Research suggests that the lost sarcophagus of Ramesses II was hidden in plain sight

Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news about fascinating discoveries, scientific developments and more.

A sarcophagus discovered in an Egyptian burial chamber in 2009 had a complicated history: ancient texts on the stone container showed it had been used twice, but although its second occupant, the 21st Dynasty high priest Menkheperrê, was known, the first owner remained a mystery – until now.

New clues have emerged as Frédéric Payraudeau, associate professor of Egyptology at Sorbonne University in Paris, re-examined a fragment of the granite sarcophagus and deciphered the hieroglyphs engraved on it. Tucked away in the cartouche, an oval-shaped ornament often found in tombs, he found the name of a very recognizable figure: Ramesses II.

Payraudeau said the inscription is proof that the artifact originally came from the famous pharaoh’s tomb and was reused after looting.

“It’s clear this was the sarcophagus of a king,” Payraudeau said. “The cartouche dates from the first use and contains the throne name of Ramses II, Usermaatra. He was the only pharaoh to use this name in his time, so that removed any doubt that it was his sarcophagus.”

The findings, published in the journal Revue d’Égyptologie, add to the knowledge of Ramesses II, also known as Ozymandias and one of Egypt’s most celebrated pharaohs. It also fills a gap in our understanding of how sarcophagi were used to bury kings.

Fit for a king

Ramses II was the third king of the 19th Dynasty, and his reign – from 1279 to 1213 BC. – was the second longest in Egypt’s history. He was known for his victorious military campaigns and an interest in architecture, which led him to commission important monuments and statues of himself. His mummy is in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo.

Another coffin of Ramesses II was discovered near Luxor in 1881, but the sarcophagus fragment analyzed in the study was found in Abydos, a city about 40 miles to the northwest in a straight line.

“That’s less bizarre than it seems,” Payraudeau said, “because we know his tomb was plundered in ancient times, perhaps two centuries after his death, and he is certainly not the only king to have been plundered.”

The granite fragment, which forms an almost entire part of the longer side of the sarcophagus, was previously believed to have belonged to a prince. “But I always found this strange because the decoration on this carefully crafted piece was indicative of a king and included elements traditionally reserved for kings,” Payraudeau said.

Psusennes I reused this sarcophagus that once belonged to Merneptah, the son and successor of Ramses II.  The lid of the sarcophagus is at the top.  The reuse of funerary objects helped later rulers connect with the New Kingdom period of Ramses II, considered a glorious era of ancient Egypt.  -Frédéric Payraudeau

Psusennes I reused this sarcophagus that once belonged to Merneptah, the son and successor of Ramses II. The lid of the sarcophagus is at the top. The reuse of funerary objects helped later rulers connect with the New Kingdom period of Ramses II, considered a glorious era of ancient Egypt. -Frédéric Payraudeau

Another clue to the real origin of the piece, according to Payraudeau, is that its second owner, the high priest Menkheperrê, had an older half-brother who was pharaoh, Psusennes I. The latter also used a sarcophagus from the Valley of the Kings – one that belonged to none other than Ramesses II’s son and successor, Merneptah.

According to Payraudeau, reuse of funeral items served a dual purpose. On the one hand, it was dictated by austerity at a time of economic crisis, but it also linked these subsequent rulers to the New Kingdom period of Ramesses II, which was considered a glorious era of ancient Egypt.

Protection against looting

Confirming that this fragment is part of Ramesses II’s funerary objects means the king was buried in three nested sarcophagi, Payraudeau said. The first was probably made of gold, like Tutankhamun’s, but was lost during an early plunder. Traces of the second sarcophagus were found as alabaster fragments during restoration work in the pharaoh’s tomb in the 1990s. Both sarcophagi would have been inside an even larger stone sarcophagus, the source of the granite fragment that Payraudeau discovered.

“This also tells us when pharaohs began using more than one stone sarcophagus,” Payraudeau added. “In the time of Ramesses I we see only one, but the successor of Ramesses II already had four stone sarcophagi to provide greater resistance to looting, which became widespread. It was strange going straight from one to four; now we have two to four, which is a more logical development.”

The fragment is still in a storage facility in Abydos, Payraudeau said, but he has notified Egyptian authorities of the discovery and said he hopes it will be moved to a museum.

Researchers in the same field who were not involved in the work widely praised the finding.

Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist and professor in the department of archeology at Britain’s York University, called it a fascinating piece of detective work that shows how the story of Egypt’s ancient past continues to unfold with new discoveries and interpretations.

“The ultimate discovery site is also very intriguing, with the sarcophagus of Ramesses not only being reused, but at some point moved to Abydos, then considered Egypt’s most religious site and the spiritual home of the Egyptian monarchy, Fletcher said.

Jean Revez, a professor of history at the University of Quebec in Montreal, agreed. “Payraudeau’s reading of the cartouche seems correct and the parallels he puts forward with the sarcophagi of another 19th dynasty king, Merneptah, the son and successor of Ramesses II, are relevant.”

Coffins of New Kingdom pharaohs were always locked in stone sarcophagus boxes, often made of granite, but until now no trace of those of Ramesses II or his father Seti I has ever been found, according to Peter Brand, professor of Egyptology and ancient history at the University. of Memphis.

“This suggests that they were both ‘recycled’ by later Egyptians,” Brand said.

It is no surprise, he added, that Ramesses II’s stone sarcophagus was eventually taken – after his tomb had been robbed and his mummy safely ensconced in a secret secret tomb – and that a later high priest would borrow this highly prestigious item for his own funeral. The Egyptians, he argued, had a peculiar sense of ownership of ancient monuments and regarded this recycling as ‘fair use’.

“Dr. Payraudeau’s detective work in discovering Ramesses as the original owner is a remarkable and important discovery,” Brand said, “and a textbook example of the kind of ‘forensic’ study of erased or altered inscriptions that Egyptologists, including myself, often do – to unravel the complex history of ancient artifacts and gain a better understanding of the long and colorful history of ancient Egypt.”

For more CNN news and newsletters, create an account at

Leave a Comment