Pharaoh Senebkay, one of the earliest kings of a forgotten Abydos Dynasty, was brutally killed in battle more than 3,600 years ago, says a study that has reconstructed, blow by blow, the king's last moments.
The research identified 18 wounds on the pharaoh's bones. It also established that Senebkay is the earliest Egyptian pharaoh to have died in battle.
Woseribre Senebkay was unknown to history until last year, when a University of Pennsylvania expedition led by archaeologist Josef Wegner, working with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, found his remains in a four-chambered tomb at South Abydos in Sohag province, about 300 miles south of Cairo.
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Texts in the burial, which dates to about 1650 B.C., during Egypt's Second Intermediate Period, identified the pharaoh as the "king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Woseribre, the son of Re, Senebkay."
Although ancient robbers had ripped apart the pharaoh's mummy, researchers led by Wegner, associate director of Egyptian archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, were able to recover and reassemble his skeleton.
The team has now completed a full forensic analysis of the remains.
"The work confirms the earlier estimates of the king's height at 1.72 to 1.82 m (5'9″ to 6 feet), but indicates that he died at an earlier age, 35-40 years, than initially thought," Wegner said in a statement.
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Most importantly, it emerged that Senebkay suffered a shocking number of wounds before he died in a vicious assault from multiple assailants.
"The king's skeleton has 18 wounds that penetrated to the bone. The trauma includes major cuts to his feet, ankles, and lower back. Multiple blows to Senebkay's skull show the distinctive size and curvature of battle axes used during Egypt's Second Intermediate Period," Wegner said.
According to the researchers, the angle and direction of Senebkay's wounds indicate he was in an elevated position - possibly on horseback or on a chariot - when he was attacked and killed.
"His assailants first cut his lower back, ankles and feet to bring him to the ground and then finished him with axe blows to the skull," Wegner said.
He noted that, although use of horseback riding in warfare was not common until after the Bronze Age, the Egyptians appear to have been mastering the use of horses during the Second Intermediate Period.
"Horseback riding may have played a growing role in military movements during this era even before the full advent of chariot technology in Egypt," he said.
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Indeed, analysis of Senebkay's pelvis and leg bones indicate he spent much of his life as a horse rider.
Senebkay, whose name means "my spirit is healthy," appears to belong to a short-lived kingdom, the Abydos Dynasty dating ca. 1650-1600 BC. At that time central authority collapsed, giving rise to several small kingdoms.
The kings of this dynasty were contemporaries of the Hyksos rulers of the Nile Delta and the Theban 16th Dynasty.
According to the researchers, Senebkay was probably killed a considerable distance from his home as the pharaoh's body was mummified a long time after his death.
"It remains unclear whether he died in battle against the Hyksos kings who then ruled northern Egypt, or possibly enemies in the south," Wegner said.
Image: Axe wounds to the front and back of the skull. Credit: Josef Wegner.