Secrets of the Screaming Man
An ancient Egyptian mystery is solved with modern technology in a fascinating TV documentary airing Sunday.
Picture this scene inside the Cairo Museum about six months ago: Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (a fancy way of saying the world’s leading mummy expert), and British filmmaker Anthony Geffen huddled in the museum’s tomblike archives. They load a mummified man, with his face contorted into a scream, onto a medical stretcher. The two then carry the screaming mummy through the marble hallways like paramedics, past hordes of befuddled tourists—it’s shocking for them to see a specimen outside the glass cases, let alone being carted out of the museum on a gurney.
“It was like all of their favorite mummy movies had suddenly come to life,” says Geffen, recalling the look on the museumgoers’ faces. “They had all heard of Screaming Man, and there he was, off to see the doctor.”
If man can use 2008 technology to debunk two centuries of research, there is no telling what we may discover next.
Screaming Man—or as he is known in Egyptology circles, Unknown Man E—is as close to a celebrity as anyone who has been dead for over 2000 years can be. He is one of the great mysteries of archaeology for two reasons: the obvious puzzle of why his face was mummified screaming and also the curious fact that E’s body was found at the royal site of Deir el-Bahri (where such famous pharaohs as Rameses and Seti I were also buried) without markings or adornment. E’s hands and feet were bound at the time of his death and his unmarked coffin signifies a conscious attempt to keep him out of the afterlife.
So who was this Unknown E? And what did he do so wrong that he was barred from spiritual bliss? Historians have spent centuries trying to find out.
Now, in the new documentary Egypt Unwrapped: Mystery of the Screaming Man (airing this Sunday at 2 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel), we find an answer—or at least more information than archaeologists have had before.
For the first time, Dr. Hawass granted permission for a mummy to have a professional CT scan. Though this might not sound like much of a breakthrough, Geffen argues that it is a huge bombshell in the ancient history world.
"We were very lucky—this is the first time its been done," he says. "CT scans are hard to get a hold of in Egypt. Now that the government is allowing this, we are going to learn so much more about other civilizations. This is a whole new wave of deeper understanding. The best thing about Egypt is all the raw material is there—they’ve got the bodies, the pyramids, the hieroglyphs. It’s a place where modern science, when applied well, will provide for huge breakthroughs.”
In the case of Screaming Man, his story got all the more interesting with the scan results. Not that it wasn’t already—scientists have been studying the mummy for over 200 years. The first archeologist to dissect Unknown E was Gaston Maspero, along with his sidekicks, a doctor named Fouque and a chemist, Mathey (great 1886 names, no?). When they ran the autopsy, the men were stymied. He smelled worse than usual, his face was in a permanent grimace, and his organs, rather than being dried out with the traditional natron chemical, was flash mummified with quick lime.
E was preserved with clear intention—he was buried in a fancy coffin in a royal tomb—but the job was so unusual and slapdash that it seems the Screamer was not meant for greatness in the next life. Maspero’s grand theory was that E was poisoned. Other hypotheses also arose—that E was a governor who died abroad and had to be quickly preserved by unskilled mummifiers or that he was an interloping prince from a warring faction, the Hittites.
This year’s CT scans prove Gaston and Co’s deductions wrong. E’s organs really were removed, as was the standard for A-list Egyptians. He had been treated with a great deal of care—not a single bone is broken, rare for any mummy. A facial expert, Dr. Caroline Wilkinson, confirmed from the scans that Screaming Man’s bone structure is Egyptian, not Hittite. Another doctor, Ashraf Salim, determined that E was 25-40 when he died, which puts a pin in the foreign death assumption—a man that age would not, apparently, be serving abroad. E was certainly an Egyptian and he died in his own country.
So a new theory emerged—Screaming Man was a royal who did something very bad, and as a result, either killed himself or was killed. He got no ticket to the afterlife with the other pharaohs, but he was still close enough to them to join their tomb. This led to Dr. Hawass and the team’s suggestion that E was a fallen insider—and more precisely, that he was Prince Penterwere, the lost son of Rameses III.
Penterwere was part of a plot to assassinate his parents and he schemed it on an ancient scroll, which was then discovered. He would have been executed for betrayal or—as a man of privilege—given the right to kill himself.
Whether E committed hari kari or not, the scans can’t tell, but it is clear that he was barred from any post-death celebrations. “This study tells you a lot about the Egyptians obsession with the afterlife,” says Geffen. “They are so obsessed that they would stop someone who committed a crime from getting there, by not preserving him correctly. The afterlife was the focus of their lives and not getting there is grave.”
Viewers in the UK are lapping up the information: the film—the first in a several-part series on Egypt from Geffen’s Atlantic Productions—premiered there last week and soared in the ratings. “This film is more interesting to people than the latest soap or reality show,” says Geffen. “We have knocked them off their pedestals.”
It does seem that while viewers want be entertained these days, they also want the truth—and history films and studies are poised to become much more popular again, starting with Screaming Man. If man can use 2008 technology to debunk two centuries of research, there is no telling what we may discover next. “We are going through a new period of what people want to look at,” says Geffen. “This is like the CSI of the ancient world.”
The CT scan didn’t solve all the mysteries of the Scream, but we now know that E/Penterwere is in a better place—even if he’s technically crashing the party.
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.