The acquisition of an ancient Egyptian collection: What is the institutional impact?

Therese O’Gorman

Abstract

The Michael C. Carlos Museum has recently acquired a collection of Egyptian antiquities. The collection was originally purchased in Egypt in the 1860’s on behalf of a small, private museum in Niagara Falls, Canada, during a time of great public fascination with ancient Egypt that began with Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt at the end of the Eighteenth century. The collection consists of nine coffins and nine mummies, along with shwabtis, canopic jars, amulets and jewelry, bronze sculptures, pottery, basketry, wooden objects, and relief fragments. The collection was seen and admired by Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt, among other prominent figures; yet despite being on display for so long, the material has never been published or studied and is largely unknown, even among the scholarly community.

The collection was largely forgotten for over 100 years until the museum in Canada was closed and its collections disbanded. This Egyptian material is probably the last collection of its kind that was in private hands. Its acquisition by the Michael C. Carlos Museum now gives Atlanta a collection of ancient Egyptian funerary art of remarkable depth and quality unrivaled in the South.

One of the most intriguing mysteries surrounding the newly-acquired collection of Egyptian antiquities is the identity of an unwrapped mummy of a male, which some scholars have suggested may be Ramesses I, the founder of the famous line that included Seti I, Ramesses II and his fifty sons, Queen Nofretari, and Ramesses III. It was purchased in Egypt around the time of the famous cache of royal mummies at Deir el-Bahri was discovered. The position of the arms, crossed over the chest, was reserved for royal mummies until the Late Dynastic Period (525-343 B.C.). The careful treatment of the body, however, suggests an earlier date, as does carbon 14 analysis of the mummy, which places it in the New Kingdom (1570-1070 B.C.), the era of Ramesses I (1293- 1291 B.C.).

The Carlos Museum staff, including Therese O’Gorman, head of conservation and Dr. Peter Lacovara, curator of ancient art, are collaborating with Dr. Douglas Wallace, a world-renowned DNA specialist of the Center for Molecular Medicine at Emory. Through this collaboration, it may be possible to solve the puzzle of the attributed Ramesses mummy. Comparative DNA analysis with the mummy of Ramesses’ son Seti, now in the Cairo Museum, should aid in proving the identity of this mummy. If the Carlos mummy turns out to be the missing royal mummy, the Carlos Museum and the Egyptian authorities would discuss its eventual return to its rightful place in Egypt.