AFTER HIS DEATH in 1291 B.C., Pharaoh Ramesses I was buried in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes in a tomb painted with images of the ruler in the company of the gods of the underworld and inscribed with ancient texts to protect him on his journey.

He needed all the protection he could get.

The founder of Egypt’s most distinguished family line would face a rigorous afterlife, including tomb robbers, an ocean voyage, nearly a century and a half at the Niagara Falls Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame, and restoration at Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum.

And now, after being rescued from obscurity, Ramesses I is returning home.

The saga of the missing Pharaoh began in 900 B.C. when, due to frequent tomb raids in the Valley of the Kings, most royal mummies from the New Kingdom–including Ramesses I–were relocated to a secret cache for safekeeping. There they remained until the mid-nineteenth century, when tomb robbers discovered them and began selling off the mummies and their treasures.

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, including Ramesses I, were sold.

In the 1860s, representatives from the Niagara Falls Museum were in Luxor buying mummies and artifacts for display. Ramesses I’s remains, along with a number of other mummies and their coffins and burial objects, were shipped down the Nile and across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic to Canada, where they became part of the eclectic collections of the Niagara Falls Museum.

The museum’s collections were moved to five different buildings from 1861 to 1999, ending up in a former corset factory. The displaced Pharaoh was shown alongside waterstained Currier and Ives prints, Japanese armor, a bedraggled collection of stuffed animals, a whale skeleton, and the trunk of a giant redwood.

Modern-day rulers including Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Queen Victoria were among the thousands of visitors who came to peer at the relics, never suspecting that the mummy they passed by had once ruled over a glorious Egyptian empire that, in many respects, rivaled their own.

In 1999, the Niagara Falls Museum closed its doors and sold off its antiquities. Carlos Museum officials heard about the Egyptian artifacts and publicly raised nearly two million dollars to purchase the one-hundred-and-forty-five piece collection, including ten mummies.

The collection was moved to Emory, where the mummies and several coffins were restored by a band of conservators, Egyptologists, and volunteers. X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans of the mummies were taken at Emory Hospital’s radiology department to help determine their sex, age, diseases or injuries, and cause of death.

Even before the mummy ultimately identified as Ramesses I arrived at Emory, scholars had speculated that the five-foot, five-inch male, who came unwrapped and without a coffin, was the missing Pharaoh. In the 1980s, German Egyptologist Arne Eggebrecht examined the mummy in Niagara Falls and suggested it could be one of the missing royal mummies. Carlos Museum Egyptologists Peter Lacovara and Betsy Teasley Trope began contacting specialists worldwide to determine if this was the case.

While tests to match the mummy’s DNA with others from the same dynasty proved too difficult and destructive to undertake, radiocarbon dating placed the mummy’s origins in the era that included Ramesses I’s rule (1293 to 1291 B.C.), and several other clues hinted at royal status. The mummy’s arms were crossed over his chest, a posture reserved only for royal mummies until very late in Egypt’s history (and the advent of Hollywood mummy movies). Also, virtual imaging showed that there was a hardened mass of molten resin in the mummy’s skull–a costly material reserved for high-status embalmings.

Finally, the mummy’s X-rays were compared with those of Ramesses I’s son, Seti I, and his grandson, Ramesses II (the Great), two of Egypt’s most legendary pharaohs, whose remains are on view with other royal mummies at the Cairo Museum.

“His profile clearly showed the prominent, hooked nose and high forehead characteristic of the Ramesside line,” says Lacovara, curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern art for the Carlos Museum. “The slender build and high, arched feet are other family traits shared by this mummy.”

The weight of the evidence convinced the Egyptian government of the mummy’s authenticity. Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, accepted a longstanding offer by Carlos Museum officials for the Pharaoh’s return.

“Egyptian officials were elated at Emory’s cooperation and generosity in offering to give the mummy to the Cairo museum, so he can be reunited with the rest of his family,” Lacovara says. “This is a gift from the people of Atlanta to the people of Egypt. I compare it to finding George Washington’s body abroad. Certainly, we would hope it would be sent back to the U.S.”

The Pharaoh will temporarily remain at the Carlos Museum from May 2003 to April 2004 as the focus of the exhibition: “Ramesses I: Science and the Search for the Lost Pharaoh.”

Shortly thereafter, Ramesses I will be repatriated, with all the pomp and circumstance due someone of his exalted rank.



© 2002 Emory University