It’s the summer of 1886, and Egyptian Antiquities Service head Gaston Maspero is in the midst of some harrowing work. The Frenchman is loosening the covers of mummified human remains found deep within a sacred temple compound. This is a grizzly activity in its own right, but he’s about to discover something even more disturbing.
You see, one of the bodies before Maspero is in an interesting state. The other mummies had apparently been rulers of Egypt back in their day. Yet this one has been laid to rest in a basic, unembellished coffin and it’s wrapped in a material which would’ve been considered distasteful in ancient times.
As he frees up the mummy, Maspero realizes that this ancient person looks to have been in some distress when he died. The man’s hands and feet are tied up, and his expression is utterly haunting. It appears that this individual is screaming – its face frozen into place over the millennia.
Maspero is shocked by what he has come across, and his mind begins to race. What had happened to this person? Who were they, and how had they ended up being laid to rest alongside leaders of ancient Egypt? Unfortunately for the archeologist, these questions will not be answered for some time yet.
However, experts have managed to create a more complete picture in contemporary times. Modern DNA techniques mean that the identity of this mummy – dubbed Unknown Man E – has finally been established. And with that, we have a greater idea of what really happened all those years ago.
Unknown Man E was found inside a network of tombs known as Deir el-Bahari. This complex sits on the western edges of the River Nile and is found in an area containing several other sacred sites. Examples include the ancient temple grounds of Luxor and Karnak. Furthermore, the famous Valley of the Kings is also close by.
The Egyptian leader Mentuhotep II was first off the mark to begin construction works at the Deir el Bahri site. The king’s reign lasted from 2008 to 1957 B.C., and it seems that he wanted to stand out from those who had preceded him. So, he opted for Deir el Bahri, rather than building a temple in the same place as previous pharaohs.
Mentuhotep II had his subjects build him a valley temple, and this linked up with a channel leading to a mortuary which he called Akh Sut Nebhepetre. It was made up of a structure leaning on a cliff face, with a tunnel leading to the pharaoh’s tomb being built underneath a stone mastaba or pyramid.
Six tombs were built inside of Mentuhotep II’s mortuary temple. Each of these vaults had been created in order to accommodate Egyptian princesses. They all contained elaborate sarcophagi made out of slabs and were held in place with pieces of metal. Furthermore, each tomb carefully adorned with designs depicting snapshots of everyday life from the era.
Several of Mentuhotep II’s close advisors were also laid to rest in tombs littered around his mortuary temple. A chancellor by the name of Akhtoy was buried there, as was a treasurer called Khety and a guard named Horhotep. There was also a mass grave containing some 60 soldiers – seemingly buried close to the pharaoh in order to honor their sacrifice.
Pharaoh Amenhotep I had a temple constructed at Deir el-Bahri after the reign of Mentuhotep II. This was later destroyed, however, because the female pharaoh Hatshepsut opted to build a monument there. Apparently, she had initially only intended to construct her monument close to Amenhotep’s temple, but the works soon required that it be entirely taken apart.
Hatshepsut ultimately constructed a temple that would endure to the present day better than any other on the site. This place is known as Djeser-Djeseru, and some would argue that it’s perhaps the grandest structure located in all of Deir el-Bahri. However, this was itself damaged by the later pharaohs Thutmose II and Akhenaten.
Hatshepsut had an advisor by the name of Senenmut. This man educated the pharaoh’s daughter, but he is also suspected to have been Hatshepsut’s romantic partner, too. Given his prominent position within the leader’s circle, then, Senenmut was granted an elaborate tomb of his own near Hatshepsut’s one. But it was never finished, and he was laid to rest in another.
Thutmose III had another temple constructed in Deir el-Bahri which he offered to the deity Amun. This was meant to replace the mortuary temple built under Hatshepsut, but it ended up becoming severely impaired. With that, the place merely served as a means of providing construction materials for other projects.
It was noted thousands of years later in the 1870s that objects taken from Deir el-Bahri were showing up for sale on the market. So, Gaston Maspero and an assistant of his decided to investigate. They subsequently discovered that a family from a settlement known as Qurna had been robbing the items over the course of several years.
Of course, it was Maspero himself who later went on to discover the screaming mummy. The remains of Unknown Man E had been uncovered from Deir el-Bahri alongside the mummies of several kings and queens. Yet this particular ancient person hadn’t been treated with the reverence you’d expect for someone laid to rest alongside such esteemed company.
Unknown Man E showed no signs that the left side of his body had been cut. This is significant, because Egyptian embalmers would usually have removed a deceased person’s organs from there. This person hadn’t been treated normally, and Maspero believed that the individual had been a victim of violence.
Maspero opined in his 1889 book Les Momies Royales de Deir-el-Bahari, “All those who saw [Unknown Man E] first hand thought that [he] looked as though he had been poisoned. The contraction of the abdomen and stomach, the desperate movement with which the head is thrown back, the expression of excruciating pain spread over the face hardly allow for any other explanation.”
Maspero’s thoughts were backed up by a doctor who also took a look at the mummy. According to the publication Archaeology, Daniel Fouquet exclaimed, “The last convulsions of horrid agony can, after thousands of years, still be seen.” However, a chemist by the name of Mathey suggested that Unknown Man E had been buried while he was still living.
Yet all these theories were later rubbished by Grafton Elliott Smith – an anatomist with a greater degree of expertise than Fouquet, Mathey and Maspero. But the question still remained: what was the identity of this person who had been subjected to such an undignified burial? And why was he laid to rest near kings and queens?
There have been several different theories posited over the years as to who Unknown Man E had been. One, for instance, stated that the mummy had been a prince who was due to wed the wife of the deceased pharaoh Tutankhamun. Thanks to records tracing back to the Hittite Empire, however, we know that this prince was killed before that could happen. Perhaps he was Unknown Man E?
Elsewhere, another theory has suggested that Unknown Man E was actually a prominent Egyptian who’d passed away beyond the boundaries of his civilization. It added that people in foreign lands dealt with his remains. But without the knowledge of the Egyptians, they mummified this person in a manner that would’ve been considered inappropriate in Egypt. They then may have sent the body back.
Meanwhile, Maspero himself came up with a theory of his own. He believed that Unknown Man E had actually been a prince called Pentewere. This was the child of pharaoh Ramesses III, who ruled between 1185 and 1153 B.C.
Ramesses III was known for protecting his kingdom from being invaded throughout the course of three separate conflicts. In doing so, he ensured that his tenure as king was largely peaceful. Though Ramesses faced problems within his own dominion, and the leader was eventually murdered in a plot to overthrow him.
The specific circumstances behind Ramesses’ murder are unclear. Though ancient records have suggested that people within his inner circle were responsible for trying to take him out. But until recently there was little evidence to confirm that this scheme had actually resulted in the pharaoh’s untimely death.
In December 2012 it emerged that researchers had again taken a look at Ramesses III’s mummified remains. In doing so, they had hoped to find some evidence to suggest that this documented assassination attempt had actually killed the pharaoh. So, they took some computed tomography (CT) scans of the remains and found that the king’s throat had been wounded.
The experts then laid out their theories in a British Medical Journal paper. They wrote that the gash along the pharaoh’s throat would have led to his immediate death. Furthermore, they suggested, “The large and deep cut wound in his neck must have been caused by a sharp knife or other blade.”
The team also discovered that an ornament had been placed down the pharaoh’s throat. This object had the eye of Horus etched onto it. The researchers explained, “Most probably, the ancient Egyptian embalmers tried to restore the wound during mummification by inserting the amulet – generally used for healing purposes – and by covering the neck with a collar of thick linen layers.”
But who was behind the scheme to murder the king? Well, it seems that it may have been one of his very own spouses – a woman named Tiye. Additionally, she is said to have been helped out by her and Ramesses’ son Prince Pentawere. Records have suggested that the latter was implicated in the crime and that he subsequently killed himself.
Now, the team who published their work in the British Medical Journal have suggested that Pentawere’s body was mummified in an unusual way and laid to rest in Deir el-Bahri. In other words, he might well be the screaming mummy referred to as Unknown Man E. And given his status as a murderer, it seems possible that he would have been entombed in an undignified manner.
People in ancient Egypt are known to have thought of sheepskin as “impure” within the context of ritualistic behavior. As such, the fact that Unknown Man E was discovered wrapped up in it suggests that people had a vendetta against him. If he’d murdered a king, then, that would certainly be grounds for such a stance against him.
Dr. Zahi Hawass was once a minister of antiquities in Egypt, and he offered his thoughts surrounding Unknown Man E. In February 2018 The Sun quoted him as saying, “In the mind of the ancient Egyptian, to cover with a sheepskin means he was not clean, he did something bad in his life. We’d never seen a mummy like this, suffering. It’s not normal, and it tells us something happened, but we did not know exactly what.”
The British newspaper also quoted University of Long Island archeologist Dr. Bob Brier. He said, “Two forces were acting on this mummy. One to get rid of him, and the other to try and preserve him.” The expert went on, “For some reason, there was an attempt to make sure that he didn’t have an afterlife, and in another attempt, somebody cared about him and tried to override that.”
In addition to all this, however, is an even stronger piece of evidence to suggest that Unknown Man E is actually Pentawere. You see, analysis of the mummy’s genes has shown that the body is actually one of Ramesses’ children. All in all, then, it’s probable that the mystery surrounding Unknown Man E’s identity has been solved.
A particular ancient record has been an invaluable resource for historians trying to piece together this story. This text is known as the Judicial Papyrus of Turin. And put simply, it contains information about the trials that followed the death of Ramesses III in the year 1155 B.C.
Individuals who had helped Pentawere in his murderous scheme were themselves punished severely, according to the writings. Indeed, those indicted were often killed or subjected to mutilation. People implicated in the plot included senior members of the military, as well as men and women who were close to the king himself.
The papyrus also specifically names Pentawere and his mother Tiye. The record states, “[Pentawere] was brought in because he had been in collusion with Tiye, his mother, when she had plotted the matters with the women of the harem.” In this instance, the term “harem” would have referred to a group of women closely associated with the pharaoh.
The papyrus then details the trial of Pentawere, saying, “[The prince] was placed before the butlers in order to be examined. They found him guilty. They left him where he was. He took his own life.” It’s unclear how he actually did this, but it’s been suggested that he might have poisoned or hung himself.
Pentawere’s mummy later ended up at Deir el-Bahari after he died. And, bizarrely, his victim’s remains were also placed here. Ramesses III had initially been entombed somewhere else, but his burial place was looted. After that, then, he was brought to lie in the same location as his son and killer.
The pair’s remains then stayed in obscurity for thousands of years. In fact, they only emerged once more when a family found them and their fellow mummies at some point in the 1800s. But it still, of course, took a couple more centuries for their stories to be told.