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By Edward F. Wente, Professor, The Oriental Institute
and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 144, Winter 1995, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)

The University of Chicago had an early association with the royal mummies, albeit an indirect one. On the Midway in the area in front of where Rockefeller Chapel now stands there was an exhibit of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition known as "A Street in Cairo." To lure visitors into the pavilion a placard placed at the entrance displayed an over life-sized photograph of the "Mummy of Rameses II, the Oppressor of the Israelites." Elsewhere on the exterior of the building were the words "Royal Mummies Found Lately in Egypt," giving the impression that the visitor would be seeing the genuine mummies, which only twelve years earlier had been removed by Egyptologists from a cache in the desert escarpment of Deir el-Bahri in western Thebes. The cache had actually been penetrated as early as 1871 by members of a local family, who were gradually removing antiquities which soon appeared on the market, arousing the suspicions of the authorities of the Egyptian Antiquities Department. Subsequently in 1898 Victor Loret penetrated the tomb of Amenhotep II in the Valley of the Kings, and there discovered a second collection of royal mummies of the New Kingdom.

The mummies from the Deir el-Bahri cache were removed to the Cairo Museum in 1881, and most, but not all, of the mummies found in the tomb of Amenhotep II were brought to Cairo after their discovery. In 1912 Elliot Smith published his Cairo Museum catalogue of the royal mummies, a work which provided anatomical descriptions of the bodies, estimates of their ages at death, as well as lengthy quotations from Gaston Maspero's initial publication of the Deir el-Bahri cache. Smith's estimates of ages at death were based solely on visual observation of the external appearance of the mummies. With the exception of the mummy of Thutmose IV, which a certain Dr. Khayat x-rayed in 1903, and the mummy of Amenhotep I, x-rayed by Dr. Douglas Derry in the 1930s, none of the other royal mummies had ever been radiographed until Dr. James E. Harris, Chairman of the Department of Orthodontics at the University of Michigan, and his team from the University of Michigan and Alexandria University began x-raying the royal mummies in the Cairo Museum in 1967. The inadequacy of Smith's approach in determining age at death had already been hinted at by Smith in his catalogue, where he indicated that the x-ray of Thutmose IV suggested that this king's age at death might have been older than his previous visual examination of the body had suggested.

Head of Amenhotep III (?).

Jim Harris' involvement with the royal mummies in the Cairo Museum was an outgrowth of extensive research conducted by Michigan-Alexandria on the craniofacial morphology of both the ancient and modern populations in Nubia before the completion of the High Dam. As a geneticist and physical anthropologist, his interest was in the hereditary factors affecting malocclusion, and in the years following the creation of Lake Nasser he has frequently returned to continue his research on the Nubian population that was resettled at Kom Ombo, north of Assuan.

Head of Tutankhamun.

Jim's methodology depends upon obtaining precise lateral cephalometric x-rays and the use of the high-speed computer for analyzing a large amount of data. Each skeletal image from these x-rays is traced on acetate and digitized, resulting in 177 coordinate points stored in the computer's memory. A computer generated contour map is then produced for visual examination and comparison; and also quantified data, usually consisting of linear and angular conventional cephalometric measurements, are readily available for univariate or multivariate analysis. In the study of the royal mummies cluster analysis was utilized. The genetic model for the inheritance of the bones of the craniofacial complex assumes that many genes (polygenetic) are responsible for the size, shape, and position of these bones. The measurements representing these bones are assumed to be continuously variable, and the contention is simply that members of the nuclear family are more similar in craniofacial morphology than unrelated persons.

To Jim, researching the etiology of malocclusion and the inheritance of craniofacial characteristics, the mummies of the pharaohs of the New Kingdom were a potential gold mine, because here one should be able to discern changes in facial features from father to son over many generations, something that would be almost impossible to do elsewhere unless one were to exhume deceased members of European royal families. An investigation into the royal mummies had also a practical aim - a better understanding of craniofacial growth and development that could benefit orthodontists in treating patients.

Jim had already spent five years on the mummy project before he invited me to participate in the preparation of an xray atlas of the royal mummies. As a historian of ancient Egypt, my primary charge was to determine from written and archaeological sources the genealogies of the pharaohs, because this information was necessary to implement the biologists' investigation into the inheritance of craniofacial characteristics. On the whole, the written sources provided reliable genealogies, though there were some uncertainties regarding the parentage of Ahmose, Tutankhamun, Ramesses IV, and Ramesses VI. Perhaps more important to the historian was the age factor, because the estimated age upon death of a king could have significant chronological implications. Although the age factor was not the principal objective of Jim's research, it was an important consideration and came to involve the doyen of physical anthropology in America, Professor Wilton Krogman, who, together with Professor Melvyn Baer of the University of Michigan, estimated the ages at which members of the royal families had died, using the full x-ray documentation. Quite independently of the royal mummies, I attempted to estimate the range of ages that historical sources suggested for the deaths of the pharaohs.

A comparison of our results in An X-Ray Atlas of the Royal Mummies, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1980, reveals that the pharaohs' ages at death as determined by the biologists are generally younger than what the written sources suggested. Part of this disparity may be attributed to a somewhat slower maturation in antiquity - as it is among modern Nubians, who reach puberty two to three years later than modern Americans. The mummy believed to be that of Thutmose I was determined to be twenty-two years old at death, far too young for a king who had campaigned vigorously in Nubia and Asia. However, the identification of this mummy, lacking any inscription on its bandages, had always been suspect. Although the mummy does possess craniofacial features similar to the mummies of Thutmose II and III, the fact that the arms are pendant is also suspicious given the fact that the recent review of the x-rays of the mummy of Amenhotep 1, the immediate predecessor of Thutmose I, revealed that his arms had been originally folded across the chest like all subsequent pharaohs of the New Kingdom. In the case of the Thutmose I mummy at best it can be said that the individual was a member of the Thutmoside family, but not a king.

Since the publication of the x-ray atlas Jim has conducted further investigations of the royal mummies in the Cairo Museum, and we have had numerous discussions and pooled together our thoughts. What was becoming apparent was the improbability of some of the identifications of the mummies because there were some strange deviations in craniofacial morphologies of certain mummies who were supposed to be related as father to son. To understand how this could be it should be stressed that all the mummies of New Kingdom pharaohs found in the two caches had been rewrapped and identified by dockets on the exterior of their refurbished mummies and/or coffins, which for the most part did not derive from the original interment. These dockets, penned by those involved in the rewrapping and reburial of the royal mummies in the Twenty-first Dynasty, have thus provided the sole means of identification. In fact the only king's mummy whose identification is based on inscriptional evidence contemporary with the original interment is that of Tutankhamun, who rested over three millennia in his intact burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings. In addition, we are certain about the identity of the mummies of Queen Tiye's parents, Iuya and Tuya, who were discovered in their tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

X-ray of skull of Amenhotep III (?).

Several mummies in particular Jim found to be quite anomalous in terms of their position within the genealogical sequence: Ahmose, Amenhotep II, Amenhotep III, and Seti II. Seti II is an interesting case, because he should belong to the Nineteenth Dynasty line, being the grandson of Ramesses II and son of Merenptah. Elliot Smith in his catalogue of the royal mummies had already noted in 1912 that Seti II does not at all resemble the orthognathous heavyjawed pharaohs of the Nineteenth Dynasty, but bears a striking resemblance to the kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Smith's observations, which were not made with the aid of x-rays and computer analysis of craniofacial variation, nonetheless were those of a person with considerable experience in examining human remains. Subjected to Jim's more sophisticated approach using cephalometric x-ray tracings and cluster analysis, this mummy was found to be most similar in craniofacial morphology to the mummies of Thutmose II and III. In other words, Seti II was not Seti II. The confusion between Seti II and Thutmose II may have been occasioned by the similarity of their prenomens when written in the hieratic script.

X-ray of skull of Tutankhamun.

Since the identification of Thutmose I was already seriously in doubt, there would be room to insert the Seti II mummy into the first half of the Eighteenth Dynasty. This possibility sent me to reevaluate the dockets supposedly identifying the mummy of Thutmose II. On the mummy the orthography of the king's name was not without ambiguity, while on the coffin the scribe had originally written the prenomen of Thutmose I and then altered it to Thutmose II's. Since the mummy identified as Thutmose II was older at death than the Seti II one, and from historical considerations we believe that Thutmose I died at an older age than Thutmose II, the end result of this part of our inquiry was to suggest that the Thutmose II mummy really belonged to Thutmose I and the Seti II mummy to Thutmose II, while Thutmose III has possibly been correctly identified. I say "possibly" because the shroud of Thutmose III, which has been used to identify the mummy, was discovered not wrapped around the body but simply folded on top of the mummy, which itself bore no clear identification.

Prior to Thutmose I, who represents the start of a new line, the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs Ahmose and Amenhotep I are really a continuation of the late Seventeenth Dynasty line, which was characterized by a series of consanguineous marriages, the major queens being full-blooded sisters of their husbands - a practice that accounts for the prevailing homogeneity in the craniofacial morphologies of members of this family whose mummies have survived. Although the mummy of King Ahmose, noted for his expulsion of the Hyksos at the beginning of the New Kingdom, bore a restorer's docket identifying the body as Ahmose's and the mummy was discovered resting in its original coffin, Jim had considerable reservations about the correctness of this identification because its craniofacial morphology was quite unlike that of King Seqnenre, who was Ahmose's father or uncle, and diverged significantly from that of his sister-wife Ahmose-Nofretari and that of his son Amenhotep I.

Some support for Jim's doubts about Ahmose is found in the fact that the arms of the mummy are pendant at the sides. From the report of the finding of the mummy of the Thirteenth Dynasty King Hor at Dashur, we learn that this ephemeral pharaoh had his arms positioned across the chest as was the case of the kings of the New Kingdom with the exception of Seqnenre, who was embalmed in the frozen attitude of his violent death. There is also the peculiar feature that the Ahmose mummy was uncircumcised.

Superimposed cephalometric tracing illustrating dissimilarity between Amenhotep III(?) and Tutankhamun.

Superimposed cephalometric tracing illustrating dissimilarity between Amenhotep III(?) and Thutmose IV.

The mummy that caused me the most consternation is that considered to be Amenhotep II's. Jim's conclusion was that his craniofacial morphology does not suit his being the son of Thutmose III and father of Thutmose IV, both of which Amenhotep II should be on the basis of textual evidence. Jim and I had long debates over this mummy whose identification as Amenhotep II had always seemed fairly certain; because although it had been rewrapped and placed in a replacement cartonnage coffin, this coffin was found lying within the original quartzite sarcophagus of Amenhotep II in his own tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and the restorers had inscribed Amenhotep II's prenomen on the mummy's shroud according to Loret's report of his discovery of the tomb of Amenhotep II.

The craniofacial morphology of the mummy labeled Amenhotep III also made it difficult to place in the position he should occupy as son of Thutmose IV. Of the mummies in the collection only the one supposed to be Amenhotep II is a suitable candidate to have been the father of the Amenhotep III mummy. Over the years Jim became increasingly intrigued by the Amenhotep III mummy, because it is one of the most severely battered of the royal mummies, having suffered postmortem injuries of a very violent nature, more than what tomb-robbers generally inflicted upon the mummies in search of precious items. Since the publication of the x-ray atlas further study of this mummy has been undertaken by Jim and Dr. Fawzia Hussein, Director of the Anthropological Laboratory of the National Research Center, Cairo; and it has been ascertained that the skull is two standard deviations too large for his body, and its craniofacial characteristics are consonant with sculptured portraits of Akhenaten.

What is more, comparison of the cephalograms and cluster analysis revealed that the mummy supposed to be that of Thutmose IV bore the closest resemblance in craniofacial morphology to the remains of Tutankhamun and the skeleton from KV 55, often considered to be Smenkhkare. In 1984 the nearly complete skeleton from KV 55 was reconstructed, and the jaw was remounted in its correct position. As a result of further examination, the age at death of this individual has been estimated to be about 35 years, and the facial skeleton is even more similar to Tutankhamun's than had previously been thought.

From textual sources we know that the second half of the Eighteenth Dynasty line ran from father to son as follows: Thutmose III, Amenhotep II, Thutmose IV, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten. However, a comparison of the craniofacial morphologies of the mummies that have been attributed to these kings would suggest a sequence more like Thutmose III, Thutmose IV, Amenhotep II, Amenhotep III. Obviously something is wrong here, and a possible solution lies in questioning the veracity of the dockets of some of these mummies.

It has been observed that the craniofacial morphologies of Thutmose IV, Tutankhamun, and Smenkhkare are very similar, and one would thus like to bring the Thutmose IV mummy as close in time as possible to Tutankhamun. Although the tomb of Tutankhamun contained such a wealth of material, there was no precise indication in the tomb regarding his parentage. A lock of Queen Tiye's hair, discovered in a miniature coffin in the tomb of Tutankhamun, suggests that he was related to this major queen of Amenhotep III, and indeed there are a number of inscriptions in the Luxor Temple and on the Soleb lion that refer to Amenhotep III as the father of Tutankhamun. The Oriental Institute's archivist, John Larson, published in Featured Object Number One January 1985 , an astronomical instrument dedicated by Tutankhamun to "the father of his father" Thutmose IV. The problem with such terminology is that the Egyptian word for father can also have the extended meaning of grandfather or forefather. On a block originally from Amarna there is reference to "the king's son of his body, his beloved, Tutankhuaten," which should indicate that Tutankhuaten, Tutankhamun's name before the return to orthodoxy, was the son of a pharaoh. Usually scholars have concluded that Tutankhamun, because of his young age at death and the length of the reign of Akhenaten, was the son of Akhenaten by a minor wife named Kiya, but other scholars, who are in a minority, have postulated a long coregency between Amenhotep III and his son Akhenaten and proposed making Tutankhamun the son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. What may be said on the basis of the biologic evidence of craniofacial variation is that the mummy labeled as Amenhotep III by the restorers was not a likely father, or even grandfather, of Tutankhamun.


DYNASTY 18              SCHEME 1        SCHEME 2        SCHEME 3

Thutmose I      =       Thutmose II     Thutmose II     Thutmose II
Thutmose II     =       Seti II         Seti II         Seti II
Thutmose III    =       Thutmose III    Thutmose III    ? Thutmose III
Amenhotep II    =       ---             ---             ? Thutmose III
Thutmose IV     =       Amenhotep II    Amenhotep II    Thutmose IV
Amenhotep III   =       Thutmose IV     Thutmose IV     Amenhotep II
Akhenaten       =       KV 55           ---             Amenhotep III
Smenkhkare      =       ---             KV 55           KV 55
Tutankhamun     =       Tutankhamun     Tutankhamun     Tutankhamun
Aye             =       Amenhotep III   Amenhotep III   ---     

To solve the riddle posed by the mummies, there are several possible reconstructions of the genealogies. Remembering that a close father-son-grandson cluster of the mummies docketed Thutmose III, Amenhotep II, and Thutmose IV is improbable biologically, one might propose that a gap should be inserted between Thutmose III and Amenhotep II so that Amenhotep II becomes Thutmose IV and Thutmose IV becomes Amenhotep III. The advantage of this shuffling of the mummies is that the close clustering of the mummies of Thutmose IV, Smenkhkare, and Tutankhamun is maintained. If as some have proposed, the skeleton from KV 55 is Akhenaten's and not Smenkhkare's, we would then have a nice father-son-grandson succession: Amenhotep III (represented by the Thutmose IV mummy), Akhenaten (the skeleton from KV 55), and Tutankhamun. The unusual mummy labeled Amenhotep III might then be identified with King Aye, Tutankhamun's successor (Scheme 1). A variant of this reconstruction is to take the skeleton from KV 55 as Smenkhkare's rather than Akhenaten's, in which case Smenkhkare and Tutankhamun would be brothers and either grandsons or sons of Amenhotep III, represented by the mummy labeled Thutmose IV (Scheme 2).

The weaknesses of either of these two genealogical reconstructions is that the Thutmose IV mummy is one of the better identified ones, with dockets inscribed both on his mummy and coffin. Moreover, the sequence Amenhotep II - Thutmose IV is biologically less probable than the reverse when taking into consideration the craniofacial characteristics of the entire Thutmoside line. Finally, the striking similarity of the Amenhotep III mummy to sculptured portraits of Akhenaten is not explicable if this mummy is identified as Aye's.

There is a third, more radical solution to this puzzle that deserves consideration (Scheme 3). Bearing in mind that the most probable sequence of the mummies from the viewpoint of inheritance of craniofacial characteristics is the sequence of the mummies labeled Thutmose IV, Amenhotep II, and Amenhotep III (in fact only the Amenhotep II mummy provides a suitable father to the Amenhotep III mummy), we have suggested that the Thutmose IV mummy is indeed Thutmose IV, that the Amenhotep II mummy is that of Amenhotep III, and the Amenhotep III mummy is that of Akhenaten. Since neither the skeleton from KV 55 nor Tutankhamun are likely biologic sons of the Amenhotep III mummy or of the Amenhotep II mummy, we come to the possible conclusion that Tutankhamun was not the biologic son of a king. Rather, we suggest that Thutmose IV was the paternal grandfather of Tutankhamun, a conclusion consonant with a literal reading of the text on the Oriental Institute astronomical instrument, and that Amenhotep III was his maternal grandfather. In other words, Tutankhamun was the offspring of a marriage between a son of Thutmose IV and a daughter of Amenhotep III.

Historians of the New Kingdom may balk at this solution because of the Amarna block stating that Tutankhuaten was a "king's son of his body." Although in the New Kingdom this expression is generally to be taken literally, the Amarna period does witness many departures from the norm. It has been suggested that the emphasis on solar worship and the position of pharaoh in relation to the solar deity at Amarna received its inspiration from the Old Kingdom. The Old Kingdom is also the time when the title "king's son of his body" was occasionally used in the extended sense of king's grandson.

How such confusion of the royal mummies could have arisen may be due to tomb-robbers having removed from the mummies the materials providing their names. In some cases it is possible that only the original nomen, such as Thutmose or Amenhotep, both shared by several kings, was preserved, and the restorer mistakenly supplied the wrong prenomen, which was the throne name that distinguished one king from another. As these royal mummies, some deprived of their original identifications, were gathered together and moved from one hiding place to another, the possibility of confusion arose. We know that a number of tombs in the Valley of the Kings had served as temporary caches at one time or another before the final interments were made after the New Kingdom. There is also evidence that the restorations of the mummies took place at Ramesses III's mortuary temple of Medinet Habu, where according to Cyril Aldred the mummies may have been stored for some extended period of time.

One of the results of this reshuffling of the royal mummies, particularly as proposed in Scheme 3, is that the discrepancies in their estimated ages at death between the biologist and the historian become less extreme. On the negative side, since the royal mummies are not as firmly identified as some have believed, their value to the biologist researching the inheritance of craniofacial characteristics over several generations is less than initially hoped for. However, with the exception of the Seti II mummy, the mummies of the Ramesside kings of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties do not present serious problems of attribution, so that one can be fairly confident about the mummies of Seti I, Ramesses II, and Merenptah.

In recent years Jim and Dr. Fawzia Hussein have been given permission by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization to secure tissue and bone samples from the royal mummy collection during the restoration and completion of the new show cases in the Egyptian Museum. Most of the mummies had been damaged by ancient tomb-robbers, and small samples were taken from previously damaged sites. These samples are currently stored in sterile containers in the laboratories of the Department of Human Genetics of the National Research Center in Cairo, awaiting further refinements in DNA-technology applicable to mummified remains before being tested. The great problem in the study of ancient DNA from artificially mummified tissues is amplification of the original DNA without contamination and ultimately false sequencing. At the present time it is only possible to determine maternity among mummies through mitochondrial RNA, but not paternity, thus limiting the value of genetic testing in the case of the Eighteenth Dynasty line, which for the most part is represented by male members. One possible exception, however, is the case of a woman whose mummy still rests in a side chamber of the tomb of Amenhotep II. It was identified as that of Queen Tiye both by comparing her craniofacial morphology with that of her mother Tuya in the Cairo Museum and by using an electron probe to compare the amount of atomic elements in a sample of her hair with a sample from the lock of Tiye's hair that was discovered in Tutankhamun's tomb. Here genetic testing (RNA) could be used to affirm or deny the validity of this identification, although it would require an invasive procedure to secure a tissue sample from Tuya's well-preserved mummy.

For those readers who will be traveling to Egypt on an Oriental Institute tour this spring, the newly opened mummy room in the Cairo Museum exhibits eleven royal mummies whose identities are relatively certain, so do not let my remarks about the royal mummies deter you from visiting this unique assemblage of Egypt's royalty that includes Seti I, Ramesses II, and Merenptah.

Edward F. Wente, a specialist in the New Kingdom, is Professor of Egyptology in the Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He was director of Chicago House in 1972-73 and is the author of the highly acclaimed Letters from Ancient Egypt, published by Scholars Press in 1990.

Photograph Credits

Egyptian swordsmen in a street in Cairo reproduced from The City of Palaces (Chicago: W. B. Conkey Company, 1894).

X-rays of skulls from An X-Ray Atlas of the Royal Mummies, edited by James E. Harris and Edward F. Wente (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

Other photographs courtesy of James E. Harris.

Revised: July 30, 2007

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