An assassin slit the throat of Egypt's last great pharaoh at the climax of a bitter succession battle, scientists say in a report on the 3,000-year-old royal murder.
Forensic technology suggests Ramses III, a king revered as a god, met his death at the hand of a killer, or killers, sent by his conniving wife and ambitious son, they say in a report released on Monday. And a cadaver known as the Screaming Mummy could be that of the son himself, possibly forced to commit suicide after the plot, they add. Computed tomography (CT) imaging of the mummy of Ramses III shows his windpipe and major arteries were slashed in a wound 70 millimetres wide and reaching almost to the spine. The cut severed all the soft tissue on the front of the neck.
"I have almost no doubt about the fact that Ramses III was killed by this cut in his throat," said palaeopathologist Albert Zink of the European Research Academy's Institute for Mummies and the Iceman. "The cut is so very deep and quite large, it really goes down almost to the bone - it must have been a lethal injury."
Ramses III, who ruled from about 1188BC to 1155BC, is described in ancient documents as the "Great God" and a military leader who defended Egypt, then the richest prize in the Mediterranean, from repeated invasion.
He was about 65 when he died, but the cause of his death has never been clear.
Sketchy evidence lies in the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, which recorded four trials held for alleged conspirators in the king's death, among them one of his junior wives, Tiy, and her son Prince Pentawere.
In a year-long appraisal of the mummy, Zink and experts from Egypt, Italy and Germany found that the wound on Ramses III's neck had been hidden by mummifying bandages.
"This was a big mystery that remained, what really happened to the king," said Zink of the study, published by the British Medical Journal. "We were very surprised and happy because we did not really expect to find something. Other people had inspected the mummy, at least from outside, and it was always described [as] 'there are no signs of any trauma or any injuries'."
It is possible that Ramses' throat was cut after death, but this is highly unlikely as such a practice was never recorded as an ancient Egyptian embalming technique, the researchers said.
In addition, an amulet believed to contain magical healing powers was found in the cut. "For me it is quite obvious that they inserted the amulet to let him heal for the afterlife," Zink said.
"For the ancient Egyptians it was very important to have an almost complete body for the afterlife," and embalmers often replaced body parts with sticks and other materials, he said.
The authors of the study also examined the mummy of a man aged 18 to 20 in the chamber with Ramses. They found genetic evidence that the corpse, known as the Screaming Mummy for its open mouth and contorted face, was related to Ramses and may have been Prince Pentawere.
"What was special with him, he was embalmed in a very strange way … They did not remove the organs, did not remove the brain," Zink said. "He had a very strange, reddish colour and a very strange smell. And he was also covered with a goat skin and this is something that was considered as impure" - possibly a postmortem punishment.
If it was Pentawere, it appears he may have been forced to hang himself, a punishment deemed sufficient to purge one's sins for the afterlife, the researchers said.
The plotters failed to derail the succession. Ramses was succeeded by his chosen heir, his son Amonhirkhopshef.