Mummy's Return to Egypt Spotlights Smuggling

Brian Handwerk
for Ultimate Explorer
March 4, 2004

Last September—after a 140-odd-year run in a Niagara Falls, Canada, sideshow—the 3,000-year-old mummy of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses I returned home. The celebration was one for the ages.

"When he arrived, no living king [had] ever had such a reception," said Zahi Hawass, an archaeologist and secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The mummy's return to Egypt was facilitated by the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. While the museum had obtained legal rights to own and display the mummy, museum officials decided that the pharaoh's proper place was in Egypt.

"It just seemed the right thing to do for a lot of reasons," said Peter Lacovara, the museum's curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Middle Eastern art.

The repatriation served to highlight Egypt's ongoing struggle to restore lost cultural heritage and stem the black market trade in antiquities.

Hawass, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, said he was grateful for the gift, to which his country had no legal claim. Only since 1983 has Egypt put laws in place that establish Egyptian ownership of all archaeological finds within its borders.

The archaeologist says he'd like to see some other scattered pieces of Egypt's cultural heritage come home—even if only for a visit.

The return of Ramses I "can tell the world that artifacts that have no parallel in Egypt should come back to Egypt," Hawass said. "This was a pharaoh, and he should be at home. But the same may [also] be true for a very unique item like the Rosetta stone or the bust of Nefertiti." (Nefertiti ruled as queen of Eygpt in the 1300s B.C. A famous bust of her resides in Berlin's Egyptian Museum.)

Spiritual Artifacts

Hawass said returning antiquities to their original sites in Egypt helps restore their archaeological context and spiritual power. The pharaohs "put their money into the tomb for the journey to the afterlife. If you cut a piece away, you are completely cutting the spiritual value."

Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, applauds the Ramses gift. But he says he's uncertain it is a harbinger of similar gifts from other museums.

"Human remains are kind of in a category by themselves," Vikan said. "We've come to recognize the spiritual value of remains. But whether or not this has an effect on other antiquities, I rather doubt that it will. Most of the U.S. collections, for example, are rather old and were formed under circumstances that were legitimate at the time."

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