The original occupant of an Egyptian sarcophagus was unknown. Then a tiny ornament revealed a very big name

Damond Isiaka
9 Min Read

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A sarcophagus discovered in 2009 in an Egyptian burial chamber came with a complicated history: Ancient writing on the stone container showed that it had been used twice, but while its second occupant, the 21st dynasty high priest Menkheperrê, was known, the first owner had remained a mystery — until now.

New clues have surfaced as a result of Frédéric Payraudeau, an associate professor in Egyptology at Sorbonne University in Paris, reexamining a fragment of the granite sarcophagus and deciphering the hieroglyphs engraved on it. Tucked away in the cartouche, an oval-shaped ornament often found in tombs, he found a name of a very recognizable figure: Ramesses II.

Payraudeau said the inscription is evidence that the artifact was originally from the tomb of the famous pharaoh and had been reused after looting.

“Clearly, this was the sarcophagus of a king,” Payraudeau said. “The cartouche dates back to its first usage, and contains Ramesses II’s throne name, Usermaatra. He was the only pharaoh to use this name during his time, so that cleared any doubt that it was his sarcophagus.”

The findings, published in the journal Revue d’Égyptologie, add to the lore of Ramesses II, also known as Ozymandias and one of Egypt’s most celebrated pharaohs. It also fills a gap in our understanding of how sarcophagi were used to entomb kings.

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Fit for a king

Ramesses II was the third king of the 19th dynasty, and his reign — from 1279 to 1213 BC — was the second longest in the history of Egypt. He was known for his victorious military campaigns and an interest in architecture, which led him to order up important monuments and statues of himself. His mummy is at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo.

Another coffin belonging to Ramesses II was discovered in 1881 near Luxor, but the sarcophagus fragment analyzed in the study was found in Abydos, a city about 40 miles (64 kilometers) to the northwest in a straight line.

“That is less bizarre than it seems,” Payraudeau said, “because we know his tomb was looted in the antiquity, maybe two centuries after his death, and he’s certainly not the only king to have been looted.”

The granite fragment, which is a nearly complete part of the longer side of the sarcophagus, was previously believed to have belonged to a prince. “But I always found this strange, because the decoration on this carefully crafted piece was indicative of a king, and had elements traditionally reserved for kings,” Payraudeau said.

Psusennes I reused this sarcophagus that once belonged to Merneptah, the son and successor of Ramesses II. The lid of the sarcophagus is above. Reusing funerary items helped connect subsequent rulers to the New Kingdom period of Ramesses II, considered to be a glorious age of ancient Egypt.

Another hint pointing at the real origin of the piece, according to Payraudeau, is that its second owner, the high priest Menkheperrê, had an elder half brother who was a pharaoh, Psusennes I. The latter also reused a sarcophagus from the Valley of the Kings — one that belonged to none other than Ramesses II’s son and successor, Merneptah.

Reusing of funerary items served a double purpose, according to Payraudeau. On one hand, it was dictated by frugality during a time of economic crisis, but it also connected these subsequent rulers to the New Kingdom period of Ramesses II, considered to be a glorious age of ancient Egypt.

Protection from looting

Confirming this fragment to be part of Ramesses II’s funerary items means that the king was entombed in three nested sarcophagi, Payraudeau said. The first was likely made of gold, like Tutankhamun’s, but it was lost in an early looting. Traces of the second sarcophagus were found as alabaster fragments during restoration work performed in the pharaoh’s tomb in the 1990s. Both sarcophagi would have been inside an even larger stone sarcophagus, the source of the granite fragment Payraudeau discovered.

“This also tells us when pharaohs began using more than one stone sarcophagus,” Payraudeau added. “In the time of Ramesses I, we see only one, but Ramesses II’s successor already had four stone sarcophagi to provide more resistance to looting, which was becoming widespread. It was strange to go from one to four directly — now we have two to four, which is a more logical progression.”

The fragment is still in a storeroom in Abydos, Payraudeau said, but he has informed the Egyptian authorities of the discovery and said he hopes that it will be moved to a museum.

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Researchers in the same field who were not involved with the work widely praised the finding.

Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist and professor in the department of archaeology at the UK’s University of York, called it a fascinating piece of detective work that demonstrates how the story of Egypt’s ancient past is still unfolding with new discoveries and interpretation.

“The ultimate find spot is also most intriguing, with Ramesses’ sarcophagus not only reused but at some point moved to Abydos, then considered Egypt’s most religious site and the spiritual home of Egyptian kingship,” Fletcher said.

Jean Revez, a professor of history at the University of Quebec in Montreal, agreed. “Payraudeau’s reading of the cartouche seems correct and the parallels he puts forward with the sarcophagi of another 19th dynasty king, Merneptah, Ramesses II’s son and successor, are relevant.”

Coffins of New Kingdom pharaohs were always enclosed in stone sarcophagus boxes, often made of granite, but no trace of Ramesses II’s or his father Seti I’s were ever found until now, according to Peter Brand, a professor of Egyptology and ancient history at the University of Memphis.

“This suggests they were both ‘recycled’ by later Egyptians,” Brand said.

It’s no surprise, he added, that the stone sarcophagus of Ramesses II eventually was taken — after his tomb was robbed and his mummy was safely tucked away in a secret cache tomb — and that a later high priest would borrow this highly prestigious item for his own burial. The Egyptians, he argued, had a peculiar sense of ownership of old monuments and considered this recycling to be “fair use.”

“Dr. Payraudeau’s detective work in discovering Ramesses as the original owner is a remarkable and important discovery,” Brand said, “and a textbook example of the kind of ‘forensic’ study of erased or altered inscriptions Egyptologists, including myself, often do — to understand the complex histories of ancient artifacts and gain a better understanding of ancient Egypt’s long and colorful history.”

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