Did Ramesses III die in a successful assassination attempt in a harem conspiracy instigated by his own wife? And how was one of the chief conspirators (his son Pentawer) punished? Recent anthropological, forensic, radiological and genetic analyses conducted on 3000+ year-old mummies may provide the answers.

Usimare Ramesses III was the second Pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty, ruling Egypt for 31 years from 1186 – 1155 BC. He had three known wives (Iset Ta-Hemdjert, Tyti and Tiye) and multiple children.

During his reign, constant war and severe famine plagued Egypt, leading to a decline in the Egyptian political and economic power, and the eventual collapse of the Twentieth dynasty. It was this political and economical turmoil that contributed to the assassination of Ramesses III. And the culprit was rumoured to be his very own wife – Queen Tiye.

Mummy of Ramesses III
Mummy of Ramesses III (Figure from Hawass Z et al. (2012) BMJ)

The harem conspiracy

Tiye was only a secondary wife to the Pharaoh. It was she who instigated a royal harem conspiracy in an attempt to gain the throne for her own son Pentawer.

The economic unrest of Egypt meant Tiye had no trouble enlisting a number of top officials, including the royal physician and court magician, to conjure black magic to help with her plot.

Ramesses III was to be the main target of the plot. The plan was to kill Ramesses III inside the harem, followed by a revolt outside.

While it appears that the conspirators were successful in the murder of the Pharaoh, they failed to eliminate his chosen successor and eldest son, Ramesses IV (the son of Queen Tyti).

Ramesses IV rightly took the throne, and the conspirators were put to trial. According to the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, there were three separate trials, and at least 38 people were executed or given the opportunity to take their own lives.

Analyzing the mummy of Ramesses III 

Although the Judicial Papyrus of Turin clearly states that the coup failed, as the aim was to murder both Ramesses III and his chosen successor Ramesses IV, it is unclear when and how Ramesses III died. Was he injured during the revolt and later died from his wounds? Or was the assassination attempt a complete success?

In 2011, these questions were revisited by the analysis of the mummies of Ramesses III and an unknown man (from the royal cache at Deir el Bahari). Anthropological, forensic, radiological and genetic methods were utilized and the investigation shown in the documentary Ramesses: Mummy King Mystery.

A CT scan of the heavily bandaged neck of the mummy of Ramesses III revealed a deep, lethal wound to the throat. This suggests that he was murdered by having his throat cut, rather than by poison as has previously been suggested. An Horus eye amulet, an object that was believed to have healing powers and provide protection, was also enclosed in the wound.

Neck region of unknown mummy
Neck region of unknown mummy. Arrows indicate skin folds and wrinkles. (Figure from Hawass Z et al. (2012) BMJ)

Yet the question remained, who was the unknown mummy buried near Ramesses III? This mummy had undergone an unusual process of mummification.

There was no evidence of removal of the organs, or any detection of embalming materials. As well, there were weird skin folds around the jaw and neck area, and gas formation in specific body parts. All indicative of death by suffocation, or possibly being buried alive.

This mummy was also wrapped in goat skins, which were regarded as impure. The researchers speculated that this second body was Pentawer, who was buried this way as a punishment for his involvement in the death of his father, Ramesses III.

Genetic analyses of the mummy

Genetic analyses are the best way to confirm father-son relationships. Researchers analyzed markers known as short tandem repeats (STRs) in the Y-DNA and autosomal DNA.

DNA Paternal Ancestry Test box

DNA Paternal Ancestry Test

Y-DNA is paternally inherited (from father to son). Autosomal DNA is inherited in equal amounts from each parent. STRs are regions within our DNA that change at a fast rate and are useful for tracing close relationships.

The Y-DNA STR profile generated from the unknown mummy was identical to the profile generated from the mummy of Ramesses III – as expected for a father and son.

The analysis of autosomal STR markers also showed that the unknown mummy had at least one allele matching to Ramesses III at each marker tested – as expected for a parent and child.

The identical Y-DNA profiles and autosomal half allele sharing strongly suggested a father-son relationship. Hence, it was predicted that the second unknown mummy belongs to Ramesses III’s son, Pentawer.

The abnormalities detected in the second mummy, suggest that Pentawer was sentenced to death by suffocation or he was buried alive – both completely feasible options due to Pentawer’s primary role in the harem conspiracy.

The DNA tests from this study have defined the Y-DNA STR profile of Ramesses III (and his horrible son Pentawer). If you have taken the DNA Paternal Ancestry test you can determine if you may have descended from the same paternal lineage as this famous Pharaoh.


Hawass Z et al. (2012) Revisiting the harem conspiracy and death of Ramesses III: anthropological, forensic, radiological, and genetic study. BMJ. 345:e8268.