Unravelling the Mystery of the Carlos Museum Mummy

Today, the Michael C. Carlos Museum boasts a spectacular collection of antiquities ranging from Mesoamerican pottery to sarcophagi and mummies. But in 1999, the Carlos Museum made international news when they acquired a mummy that was later suspected to be one of Egypt’s lost pharaohs.

Believed to be none other than the lost mummy of Ramesses I, the grandfather of Ramesses II, the mummy dated two generations before the pharaoh in the Book of Exodus. The story of how the 3,300 year-old grandfather of a biblical pharaoh apparently ended up in Atlanta involves tomb raiders, daredevils jumping off Niagara Falls in barrels, pre-internet crowdsourcing and some uncanny resemblances.

Around 1,300 B.C., Ramesses I founded the 19th Dynasty of Egypt amid political disarray. He ruled for only two years, but his descendents were some of “Egypt’s most illustrious rulers” according to the Carlos’s website on Ramesses I.

More than 3,000 years later, in 1827, a man named Thomas Barnett founded the Niagara Falls Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame. The “museum” sought to profit off tourists visiting Niagara Falls. Its collection boasted stories and artifacts from those courageous enough to go down the falls. While a daredevil museum on the border of New York and Canada seems like the last place to find an Egyptian mummy, Barnett sought to distinguish his museum from competing daredevil-themed museums by including a collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts.

By around 1860, the Barnetts possessed several well-preserved mummies, according to the Carlos’s website. These were almost certainly procured through illegal transactions with middle-men who bought from tomb raiders. One of the most “excellent” mummies was reportedly purchased for today’s equivalent of $300.

Kushal Bafna/Contributing

After a century of procuring mummies and daredevil memorabilia, Barnett’s museum “found that maintaining this collection of Egyptian antiquities didn’t fit into their real focus, which was people going over Niagara Falls in barrels,” University Historian Gary Hauk said.

In 1999, the museum contacted former Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum Peter Lacovara, and offered its entire collection of Egyptian artifacts, which included multiple mummies and sarcophagi, for $2 million total. There was only one problem — the Carlos Museum did not have $2 million lying around to purchase mummies from sellers who almost certainly acquired them illegally for a fraction of the offer price.

Barnett’s museum gave the Carlos Museum two weeks to gather the funds for the purchase. In the end, the local media and citizens of Atlanta saved the day. The front page of local newspapers like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provided coverage of the situation and, soon enough, a massive grassroots fundraising campaign was underway, with donors ranging from millionaire philanthropists to schoolchildren.

In July 1999, the collection arrived at the Carlos Museum. Today, much of that collection is still on display in the Charlotte Lichirie Collection of Ancient Egyptian Art. The collection includes beautifully painted coffins and wrapped mummies, and is truly spectacular by any museum-goer’s standards.

One mummy was of particular interest to the Carlos Museum staff. The way in which it was mummified and the positioning of its limbs suggested that the body inside belonged to royalty. Emory researchers decided to remove the wrapping. Upon removing the layers, researchers were startled to see that the mummy’s face resembled that of Seti I and Ramesses II, the son and grandson of Ramesses I. A side-by-side comparison of photos of these mummies can be viewed on the Carlos Museum website.

According to the Carlos website, the mummy underwent X-ray and CT scans at the Emory University Hospital to create a three-dimensional reconstruction of the mummy for study by Egyptologists and doctors. The results confirmed that the mummy was preserved with the precision and care attributed to royal remains.

According to Mary Loftus, an associate editor for Emory Magazine who covered the story in 2003, the mummy was moved from the museum to the hospital at night, so as not to scare anyone who saw the shriveled remains.

In 2003, the Carlos Museum held a four-month exhibition titled “Ramesses I: the Search for the Lost Pharaoh,” which attracted tens of thousands of visitors. Following the exhibition, Emory returned the mummy to Egypt as an expression of goodwill from the people of Atlanta, who had helped pay for it.

The ceremony that marked the return of the supposed pharaoh was presided over by the American ambassador to Egypt and by then-Director General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt Zahi Hawass. Hawass had visited the mummy while it was at Emory, and declared that he was certain that this was the mummy of Ramesses I, Hauk said.

Upon returning to Egypt, the mummy became part of an exhibition on the Egyptian army in the Luxor Museum in Luxor, Egypt, according to Melinda Hartwig, curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern Art at the Carlos Museum.  

Hartwig also travelled with the mummy back to Egypt. According to her, the mummy is still on display in the Luxor Museum, but its label does not indicate any relation to Ramesses I. While the mummy was celebrated as a legendary pharaoh upon its return to Egypt, the Carlos Museum’s Director of Communications and Marketing Allison Hutton said, “[Today,] researchers feel it probably isn’t Ramesses I.” Hutton and Hartwig said there is simply no way to be scientifically certain of the identity of this mummy. It is more accurate to describe it as it is labeled in the Luxor Museum: “a mummy.”

Out of fear of damaging it, researchers did not extract DNA evidence from the mummy while he was at Emory. The style of mummification, context of its discovery and 3D imagery can only confirm that it is “someone very important,” Hutton said.

Whether or not this mummy belongs to Ramesses I, founder of one of Egypt’s most legendary dynasties and grandfather of one of its most famous pharaohs, may never be known. Whoever he was in life, he has certainly been the center of a very intriguing story after death.

Today, the Carlos still exhibits much of the collection acquired from the Daredevil Hall of Fame. It includes elaborately painted sarcophagi and slightly less famous mummies, among a number of other ancient artifacts. Visitors can explore the collection on the first floor during regular museum hours.