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A pharaoh's firstborn son is resurrected

Facial reconstruction may help solve an Egyptian mystery involving a skull and the story of Pharaoh Ramses II's sons.
A sketch showing the head of the suspected firstborn son of Pharaoh Ramses II is laid over a color picture of a skull found in the KV5 royal tomb. The sketch was done by Dr. Caroline Wilkinson based on the cranial measurements of the skull.
A sketch showing the head of the suspected firstborn son of Pharaoh Ramses II is laid over a color picture of a skull found in the KV5 royal tomb. The sketch was done by Dr. Caroline Wilkinson based on the cranial measurements of the skull.Discovery Channel

When artists transformed the measurements of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian skull into a reconstructed face, they came up with a pointed nose and chin more suited for a caricature than the son of a pharaoh.

But believe it or not, the look is in line with the norm for the family of Ramses II, one of Egypt's greatest pharaohs. The cranial measurements, along with other forensic clues from the royal tomb where the skull was found, have led famed Egyptologist Kent Weeks to conclude the face is that of Amun-her Khepeshef, who many historians believe is the "firstborn son of Pharaoh" cited in the Book of Exodus.

Weeks and his colleagues make their case in "Rameses: Wrath of God or Man?" The TV documentary premieres Sunday on the Discovery Channel.

The facial reconstruction is just the latest piece in a historical puzzle, strengthening the case that Ramses II's one-time heir apparent has indeed been found among the mummies entombed in the Valley of the Kings, within a huge funerary complex known as KV5.

"It doesn't prove anything 100 percent ... but it does strongly suggest that there is a familial relationship here," Weeks told

Weeks has worked within the KV5 complex since the 1980s as part of the Theban Mapping Project, and in 1995 his team made the breakthrough discovery that the underground dig contained scores of burial rooms. Inside, archaeologists found inscriptions and scenes documenting the lives of Ramses and his many sons, as well as canopic jars labeled as containing the organs of Amun-her Khepeshef.

Later, an assemblage of bones was found, adding to the mystery.

"We found remains of four different people, all of them male, all of them in the same pit, in a chamber near the entrance to the tomb," Weeks recalled.

One of the skeletons was positioned in a princely pose near the entryway, and its skull appeared to be bashed in. Combined with inscriptions referring to Amun-her Khepeshef, the setting led Weeks and his colleagues to suspect they had found Rameses' firstborn son and perhaps three of his brothers.

The next step was to compare the detailed measurements of the fractured skull with similar measurements taken from the mummies of Ramses II; his father, Seti I; another of Ramses' sons, Merneptah; and a royal personage who may have been Ramses I, the grandfather of Ramses II.

Discovery Channel

Using techniques similar to those employed by crime-scene investigators, forensic anthropologists found "strong anatomical similarities" between the known members of Ramses' family and the mysterious remains, Weeks said. Some were obvious — for example, the long, thin face with the pointed chin. Other factors, such as the set of the teeth or the shape of particular bones, were "more for the specialists to look at," he said.

The facial reconstruction lent further scientific support — and a gee-whiz twist suitable for television — to Weeks' hypothesis about the pharaoh's firstborn son. But this wasn't just any pharaoh's firstborn: Some biblical scholars claim that Ramses II was the real-life villain of the Exodus story, whose firstborn son was killed by the 10th and final plague sent down by the God of Israel.

Could the skull shed light on the historical truth of the biblical story? The Exodus story says merely that God smote the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, as well as the firstborn calves of their cattle. Weeks lays out a less miraculous, but no less deadly, scenario for Amun-her Khepeshef's untimely death.

Like the biblical firstborn, Amun-her Khepeshef did not survive his father. He died in his 40s or early 50s, after participating in a number of Ramses' military campaigns as an army general and an overseer of the chariotry.

Turning to the evidence from the KV5 complex, Weeks noted that the skull's deep fracture is evidence of a violent, fatal wound — most likely delivered by a mace, the preferred weapon of war in Ramses' time.

"It's entirely possible that his wife hit him over the head, or he got out of control at a bar, but I think that the battlefield scenario makes more sense, given the fact that Amun-her Khepeshef was closely affiliated with the military," Weeks said. "This individual probably was killed on the battlefield and then brought back to Luxor for burial in the Valley of the Kings. All of these things again suggest that it very well could be Amun-her Khepeshef, or certainly one of the principal sons of the pharaoh."

Discovery Channel

Could genetic analysis nail down that identification beyond doubt? Not at present, Weeks said. Experts have found that the DNA within mummified remains is too damaged to be of use for tracing familial relationships.

"I think we've gone about as far as we can go at this point … until the entire DNA testing process has been more greatly refined," he said.

Weeks and his colleagues intend to publish a scientific monograph on the case of Amun-her Khepeshef and the mysterious skull sometime in the next year.

Meanwhile, the work continues, and not just at the KV5 complex: Weeks and his team are currently working with Egypt's antiquities council on a site management plan for the entire Valley of the Kings, aimed at accommodating the roughly 7,000 tourists who visit each day. The project, including construction of a new interpretive center, is supported by $2.5 million in aid from the Japanese government.

"It's important we do this very quickly, because the pressures on the tombs are intense. They're simply not designed to have 6,000 or 7,000 people in them, never mind 15,000 to 20,000 people a day," he said. "If we don’t act quickly, the damage that I'm afraid could be caused is going to be irrevocable."

This report originally appeared Nov. 29, 2004, as an item in Cosmic Log.