Returning Ramesses
An Egyptian patriarch goes home

By Peter Lacovara, Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art, Michael C. Carlos Museum


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Working in museums over the years, I have found that visitors to the Egyptian collections often ask about the objects going back to Egypt, while my colleagues in European paintings are never asked about sending the Impressionists back to France. Unfortunately, television and movies such as the Indiana Jones trilogy have given the public a highly distorted picture of archaeology. While there are occasions when important cultural artifacts should be returned to their country of origin, this is far from the usual case.

Most of the major collections of Egyptian art, particularly in the Americas, were built up through legal purchase and archaeological excavation. At the close of the nineteenth century, a French scholar, Auguste Mariette, created the Egyptian Antiquities Service to ensure that important pieces of Egypt’s cultural patrimony remained safe and secure in the country. Foreign expeditions applied to excavate specific sites and divided their finds at the end of the digging season, with the best and unique pieces going to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo or other provincial museums throughout Egypt. This system, which lasted over a century, benefited everyone as the great, national collections in Egypt were built up at no cost to that nation, objects were scientifically documented and studied, and duplicative material became available to museums and universities all over the world.

Foreign scholars have always worked closely with their Egyptian counterparts, and as the unesco campaign in the 1960’s to save the endangered monuments of Nubia showed, the international community has an interest in safeguarding the heritage we all share from ancient Egypt.

It was in this tradition of international cooperation that the Michael C. Carlos Museum offered to return a mummy it had acquired as part of the Niagara Collection of Egyptian Antiquities, should it prove to be the missing royal mummy of Ramesses I, as others had suggested prior to the acquisition.

How a missing royal mummy could have gotten to Niagara Falls is quite a story in its own right. After the death of Tutankamun, there were no heirs to Egypt’s
glorious Eighteenth Dynasty. After a number of short reigns, the general Pa-Ramessu took the throne as Ramesses I, the first king and patriarch of Egypt’s Nineteenth Dynasty. He was already quite elderly when he ascended the throne and ruled only two years. However, his son, Seti I, and his grandson, Ramesses II (‘The Great”), were two of ancient Egypt’s most illustrious pharaohs.

After his death, Ramesses I was buried in a small tomb in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes, near the tomb of Tutankhamun, in about 1290 B.C. He would not rest there long, however. The great wealth entombed with the kings proved irresistible to thieves, and ostensibly for safekeeping, the tombs were opened and the bodies of the revered dead were consolidated in several moves until most wound up in a secret cache cut high into a cliff face above Deir el-Bahri, around 900 B.C. They remained there until the mid-nineteenth century, when a family of tomb robbers discovered it and began selling off what they had found, unaware that it was the resting place of some of greatest pharaohs of the New Kingdom. Eventually, word that royal objects were appearing on the art market reached officials in Cairo. They sent agents to Thebes to investigate, and the cache was sequestered and brought to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo—but not before some of the mummies, most notably Ramesses I, were sold off.

At about this time, and from the same tomb robbers, representatives from the Niagara Falls Museum, an eclectic collection formed to profit from the burgeoning tourist trade there, were in Thebes buying mummies and artifacts for display in 1860. The mummy, minus its coffin or any other identification, along with a number of other mummies, coffins, and miscellaneous objects, received export permits and were shipped down the Nile and across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

After nearly a century and a half, the Niagara Falls Museum (and Daredevil Hall of Fame) closed its doors and sold off its eclectic collections. The Michael C. Carlos Museum, thanks to an unprecedented outpouring of public support, was able to purchase the Egyptian collection. This was a great leap forward for the Carlos Museum’s fledgling Egyptian collection. The mummy in question, however, was not critical in our desire to acquire the collection, and we all felt that if investigation did prove his identity as one of the great pharaohs of ancient Egypt, it was only fitting and proper that he rejoin the others in Cairo.

Scholars years ago noted the first clue that this mummy might be the missing royal mummy. His arms are crossed over his chest, a posture reserved only for royal mummies until very late in Egypt’s history, and a radiocarbon date placed the mummy’s origins during Ramesses I’s rule, from 1293 to 1291 B.C. The remarkable state of preservation of the mummy and the care with which it was made also indicated that this was no ordinary mummy.

Emory’s Department of Radiology performed CT scans, which made cross-sectional visual “slices” of the mummy’s body and X-rays of the mummy in question, as well as all the others from the Niagara purchase. Comparison of the X-rays through cranial/facial measurements with those of Seti I and Ramesses II strongly indicated a family resemblance. The mummy’s profile clearly shows the prominent, hooked nose and high forehead, characteristic of the Ramesside line.

While tests to match the mummy’s dna with the male descendants of Ramesses I proved too difficult and destructive to undertake at this time, the weight of the other evidence convinced many scholars and the Egyptian government that this was in all probability the body of the missing king. Egyptian officials were elated at Emory’s offer to send the mummy to Egypt as a gift from the people of Atlanta to the people of Egypt.

A special exhibition titled “Ramesses I: Science and the Search for the Lost Pharaoh” will be on view at the Carlos Museum from May 3 to September 14, 2003, coinciding with the annual meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt. The Research Center, now headquartered at Emory, is the umbrella organization for all American scholarship on ancient and modern Egypt, and they will facilitate the return of the mummy along with didactic material from the exhibition to Cairo.

While this is a special case, not every mummy, or every antiquity, in the world should go back to Egypt. For one thing, there would be no room for all of them there. Most importantly, the artifacts from ancient civilizations are a reminder of the history we all share and the great achievements of humankind. For them to be hoarded by any one country or government would impoverish us all.