The Mystery of the Screaming Mummy


Mummification in ancient Egypt was performed using clearly defined routines and religious rituals. However, an unidentified mummy found in 1881 had not been prepared in accordance with custom. What is more, when his body was unwrapped in 1886, archeologists found themselves confronted with the horrific, gaping maw of a face contorted in a scream. In what appears to be an active attempt to damn the man, the mummy was in a sarcophagus that did not bear any name or identifying marks. Unable to proceed further, “Unknown Man E,” as he was called, was stored in the Cairo Museum. Over 100 years later, a team of Egyptologists, accompanied by National Geographic, reopened the case of Unknown Man E, who came to be known as the ‘Screaming Mummy’.

In 1881, an extraordinary find was uncovered in an inconspicuous cavern, known as DB320, 300 miles (483km) south of Cairo in Deir El Bahri. At the end of a 45 feet (14m) vertical shaft and seemingly endless corridors, 40 mummies were discovered, including Unknown Man E. At the time, the Screaming Mummy was hardly noticed for he was among some of the most legendary rulers of Egypt: Pharaoh Ramses II, Pharaoh Seti I, and Thutmose III, the Conquering Pharaoh. “These were the really big names in ancient Egyptian history,” said Dylan Bickerstaffe, an Egyptologist consulted by National Geographic.

The location of DB320 at Deir el Bahari, where over 40 mummies were found ( public domain )

They were all found together, removed from the splendor of their Pyramids in the Valley of the Kings. Experts believe that at the end of the Ramesside Period, tomb robbing had become a serious concern. Eventually, the threat became so great that the royal mummies themselves were at risk. The high priests, therefore, gathered together what royals they could and secreted them away to this distant, inauspicious burial site. The mummies were stripped of anything of value, however, they retained the possession most precious to ancient Egyptians: their names. A body without a name had no identity and, thus, could never reach the afterlife. For this reason, some experts believe that Unknown Man E, whose sarcophagus has no identifying markers, was intentionally cursed to spend eternity in hell.

The mummy of Unknown Man E (“The Screaming Mummy”)

The mummy of Unknown Man E (“The Screaming Mummy”) ( public domain )

Prior to the reopened investigation of Unknown Man E, there were three prominent theories as to his identity. One held that the man was an Egyptian who died while serving as a governor abroad somewhere within Egypt’s vast empire. If the man had been buried by novices only partially aware of proper custom, it would explain the peculiar traits such as the use of quicklime to dry the body out. It would also explain the goat/sheep skin spread across the body. To Egyptians, goats/sheep were impure animals and to drape their skin over a corpse was a defilement that would render the deceased unable to enter the afterlife. However, in other parts of the world at the time, the goat/sheep skin covering was a common part of burial customs because such pelts were often used for clothing and blankets among the living. By the end of the documentary, this theory is discredited because of Unknown Man E’s presence with the royals and because of the lack of identifying markers seems deliberate.

A second, similar, theory holds that Unknown Man E was a foreign prince who died while in Egypt. Due to the warring of disparate nations, he could not be transported safely home in time so he was buried in Egypt. However, this does not explain the mummy’s placement and the insulting lack of a name. The documentary shows that a CT scan of the skeletal remains indicate that the man was definitely Egyptian and his skull even had some characteristic features of Egyptian royals, such as shape, proportions, long distance of cranium from forehead to the back of the head, and an indentation on the top of the skull.

The documentary leans towards the conclusion that Unknown Man E was a member of the royal family who fell out of favor around the time of the death of Ramses III. This would suggest that the Screaming Man is none other than Prince Pentewere, disgraced son of the Pharaoh who was accused of plotting his father’s murder.

“Two forces were acting upon this mummy: one to get rid of him and the other to try to preserve him,” said Bob Brier, an archaeologist at the University of Long Island in New York who examined the body this year.

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