Scans of mummy reveal new secrets about pharaoh's demise

February 16, 2021
Pharaohs didn't always win on the battlefield. (Sahar Saleem)

Pharaohs didn't always win on the battlefield. (Sahar Saleem)

New medical scans of a pivotal ancient Egyptian ruler show the pharaoh was captured and slain after battling an army of shepherds in northern Egypt, two researchers argue in a new paper, challenging previous assumptions that the king was murdered in his sleep.

The study, published Wednesday in Frontiers in Medicine, examined the mummified remains of King Seqenenre Taa II, who ruled southern Egypt for a roughly five-year period that ended around 1553 B.C. Using CT scans, the researchers found that the king was positioned in a way that suggests he was likely imprisoned and possibly kneeling at the time of his violent death.

The scans also uncovered wounds on the right side of the king’s head that were unseen in earlier examinations of his remains. These wounds are consistent with the size and shape of weapons used by the Hyksos, Asian shepherds who took over a large part of Egypt, said Sahar Saleem, the paper’s lead author and a professor of radiology who specializes in paleoradiology at Cairo University.

Seqenenre, also called “the Brave,” is currently the only known Egyptian pharaoh, among many renowned for feats in war, who sustained such severe injuries from weapons indicative of frontline fighting, the researchers wrote. The paper was co-authored by Zahi Hawass, an archaeologist and former Egyptian minister of antiquities.

It's likely based on the new scans that Seqenenre was captured and executed by the Hyksos on the battlefield, Saleem told The Academic Times. But his death went on to inspire his two sons, Kamose and Ahmose, to complete his "sacred fight" to drive the Hyksos out of Egypt while uniting the kingdom, she said.

Seqenenre took the throne “during a tough time” near the end of Egypt’s 17th Dynasty, Saleem said, when the Hyksos occupied Egypt and levied tributes on all Egyptians. Though the pharaoh maintained power in Thebes, to the south, the Hyksos reigned over much of the Nile Delta and northern Egypt for nearly a century between roughly 1640 and 1530 B.C.

The Hyksos were a group of shepherds from western Asia who arrived at Avaris, in modern day Tell el-Dabaa, and later brought troops to take the city as their capital, as well as the surrounding region, the researchers wrote.

Seqenenre was likely provoked into war against the occupiers after the Hyksos King Apophis wrote to him complaining that hippopotamuses in a sacred pool in Thebes had disturbed his sleep from 400 miles away; Apophis demanded that the pools be destroyed, Saleem explained, after which Seqenenre was recorded calling his advisers. 

Historical texts surrounding these events, such as The Sallier I, are incomplete. As such, the precise circumstances surrounding Seqenenre’s death have been the subject of much scholarly debate since his mummy was discovered in 1881 at the Deir el-Bahari cache in Thebes.

Two previous physical examinations of Seqenenre’s mummy found five distinct injuries from multiple sources and different weapons around his head, and a series of X-ray scans in the 1960s appeared to confirm these discoveries.

Some scholars, including Egyptologist Grafton Elliot Smith, have guessed that Seqenenre was killed while lying on his right side, likely while he slept in his palace, given that many of the injuries were inflicted horizontally on his left side. Others asserted that the king died while atop his chariot in battle based on angular blows to his left cheek and a lack of injuries to his arms, which may be sustained when one throws up their arms to protect their face.

More recently, archaeologist Garry Shaw's analysis of these theories and ancient technologies used by the two warring factions posed a third possibility favored by Saleem and Hawass: Seqenenre was captured and executed at the hands of the Hyksos following battle.

Theories based on the earlier findings may be missing a more “nuanced” telling of history given the limitations of X-ray scans in paleo-imaging, or the non-invasive study of ancient human and animal remains, Saleem said.

“In plain X-ray studies, the three-dimensional body is represented on a two-dimensional X-ray, so data are overlapped,” she explained. "A CT scan is a more advanced form of imaging, as it sends X-rays in thin sections throughout the body. CT offers a much higher level of detail than plain X-rays as it can create computerized 3-D views of the body’s structures.”

The researchers’ CT scan showed a number of additional injuries on the right lateral side of the skull that are covered by embalming material and undetectable by X-ray or physical examination. 

Notably, bones in the right side of his skull were found to be fractured from a horizontal attack, likely caused by a heavy sharp object resembling an Asian Middle Bronze Age dagger found at Avaris that is believed to have been used by the Hyksos. Another blow, potentially from a blunt object, caused a fracture along the right parietal bone, the round, upper-rear part of the skull.

The mummy’s hands were flexed at the wrist — unlike other royal mummies whose arms are crossed on their chest — and were "spastic" because of an intense contraction of muscles just before death, the researchers wrote, suggesting Seqenenre was bound at his wrists before sustaining his injuries.

Scans of previously discovered injuries found that many of the most fatal blows, including a prominent "cut fracture" in the upper forehead region, came from multiple directions and weapons that were either perpendicular or above the pharaoh.

“In a normal execution on a bound prisoner, it could be assumed that only one assailant strikes, possibly from different angles but not with different weapons,” Saleem said. “Seqenenre’s death was a rather ceremonial execution. … The lethal attack was aimed at the king’s face, likely in an attempt to disgrace him.”

The additional injuries appear to have been concealed deliberately by embalmers using a paste in an attempt to “beautify” the king, the researchers wrote, disputing another theory that Seqenenre was hastily embalmed far from the Egyptian capital of Thebes given the poorly decomposed state of the mummy and lack of brain removal.

Rather, they argue, the technique is indicative of the sophistication found at the Theban royal mummification workshop. The researchers also found that the king’s desiccated brain had shifted to the left side of his skull, indicating the corpse had been lying on its left side for a long time after death and suggesting that Seqenenre was left in such a position far from the funeral location before the embalming process could begin.

It’s therefore unlikely that Seqenenre was killed sleeping in his palace where the body would have had more time to be preserved properly at the royal embalming site, the researchers wrote.

“This suggests that Seqenenre was really on the front line with his soldiers, risking his life to liberate Egypt,” Saleem said.

The paper, “Computed tomography study of the mummy of King Seqenenre Taa II: New insights into his violent death,” was published Feb. 17 in Frontiers in Medicine. It was authored by Sahar Saleem, a professor of radiology at Cairo University, and Zahi Hawass, an archaeologist and former minister of antiquities of Egypt. Their study was approved by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism. The research was self-funded by the authors.

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