Living God in a Wooden Box: In Whose Coffin was Ramesses II Buried?
Usermaatre Setepenre Ramesses II, the third pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty, was one of ancient Egypt’s longest-reigning monarchs. In an astonishing sixty-seven regnal years – the glory days of empire that witnessed unprecedented peace and prosperity – the monarch built grand edifices and etched his name on innumerable monuments of his forbears. Whether it was reverential usurpation or the king’s desire to broadcast his power; the fact remains that few rulers matched his magnificence and propaganda skills. And yet, for a man who strode the world stage like a colossus, the mummy of Ramesses was found in an ordinary wooden coffin that belonged to another king. How and why did this come about; and who was the original owner of the casket?
Wooden coffin lid of Rameses II (Usermaatra Setepenra, 1279-1213 BC) of the 19th Dynasty from Deir el Bahari. (Image credit: S. Hayter, ancient-egypt.co.uk, accessed Jan 2018).
Equipped for the Afterlife
Ramesses seems to have continued his penchant for usurpation posthumously too — albeit, without his stir! By the time he perished at the ripe old age of 90, or thereabouts, the pharaoh had built a sumptuous tomb for himself in the Valley of the Kings (KV7) which rivalled that of his illustrious father, Seti I (KV17). Ramesses lay in regal splendor in the hallowed confines opposite the sepulcher of his predeceased sons (KV5) — a tomb examined only partially in modern times by two British Egyptologists: James Burton in 1825, and later Howard Carter in 1902. Re-discovered in 1995 by Dr Kent Weeks who headed the Theban Mapping Project, KV5, that contains 200 corridors and chambers proved to be the largest crypt at the site. Also, as of 2006, nearly 130 rooms were brought to light thanks to the enormous efforts of Weeks and his team.
The imposing Ramesseum built by Ramesses II is a UNESCO World Heritage Site today. This memorial temple was originally called the House of Millions of Years of Usermaatra-setepenra. Pictured here are headless Osiride statues of the pharaoh. ( CC BY 2.0 )
But, despite his preparations, the Afterlife posed serious challenges for Ramesses II. His massive House of Eternity did not survive looting in antiquity; nor was it spared by the vagaries of nature. The former acts in the royal necropolis at the close of the Twentieth Dynasty and the beginning of the early Twenty-First Dynasty were mostly state-sanctioned.
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The color and style of this relief strongly suggest not only that it originated from the temple of Ramesses II at Abydos, but also that it was carved in the first two years of his reign, perhaps by the same artists who decorated the adjacent temple of his predecessor, Seti I. (Image: Brooklyn Museum )
In a time when Egypt faced the threat of internal rebellion, poverty and diminishing respect among vassal states, the priest-kings who usurped power needed wealth to fulfill their ambitious building projects. With sources of revenue drying up fast, they hit upon a devious plan to fill the coffers in the form of bullion stocked in the tombs of their predecessors. This was ransacking under the guise of pious restoration.
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The mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu functioned as a workshop for rewrapping many royal mummies during the official ‘restoration’ period. This image was shot during an aerial survey of the West Bank in 2010. (Image: © Howard Middleton-Jones )
“The manner in which the royal dead and their coffins were treated by these salvage teams could be ruthless in the extreme,” reveals Dr Nicholas Reeves, and adds, “An important point to note, however, is that not all of the royal dead and their coffins had been treated in such a devastating way: along with those bodies which were hacked and badly broken, the DB 320 Cache yielded some of the best-preserved mummies ever found, including that of Ramesses II which had, of course, travelled to its final resting place within the coffin Inv. Cairo CG 61020.”
King Herihor, the erstwhile Theban High Priest, and Queen Nodjmet adore Osiris in the Afterlife. From the Book of the Dead papyrus of Nodjmet, c. 1050 BC. (Image courtesy of British Museum .)
Assault on the Royal Necropolis
In fact, the violation of these sacred sanctuaries was not new, for much earlier, tomb robbers struck at several Seventeenth Dynasty burials in the Valley of the Queens and the mortuary temples of deceased kings. “Old royal mummies were removed from their original tombs, often rewrapped, and moved to hidden caches. In the process of rewrapping, those carrying out the scheme removed the gold, jewels, and amulets from the mummies, along with anything else considered of value in the tombs. Some have called this process preservation, others plundering, or a combination of the two,” informs George Wood. The mortal remains of Ramesses the Great too suffered this fate.