The Sarcophagus of Ramesses the Great

Fragment identified over a decade after its discovery

Ramesses the Great

Statue of Ramesses the Great. Courtesy British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons.

More than 3,200 years after the death of Ramesses the Great (r. 1279–1213 BCE), a large piece of his burial sarcophagus has been identified. Publishing in the journal Revue d’Égyptologie, Frédéric Payraudeau, a professor of Egyptology at Sorbonne University, has proposed that an inscribed granite fragment discovered nearly 15 years ago once belonged to the outer coffin of one of Egypt’s most famous monarchs.

Discovering Ramesses the Great

While the mummy of Ramesses II—known as Ramesses the Great and suggested by some to be the infamous pharaoh of the Exodus story—was discovered in 1881, it was not found inside its original coffin, as the body had been moved to a plain wooden coffin in antiquity to protect it from grave robbers. Now, it appears that part of the original granite sarcophagus from his burial has been identified.

sarcophagus of Ramesses

Long side of the granite sarcophagus identified as that of Ramses II. Courtesy Kevin Cahail.

Discovered in a Coptic monastery in the Abydos region of central Egypt in 2009, the sarcophagus was reused by the high priest Menkheperre during the 21st Dynasty (c. 1069–943 BCE), who had much of the original hieroglyphic text written over. Despite this, Payraudeau was able to spot the telltale signs the sarcophagus originally belonged to the mighty pharaoh. “My colleagues thought that the cartouche preceded by the word ‘king’ referred to the high priest Menkheperre who ruled southern Egypt around 1000 BCE,” Payraudeau told CNRS Le Journal. “However, this cartouche actually dated from the previous engraving and therefore designated its first owner.”

While the royal cartouche was certainly a hint that something was off, it did not answer the question of who was the previous royal owner. “We see in the Book of the Gates,” continued Payraudeau, “an initiatory story reserved for kings during the time of the Ramesses, which could only indicate a royal sarcophagus. The royal cartouche bears the name of the coronation of Ramesses II, but this was masked by the state of the stone and by a second engraving, added during the reuse.”

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With these clues, Payraudeau concluded the sarcophagus must have originally belonged to none other than Ramesses II. It would not have been his only coffin, however. Like other pharaohs, Ramesses’s burial would have included three nested coffins: an inner golden one, an intermediary alabaster coffin, and finally a granite outer sarcophagus.

The inner golden coffin would have been an especially prized target for ancient grave robbers, which necessitated the transfer of the pharaoh to a wooden coffin—and even a different tomb—just a short time after his death. However, it was not only grave robbers that posed a threat; even pharaohs were known to steal the grave goods and coffins of their predecessors. Indeed, one of the coffins of Ramesses’s successor, Merneptah (r. 1213–1203 BCE), was taken from the Valley of the Kings to Tanis and reused by the later pharaoh Psusannes I (r. 1047–1001 BCE).

Ramesses II is often considered the greatest and most powerful of ancient Egypt’s pharaohs, having waged numerous military campaigns in the Levant, Nubia, Libya, and Syria. He also fought successfully against the Sea Peoples, signed the famous treaty of Kadesh with the Hittites, and, as the builder of the city Pi-Ramesses in the Nile Delta, is frequently identified as the pharaoh of the Exodus.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Intact Burial from the Reign of Ramesses II

Ramesses III in Arabia?

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

BAR Jr.: Gamma Rays Halt Deterioration of Mummy of Ramesses II

Pharaoh’s Workers: How the Israelites Lived in Egypt

When Pharaohs Ruled Jerusalem

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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