Mystery of the screaming mummy
It was a blood-curdling discovery. The mummy of a young man with his hands and feed bound, his face contorted in an eternal scream of pain. But who was he and how did he die?
On a scorching hot day at the end of June 1886, Gaston Maspero, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, was unwrapping the mummies of the 40 kings and queens found a few years earlier in an astonishing hidden cache near the Valley of the Kings.
The 1881 discovery of the tombs, in the Deir El Bahri valley, 300 miles south of Cairo, had been astonishing and plentiful. Hidden from the world for centuries were some of the great Egyptian pharaohs – Rameses the Great, Seti I and Tuthmosis III. Yet this body, buried alongside them, was different, entombed inside a plain, undecorated coffin that offered no clues to the deceased’s identity.
It was an unexpected puzzle and, once the coffin was opened, Maspero found himself even more shocked.
There, wrapped in a sheep or goatskin – a ritually unclean object for ancient Egyptians – lay the body of a young man, his face locked in an eternal blood-curdling scream. It was a spine-tingling sight, and one that posed even more troubling questions: here was a mummy, carefully preserved, yet caught in the moment of death in apparently excrutiating pain.
He had been buried in exalted company, yet been left without an inscription, ensuring he would be consigned to eternal damnation, as the ancient Egyptians believed identity was the key to entering the afterlife. Moreover, his hands and feet had been so tightly bound that marks still remained on the bones.
Who could he be, this screaming man, assigned the anonymous label ‘Man E’ in the absence of a proper name?
An autopsy, performed by physicians in 1886 in the presence of Maspero, did little to shed any light on the subject.
One of the physicians, Daniel Fouquet, believed the contracted shape of his stomach cavity showed he had been poisoned, writing in his report that ‘the last convulsions of horrid agony can, after thousands of years, still be seen’ – yet his science was unable to help him ascertain why.
Even marrying these findings with historical documents only allowed experts to speculate. Some believed ‘Man E’ was the traitor son of Rameses III, who’d been involved in a coup to remove him from the throne, others that he was an Egyptian governor who had died abroad and been returned to his homeland for burial. Some believed the unconventional manner of his mummification showed that he was not Egyptian at all, but a member of a rival Hittite dynasty, who had died on Egyptian soil.
All explanations were possible, yet Man E’s true identity seemed destined to remain a mystery.
As Dr Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, puts it, ‘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.’
Until now. Today, nearly 130 years after his body was first uncovered, a team of scientists has brought the wonders of modern forensic techniques to bear on the enigma.
Using sophisticated-technology, including CT scanning, Xrays and facial reconstruction, to examine the mummy, they uncovered tantalising new clues that could reveal his identity, all under the watchful eye of Five’s TV crew, who are making a series of documentaries hoping to unravel some of Egypt’s great secrets.
Their findings suggest that Man E is indeed Prince Pentewere, elder son of Rameses III, who, with his mother, Tiy, had evolved a plan to assassinate the pharaoh and ascend to the throne.
Certainly, the theory has a number of supporters. Among them is Dr Susan Redford, an Egyptologist from Pennsylvania State University, who points out that an ancient papyrus scroll details a plot by Tiy to dethrone Rameses III in favour of their son, even though he was not the nominated heir.
The plot was apparently supported by a number of high level courtiers, suggesting that they felt Pentewere had a legitimate claim, even though the accession was usually thought to be divinely ordained.
‘The scroll tells us that the coup was very quickly discovered and the plotters brought to trial,’ she explained. ‘They were sentenced to death, but the papyrus also tells us that Pentewere was spared this fate. Perhaps because of his royal status he was allowed to commit suicide.’
He would almost certainly have done so, she says, by drinking poison.
Yet other findings from the 1886 postmortem seemed to dispute the body might be that of Pentewere. It suggested that Man E had been buried with his internal organs intact, which was extraordinarily unusual, even for a traitor, and a boost to theories that the body had been mummified elsewhere at the time – or had not even been Egyptian at all.
Some academics believed that the body may have been that of a rival Hittite prince, basing their theory on a letter written by Tutankhamun’s widow Ankhesenamun.
The pharaoh died without leaving an heir and, in her letter, his wife had appealed to the then King of the Hittites that he allow her to marry one of his sons, who would become king and ensure her own continuing power.
Man E, some academics believed, was just such a prince, one who had travelled to Egypt to meet with his new bride and befallen a cruel and murderous fate.
Yet today’s forensic findings seemed to dispute this theory: a modern 3D scan showed the mummy had been completely eviscerated, as was customary for important Egyptians.
Moreover, new analysis of the condition of his joints and teeth also appeared to overturn earlier theories as to the mummy’s age at the time of death: Fouquet had believed him to be in his early 20s, too young for Pentewere. Now, it seemed, he could have been anywhere up to the age of 40, consistent again with Rameses’ son.
Equally revealing was a full facial reconstruction. Using modern forensic techniques, a 3D image of Man E’s skull was created, revealing what would have been a strong and handsome face, with a prominent nose and long jaw – features which do not correlate with a Hittite background.
Egyptians had a long lower face and an extended cranium from the forehead to the back of the head, as did Man E, suggesting he’s a ancient Egyptian.
There are, of course, still anomalies – the sheepskin covering, the unorthodox way the body was preserved without a name.
The passing of the centuries has ensured that some of the Screaming Man’s secrets are destined to remain unsolved, and as Dylan Bickerstaffe, an eminent Egyptologist, puts it, ‘With some questions we found the answers to be more ordinary than we thought,’ he says. ‘But we’ve also answered others and found the answers to be much stranger.’
It is certainly enough to convince Dr Hawass, who now believes that this most enduring of Egyptian mysteries has been solved.
‘It seems to me this man has been sitting in the Cairo Museum waiting for someone to identify him,’ he says. ‘Now I really do believe that this unknown man is not unknown any more.’