U.S. Museum to Return Ramses I Mummy to Egypt
for National Geographic News
|April 30, 2003|
View a photo gallery of the royal mummy. Go >>
A 3,000-year-old mummy that many scholars believe is ancient Egypt's King Ramses I is the star attraction of an exhibit at the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta that will run from April 26 to September 14.
How the mummy came to reside in North America for 140 years, and wound up in Atlanta, is a tale that includes the collapse of law and order in ancient Egypt, grave robbers, stolen antiquities, a two-headed calf and a five-legged pig, the wonders of modern science, and an international gesture of good will.
The royal mummy will make its final journey home this fall, part of a gift from the people of Atlanta to the people of Egypt. Tuesday, museum officials presented Zahi Hawass, general director of Egypt's Supreme Council on Antiquities, with four fragments of painted limestone relief that are part of the tomb of Seti I, son and successor of Ramses I.
"By returning these items to Egypt, the museum is doing something no other museum has done before and should set an example for museums all over the world," said Hawass, who is also a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. "This is being done at a time of great destruction of antiquities and emphasizes the great importance of our cultural heritage."
The royal mummy and four fragments are part of a 145-piece collection of mummies, coffins, and artifacts the Carlos museum purchased in 1999 from a tacky museum in Niagara Falls that also featured a "Freaks of Nature" exhibit.
"There was never any question about whether the mummy would be returned to Egypt if it proved to be a royal," said Peter Lacovara, an Egyptologist and curator of ancient art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum. "It was simply the right thing to do."
Gayle Gibson, an Egyptologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, who has studied the Niagara mummies for years, concurs. As part of the ceremony to open the exhibit, the Carlos Museum hosted a reception for an international gathering of Egyptologists April 25a night that Gibson remembers for a particularly spectacular storm.
"Ramses was from northern Egypt, and the family's god was Seth, the god of storms," she said. "The night of the reception there was a powerful storm, with thunder and lightning and hail; a tornado just missed us. It was a very unusual storm for Atlanta. I think it was Rameses, letting us know that he's happy to be going home."
Following the trail of the royal mummy from the Valley of the Kings to the Carlos Museum is a fascinating tale.
Brief Reign, Long Journey
Ramses I ascended to power in 1293 B.C. Though he died two years later, he managed to found Egypt's 19th Dynasty; his son Seti I and grandson Ramses the Great are known as two of ancient Egypt's most illustrious rulers.
"Don't be deceived by the fact that he was king for just two years," said Gibson, who is president of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities. "Prior to claiming the throne, he was the vizier of Egypt, the equivalent of a prime minister today."
His official title before becoming king was Master of Horse, Commander of the Fortress, Controller of the Nile Mouth, Charioteer of His Majesty, King's Envoy to Every Foreign Land, Royal Scribe, Colonel, and General of the Lord of the Two Lands.
Ramses, who was known as Paramessu before he claimed the throne, worked closely with Horemheb, the king who preceded him, to restore law and order to a country that had been torn apart by ill-conceived religious reforms.
"Tutankhamen's father, Akhenaten, created horrible suffering and economic dislocation; the country was a real mess," said Gibson. "It was almost like Iraq today; they had to appoint judges, reestablish law and order. Horemheb and Ramses were instrumental in getting the country back into a position where future kings could start building beautiful monuments and fighting wars to successfully defend or expand their borders."
Upon his death, Ramses I was carefully prepared for his arduous journey in the after world, mummified, and buried in the Valley of the Kings around 1290 B.C. But he was not left in peace.
During periods of civil unrest and civic corruption, the tombs were victims of almost unfettered grave-robbing. To protect the mummies, if not the grave goods, many of the tombs were opened and the bodies of the kings and other royals moved to more secure, secret locations. Around 900 B.C., many were laid to rest in a hidden tomb in the cliffs of Deir el-Bahri.
Grave Robbers and Tourists
Sometime in the mid-1800s, the tomb at Deir el-Bahri was accidentally discovered by Ahmed Abd el-Rassul while he searched for a lost goat. He and his family, who were widely known at the time as "tomb breakers and mummy snatchers," began selling off mummies, coffins, and royal artifacts to tourists and collectors. They were eventually caught and the tomb was officially discovered in 1881. At the time of its official discovery, the tomb contained 40 mummies, coffins, and other artifacts. Ramses I's coffin was found, but there was no sign of his mummy.
Though the trail of stolen antiquities is often murky, ancient records from the tombs, diaries and letters from the mid-19th century, and scholarly conjecture suggest that the mummy was sold for seven pounds to a physician from Canada named James Douglas in around 1860. Douglas acquired the royal mummy for the owner of a museum in Niagara Falls.
Over the next 140 years the royal mummy, along with several others, some coffins, and other Egyptian artifacts shared floor space with "freaks of nature"the two-headed calf, and the five-legged pigmemorabilia of the Wild West and the Civil War, and the barrels of Falls daredevils. The museum changed hands, and crossed and re-crossed the Canadian border several times until it closed in 1999.
The Carlos Museum purchased the Egyptian collection for around U.S. $2 million
Identifying a Royal Mummy
Rumors that the Niagara Falls collection included a royal mummy had swirled since the 1980s, when German Egyptologist Arne Eggebrecht visited the museum and visually examined it.
"Anyone looking at the mummy, at least any Egyptologist, could see that this was a powerful man, a fine looking man, and special," said Gibson, who first saw the mummy 18 years ago. "But until the radiocarbon dating came in, giving us a 3,000-year-old date, no one imagined it might be Ramses I."
When the mummy reached Atlanta, scientists at Emory University, which is affiliated with the Carlos museum, swung into a full-on investigation. CT scans, x-rays, radiocarbon dating, computer imaging, and other techniques were all used to narrow the identification.
"Most scholars agree that the Ramses I identification is the most likely," said the Carlos Museum's Peter Lacovara. "All the different lines of investigation converge to make it the most probable."
One indication that the mummy is royal is the position of the arms, which are crossed high across the chest, "a position reserved for royalty until about 600 B.C. or later," Lacovara said.
The quality of the mummification, the position of the embalming scar, its remarkably well-preserved condition, and other factors all place it in the time frame of Ramses' rule, he said.
The physical resemblance to Seti I, and Ramses the Great is also startling, according to many scholars.
"It's definitely a royal mummy," said Zahi Hawass. "I only saw it half an hour ago, so more than that I can't say. But we are very happy it will be returned to Egypt where the rest of the royal mummies are."
Hawass is similarly thrilled to be returning to Egypt with the fragments from Seti's tomb.
"The pieces are small, but they are very important," he said. "The museum is completely volunteering these fragments as a gift to the Supreme Council of Antiquities. They were obtained legitimately and we had no legal claim to them. It's a wonderful gift and I hope other museums will follow this example. I cannot imagine missing parts of tombs on view in museums when the original tombs are left incomplete."
More National Geographic News Stories on Ancient Egypt:
Cairo Museum Unveils "Lost" Egyptian Treasures
Rare Greek Scroll Found With Egyptian Mummy
Egypt Opens New Library of Alexandria
Update: Third "Door" Found in Great Pyramid
Ancient Egyptian Chambers ExploredPyramid Builders' Village Found in Egypt
Rising Water Table Threatens Egypt's Monuments
Mummies: "Postcards" From the Dead
Secrets of The Mummy Road Show Unraveled
Study Unwraps Ancient "Recipe" for Mummies
Floods Swept Ancient Nile Cities Away, Expert Says
TV News: Egyptian Mummies Included Animals
Egyptian Archaeologist Named National Geographic Explorer-in- Residence
Book Report: Mummies Reflect Primal Urge to Extend Human Life
Researchers Lift Obelisk With Kite to Test Theory on Ancient Pyramids
Additional Ancient Egypt Resources from National Geographic:
Ancient Egypt Home Page: Photos, Diagrams, More
Expedition Ancient Egypt: Four Days to Tackle It All
At the Tomb of Tutankhamen
How to Make a Mummy
The Mummy Road Show on the National Geographic Channel
Kids Features on Ancient Egypt
Make a Model Tomb
Quiz Game: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt
Three Queens of Egypt
Kids Book: Mummies of the Pharaohs
King Tut Cartoon Fun
Related Lesson Plans
Mummies: Honoring the Dead (K-2)
Mummies and the Desert (3-5)
Making a Mummy the Natural Way (6-8)
Where Can You Find a Good Mummy? (9-12)
|© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.|