to miss the irony in the fact that both the victim of the murder plot and one of the main conspirators in that very plot, eventually suffered the same fate. Both of them were buried together, in the Royal Cache of Deir el-Bahri, hidden away side by side for 3000 years.
The following sources were used for this article:
- The Mystery of Unknown Man E, Bob Brier (Archaeology april/march 2006, pp 36-42)
- Records of the Harem Conspiracy against Ramses III