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Mystery Mummy: A royal body may be that of Rameses I, but can we ever be sure?

The dark brown-black body of a man who may have ruled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago lies before me on a padded cushion in the conservation laboratory at Emory University's Michael C. Carlos Museum. Seeing it there--stripped of linen wrappings, arms crossed over chest, lids nearly closed over empty eye sockets, dried lips pulled back from teeth--I am amazed at the body's extraordinary preservation and feel an intense curiosity about its identity. Tempering these feelings is the knowledge that, whether or not they are a pharaoh's remains, they are from a person who died and was buried millennia ago only to be sold by tomb robbers in the nineteenth century and exhibited in a Niagara Falls museum alongside a two-headed calf and barrels in which daredevils braved the falls. A sad fate, but that will change because many scholars are now convinced that it is indeed a royal mummy, and Egypt is poised to reclaim it later this year.

Long-neglected, the mummy came to the public's attention two years ago, after the Niagara Falls museum closed its doors and its Egyptian collection was acquired by Atlanta's Emory University ("New Life for the Dead," September/October 2001). The media, including this magazine, noted the mummy's crossed-arms pose and a resemblance between its face in profile and those of the mummies of the 19th Dynasty pharaoh Seti I and his son Rameses II. Could the Niagara Falls mummy be that of Seti's father, Rameses I, which has never been found? If it were, said Carlos Museum curator Peter Lacovara, it would be returned to Egypt.

Looking at the royal mummies in the Cairo Museum, this past December, I could see that the one in Atlanta would not seem out of place among them, but I asked three Egyptologists who have seen it firsthand if they believe it could be a pharaoh's. "The mummification techniques used are certainly consistent with a 19th Dynasty mummy," says ARCHAEOLOGY contributing editor Bob Brier. "In addition, this is top-of-the-line mummification, a wealthy person who got what he paid for. Furthermore, the position of the arms is consistent with a royal mummy. So there are real reasons to entertain the idea that we have a royal 19th Dynasty mummy. "In Egypt, I spoke with Salima Ikram, a mummy specialist at the American University in Cairo. "I went there completely suspicious," she says, recalling her own trip to Atlanta. "The method of mummification is what I was looking at, and what it looked like to me was more late 18th, as in tail end of 18th, to 19th Dynasty. Obviously it is royal because of its arm position. "The high position of the Atlanta mummy's arms is, she says, unlike the lower crossed-arm pose found centuries later on some 26th Dynasty mummies.

"I first met this particular mummy something like ten years ago, when I went to Niagara," says Aidan Dodson of Bristol University, speaking to me in his Cairo hotel suite with a view of the Giza pyramids. "I walked into the room and looked at it and said, 'Oh my god, it looks like a New Kingdom pharaoh's mummy." Like Brier and Ikram, Dodson places great weight on the position of the mummy's arms. "There are," he says, "no mummies of the New Kingdom of which I'm aware with both arms fully crossed like that of anybody other than a pharaoh."

Given that the mummy may well be that of a pharaoh and that it beare a resemblance to Seti I and his descendants, it would seem a simple matter to compare their DNA to see if they matched. Knowing that the retrieval and analysis of DNA from Egyptian mummies has proved problematic in the past, Emory University geneticist Douglas Wallace began by first trying to extract it from the other mummies acquired from Niagara Falls, which are later and definitely nonroyal. He reportedly had some success, but before he sampled the possible royal one, Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Archaeology made it clear that comparative samples from the pharaohs in the Cairo Museum would not be forthcoming. "In Egypt," Hawass told me, "DNA testing is not permitted. From what I understand, it is not always accurate and 'it cannot always be done with complete success when dealing with mummies. Until we know for sure that it is accurate, we will not use it in our research. "Brier echoes Hawass' cautious approach: "We just haven't been able to that much information out of ancient Egyptian mummies. We are perhaps a couple of years off from being able do that, so I don't think DNA is going to help right now. "With DNA ruled out, any chance of identifying the mummy lies in tracing its history and making a close examination of it-inside and out-using both "eyeball" observation and high-tech scientific techniques.

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