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Previously Overlooked Hieroglyphics Offer Key to Ramses II’s Lost Sarcophagus

June 2, 2024
Photo credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Ramses II, the illustrious Dynasty 19 pharaoh of ancient Egypt of the New Kingdom, is famed for his expansive conquests into modern-day Syria, his prodigious fathering of approximately 100 children, and his opulent burial artifacts. 

Despite his historical prominence, the carved granite sarcophagus enclosing his lavish coffin has eluded identification — until now.

Frédéric Payraudeau, an Egyptologist at the Sorbonne University in France, has re-evaluated a sarcophagus fragment in May, initially unearthed in the ancient necropolis of Abydos in 2009.

Initially, experts believed the intricately engraved stone container was the final resting place for two distinct individuals across different eras. The second occupant was identified as Menkheperre, a high priest from around 1000 B.C.E. during the Third Intermediate Period.

However, the identity of the first occupant remained enigmatic, known only to be a prominent figure from the Egyptian New Kingdom, according to a report by Jennifer Nalewicki for Live Science and a statement from the French National Center for Scientific Research.

Upon examining the inscriptions on the sarcophagus fragment, including a previously obscured and misidentified cartouche — a distinctive oval enclosing a royal name — Frédéric Payraudeau identified the hieroglyphs as bearing the name of Ramses II. His groundbreaking discovery was published in the journal Revue d’Égyptologie in 2023.

Ramses II, whose reign spanned approximately 67 years, was one of ancient Egypt’s longest-serving rulers. Known as the builder pharaoh, he commissioned various regional temples

As Payraudeau notes, it is uncommon to find an ancient Egyptian site unmarked by Ramses’ name, as the king often added his name to monuments erected before his rule.

The death of Ramses II, initiated a complex saga of burial and subsequent disturbances. Egyptian burial practices, combined with extensive looting of the Valley of the Kings where he and many other royals were interred, left a convoluted physical record. 

Ramses was initially entombed in a gilded wooden coffin, placed inside an alabaster sarcophagus and then enclosed within a larger granite sarcophagus. Over time, the coffin was stolen, the alabaster sarcophagus shattered by looters, and the granite sarcophagus — the origin of the fragment studied by Payraudeau — was repurposed by Menkheperre.

Payraudeau explains that the Valley of the Kings was subject to numerous plunderings during the 19th Dynasty, a period marked by economic and social turmoil. This scarcity forced even royalty to reuse funerary objects originally made for their predecessors.

According to the Egyptian Museum, in 1881, Ramses’ mummy and coffin were concealed within the Deir el-Bahari temple complex, which also housed the remains of 50 other nobles, including his father, Seti I. 

Since then, the gold coffin and Ramses’ mummy have been displayed in museums worldwide. Whether the sarcophagus fragment, now stored in Abydos, will eventually be exhibited remains uncertain.

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