You know you’re onto a winner when you’ve given a preserved Egyptian corpse the moniker “Screaming Mummy.” Also known less excitingly as Unknown Man E, the slack-jawed, terrified-looking mummy – hence the name – was originally discovered in 1886, and theories have abounded as to who he might have been.
The mystery man is currently part of a special display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where it’s been held for some time. It’s a beautiful museum with a storied history, spanning nearly two centuries. Containing the world’s largest collection of pharaonic artifacts, it was under threat during the 2011 uprising; rioters broke in and, apart from ancillary damage, two Egyptian mummies were destroyed.
The Screaming Mummy survived the revolution, but by the looks of his burial, his own life didn’t end well. Unlike most well-to-do members of pharaonic Egypt, he wasn’t wrapped in fine linen bandages, but sheepskin, something considered to be unclean and impure by society at the time.
His hands and feet were bound, and as it turns out, he wasn’t even properly mummified. Instead, he was left to dry out in a mixture of sodium compounds, before having resin poured into his mouth – not carefully into his brain, as usually happens during mummification.
The undignified state of his burial – one without a grave marking, which means his access to the afterlife was restricted – suggests he wasn’t well respected. In fact, he probably didn’t die with much dignity either.
This 18-20-year-old unknown man was likely to be have been murdered or, potentially, executed. As a paper from 2012 notes, examination of his lungs revealed that they were of an unusual size. “In modern cases, diseases such as emphysema or death by suffocation can lead to overinflation of the lungs,” the authors noted at the time.
Although the open mouth suggested to some that he might have been poisoned, it’s been concluded since that this is just a natural result of the head falling back post-mortem.
Interdisciplinary analyses seem to suggest that he could be one Prince Pentawere, someone who was involved in a plot to assassinate his father, Pharaoh Ramses III, during an otherwise failed palace coup. Both were found together in the royal cache at Deir el Bahari back in 1886.
As noted by National Geographic, a conspiracy to slash the throat of said pharaoh was based on papyrus documents dating back to the 12th century BCE, one which speaks of the key role Pentawere played.
Researchers have understandably linked this long-gone kingslayer to Unknown Man E, as such a traitor would be buried with a similar level of indignity, potentially near the dead pharaoh himself if they were related. As it so happens, DNA evidence points toward a father-son relationship between the two.
Ahram Online notes that Unknown Man E also appears to have been hung by the neck. This conveniently matches up with the description of the death sentence given to Pentawere, as described in the papyrus documents detailing the entire affair – as well as the physical evidence inferring suffocation.
It’s certainly possible that this mangled mummy is Pentawere, then – but much of his life, as well as the circumstances of his burial, will remain as mysterious as his pained expression will remain haunting.