April 21, 2003

Returning Ramesses

Peter Lacovara is curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubain and Near Eastern Art at the Carlos Museum.

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 the Atlantic.

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 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.

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 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, 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.

A version of this essay appeared in the December 2002/January 2003 Academic Exchange.