While the subject of repatriation of “cultural
property” is a hot topic these days, particularly in the light
of the famous marbles from the Acropolis acquired by Lord Elgin
and now in the British Museum, the issue is hardly as black and
white as portrayed in the popular press.
Unfortunately, television and movies such as the Indiana Jones trilogy
have given the public a highly distorted picture of museum collections
and archaeology. While there are occasions when important cultural
artifacts should be returned to their country of origin and where
they have been unlawfully obtained, this is far from the usual case.
Again, thanks to Hollywood, people often believe Egyptian antiquities
in museums somehow have been illicitly smuggled out of Egypt. However
this is not the 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 19th century, a group of French scholars created
the Egyptian Antiquities Service to ensure that the most important
pieces of Egypt’s cultural patrimony remained safe and secure
in the country. Foreign expeditions applied for permission to excavate
specific sites and divided their finds at the end of the digging
season, with the best and most 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. As the great archeologist Sir William Matthew
Flinders Petrie observed, museums are like game preserves for objects—only
when they are spread throughout the world can their survival be
ensured. The recent tragic sacking of the Baghdad Museum is an all
too telling confirmation of his point.
The international community has an interest in safeguarding the
heritage we all share from the ancient world. It was in this tradition
of international cooperation that the Carlos Museum offered to return
a mummy it had acquired as part of the Niagara Collection of Egyptian
Antiqui-ties, should it prove to be a missing royal mummy, most
likely that of Ramesses I, patriarch of the 19th Dynasty.
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 18th Dynasty. Following
a number of short reigns, the general Pa-Ramessu took the throne
as Ramesses I in 1292 B.C. Already quite elderly when he ascended
the throne, Ramesses 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.
He would not rest there long, though.
The wealth entombed with the great kings proved too great a temptation
to later generations of pharaohs and priests and, ostensibly for
safekeeping, the tombs were opened and the bodies of the revered
dead were consolidated in several secret tombs. Most wound up in
a secret cache cut high into a cliff above Deir el-Bahri in Thebes
around 900 B.C.
The royal remains remained safely hidden there until the mid-19th
century, when a family of tomb robbers discovered the hiding place
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 the royal objects appearing on the art market came to
the attention of the antiquities officials in Cairo. They sent agents
to Thebes to investigate, and eventually the cache was discovered
and sequestered by the government 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 same time (and in contact with 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. 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
After nearly a century and a half, in the late 1990s the Niagara
Falls Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame closed its doors and sold
off its eclectic collections. The Carlos Museum, thanks to an unprecedented
outpouring of public support, was able to purchase the Egyptian
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.
Years ago, several scholars 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 radiocarbon dating placed the mummy’s
origins during Ramesses I’s rule from 1292–90 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
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, a timely gesture in the current
era of uncertainty in the Middle East.
A special exhibition titled “Ramesses I: Science and the Search
for the Lost Pharaoh” will be on view at the Carlos from April
27–Sept. 14 (see story, page 1). In addition to the exhibition,
Norman Hulme and Lee Clontz of the Information Technology Division
worked with the curatorial and education departments of the Carlos
Museum to develop a website to provide extensive information about
the exhibition accessible both in the museum galleries and through
the museum’s website at http://carlos.emory.edu.
After the exhibition closes in the fall, the mummy will be returned
to Cairo as a gift from the people of Atlanta—and Emory—to
the people of Egypt.
version of this essay appeared in the December 2002/January 2003