(CN) — Thousands of years ago in Egypt, a warrior king led his army in battle against foreign invaders who had ruled his people for a hundred years. While his reign was brief and ended in his execution, his death provoked an uprising that eventually led to the reunification of Egypt in the 16th century B.C., enabling the kingdom to become an empire that dominated the ancient world.
Now modern technology is revealing new details about the fate of this ancient pharaoh, including who killed him — and how.
Pharaoh Seqenenre-Taa-II ruled over southern Egypt during the occupation of the Hyksos, a foreign dynasty of Semitic and Asian descent that ruled much of Egypt from its seat of power in the Nile Delta.
Attempting to oust the Hyskos, Seqenenre-Taa-II suffered a violent death that has puzzled scholars since 1881 when his mummy was first discovered.
Now researchers at Cairo University say they have solved the mystery of his death, revealing his killers and the brutal methods they used to end his reign.
Using computed tomography (CT) scans of the mummified remains of Seqenenre, researchers catalogued new details about his head injuries, including previously undetected lesions that embalmers had skillfully concealed, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.
An X-ray study in the 1960s showed the pharaoh suffered several severe head injuries. Based on this evidence, scientists concluded that the king was either executed after being captured in battle or murdered in his sleep by a palace conspiracy.
Other details, such as the poor condition of his mummy, suggested the embalming had been done hastily, away from the royal mummification workshop.
But a new theory has emerged: Seqenenre was captured on the battlefield, but his hands had been tied behind his back, preventing him from defending against the attack.
"This suggests that Seqenenre was really on the front line with his soldiers risking his life to liberate Egypt," said lead author Sahar Saleem, a professor of radiology at Cairo University who specializes in paleoradiology.
The CT scans and other evidence indicates the execution was carried out by multiple attackers, which the scientists confirmed by studying five different Hyksos weapons that matched the pharaoh’s wounds to his forehead, cheek and skull base. The lethal attack was aimed at the King’s face, likely to disgrace him.
"In a normal execution on a bound prisoner, it could be assumed that only one assailant strikes, possibly from different angles but not with different weapons," Saleem explained. "Seqenenre's death was rather a ceremonial execution."
CT results also determined that Seqenenre was about 40 when he died, based on the detailed morphology revealed in the images.
Saleem and co-author Zahi Hawass, an archaeologist and former Egyptian minister of antiquities, have studied pharaohs from Hatshepsut, Tutankhamun and Ramesses III to Thutmose III and Rameses II. Yet Seqenenre appears to be the only pharaoh to have died on the battlefield.
The CT study revealed important details about the mummification of Seqenenre's body, including the fact that embalmers used a sophisticated method to hide the king's head wounds under a layer of embalming material that functioned similarly to the fillers used in modern plastic surgery. Such a technique implies that mummification took place in a royal mummification laboratory rather than in a poorly equipped place.
Mummification was limited to evisceration without brain removal, revealing the desiccated brain had shifted to the left side of the skull. This may indicate that the pharaoh’s corpse stayed on its left side long enough for decomposition to start before the mummification began.
Saleem said her study provides important details about a pivotal point in Egypt's long history.
“Seqenenre's death motivated his successors to continue the fight to unify Egypt and start the New Kingdom,” she said.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.