Psusennes: The Silver Pharaoh with Treasures to Rival Tutankhamun's
Amidst the chaos of the Second World War in Western Europe, a French archaeologist named Pierre Montet unearthed a stunning treasure in 1940 in Tanis, Egypt. The find was on par with the legendary discovery of the intact tomb of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, made by Howard Carter two decades earlier. But, despite the magnitude of this extraordinary revelation, the news failed to create a stir amongst European society, preoccupied with the escalating conflict on the continent.
A gold and lapis lazuli collar of king Psusennes I originally found in his tomb at Tanis. (John Campana / CC BY 2.0)
Psusennes the Silver Pharaoh Turns Assumptions On Their Head
Montet’s discovery on the eve of the Second World War was that of a tomb of a relatively obscure pharaoh of the 21st Dynasty of ancient Egypt by the name of Psusennes I. Psusennes was the third ruler of his dynasty, which ascended to power at the onset of the Third Intermediate Period, a time of political turmoil in Egypt.
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During this era, the country's kingship was fragmented, and the country was divided between Upper and Lower Egypt. While the pharaohs of the 21st Dynasty governed from Tanis, their influence was primarily confined to the Lower Egypt delta region. Meanwhile, Thebes was the stronghold of the High Priest of Amun, who presided over Upper Egypt.
It was logically assumed that the pharaohs of the 21st Dynasty did not wield much power. Nevertheless, the discovery of the tomb of Psusennes I overturned this assumption. The most remarkable find in the tomb was a solid silver coffin, leading to Psusennes being referred to as the Silver Pharaoh.
Silver Antropoid coffin of Psusennes I the Silver Pharaoh. (Jerzy Strzelecki / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Silver and Gold Treasures of Psusennes’ Tomb
In ancient Egyptian culture, gold was considered the flesh of the gods, while silver was believed to be their bones. Although gold was more abundant in ancient Egypt, silver was even more valuable as it had to be imported from Western Asia and the Mediterranean.
As such, the solid silver coffin found in Psusennes' tomb was a testament to his immense wealth and power. Furthermore, the exceptional craftsmanship of the metal objects found inside the tomb, including the silver coffin, suggests that Psusennes also commanded the manpower needed to produce such luxurious items.
Psusennes’ silver anthropoid coffin was found within a pink granite coffin, which in turn was encased within a granite sarcophagus. Interestingly, the granite sarcophagus once belonged to a 19th Dynasty pharaoh, Merenptah, who was the successor of Ramesses II.
The mummy of Psusennes itself had not survived the ages, and instead of an intact body Montet only found a pile of bones, black dust and various funerary items, including a gold mummy board and a spectacular solid gold mask which would have covered the pharaoh’s face.
The gold death mask of Psusennes I. (Dave Nakayama / CC BY 2.0)
Reassessing the Third Intermediate Period
The lack of preservation is unsurprising, given the environment that Psusennes was buried in. Unlike the arid, desert-like environment of the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, much of Lower Egypt consisted of humid, swampy land. Tanis was certainly no exception to this rule.
Due to water seeping through the ground, the mummy of Psusennes was ruined, and most of the wooden items also deteriorated over time. Nonetheless, Montet was able to recover several non-perishable items such as canopic jars and shabtis, alongside precious objects inside the sarcophagus. These treasures were said to rival those of Tuthankhamun.
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Psusennes' exceptional power and wealth can be attributed to his remarkably long reign, recorded by Manetho to have lasted either 41 or 46 years (circa 1047 and 1001 BC). Some Egyptologists even suggest that Psusennes reigned for 51 years. Given that Psusennes reigned during a period of political instability, the length of his reign is indeed impressive.
When considering the wealth of the objects found in Psusennes’ tomb, along with the duration of his reign, it appears that a reassessment of the situation of Egypt in the Third Intermediate Period, at least during the reign of Psusennes the Silver Pharaoh, is long overdue.
Top image: Silver Coffin of Psusennes I, a.k.a. the Silver Pharaoh. Source: Aidan McRae Thomson / CC BY-SA 2.0
By Wu Mingren
Allen, J. & Hill, M., 2014. “Egypt in the Third Intermediate Period (1070–712 B.C.)” in The MET. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tipd/hd_tipd.htm
Dunn, J., 2013. “Silver in Ancient Egypt” in Tour Egypt. Available at: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/silver.htm