On the Theft of a Mummy

The mummy of Ramesses I as it on display in the Luxor Museum in Egypt. Photograph by Alyssa Bivins, obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

The following is a quote from Wikipedia regarding Ramesses I:

A mummy currently believed to be that of Ramesses I was stolen from Egypt and displayed in a private Canadian museum for many years before being repatriated…

The mummy had been stolen from the Royal Cache in Deir el-Bahari by the Abu-Rassul family of grave robbers and sold by Turkish vice-consular agent Mustapha Aga Ayat at Luxor, to Dr. James Douglas who brought it to North America around 1860. Douglas used to purchase Egyptian antiquities for his friend Sydney Barnett who then placed it in the Niagara Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls Ontario, Canada. The mummy remained there, its identity unknown, next to other curiosities and so-called freaks of nature for more than 130 years. When the owner of the museum decided to sell his property, Canadian businessman William Jamieson purchased the contents of the museum and, with the help of Canadian Egyptologist Gayle Gibson, identified their great value. In 1999, Jamieson sold the Egyptian artifacts in the collection, including the various mummies, to the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia for US $2 million. The mummy was returned to Egypt on October 24, 2003 with full official honors and is on display at the Luxor Museum.[1]

Now, I know, you are not supposed to quote Wikipedia. For the record, the “thou shalt not cite Wikipedia” does not mean “never read Wikipedia.” I browse it all the time. It is just that Wikipedia is not a primary source. It isn’t even a qualified secondary source. That is why teachers instruct their students to not cite Wikipedia. However, Wikipedia does have links to its sources of information, and you can sometimes find more worthy sources within there.

Besides, I am not quoting Wikipedia in order to convey information about Ramesses I (or more specifically, his mummy). I am quoting Wikipedia in order to comment about a peculiar choice of wording. What I specifically want to highlight is the choice of the phrase “was stolen from Egypt.” What I find peculiar about this quote is that, taken by itself, it leaves the impression that the theft of the mummy of Ramesses I’s mummy occurred because it was taken out of Egypt and moved to Canada. Such a thought correlates with a meme making its rounds around the internet that the British Empire robbed the world of its artifacts. The meme takes the form of statements like, “What seems British but isn’t British?” “The artifacts in the British Museum,” or “The only reason the pyramids are in Egypt is because they were too heavy for the British to steal.”

As it happens, I know a little bit about the history of the mummy of Ramesses I. I worked at the Museum of World Treasures in Wichita for several years, and one of the highlights in the Museum is its pair of mummies (yes, there is a museum in Wichita that has actual Egyptian mummies). One of these mummies, which is called the Braided Haired Lady, came from the Niagara Falls Museum (Wikipedia calls it the Niagara Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame, but the sources I am familiar with called it the Niagara Falls Museum, so I will call it that). Braided Haired Lady came out of Egypt with Ramesses I, was put on display in the Niagara Falls Museum alongside Ramesses I, and Ramesses I was repatriated back to Egypt and Braided Haired Lady was not.

Since Braided Haired Lady shares a history with the mummy of Ramesses I, we at the Museum of World Treasures were interested in what that connection was. So, we found any sources of information possible, including on old NOVA PBS program detailing the discovery of the mummy of Ramesses I, an old article from 1996 (if I remember correctly) which talked about the mummies at the Niagara Falls Museum and speculated on the significance of one mummy in particular (the mummy that would later be identified as that of Ramesses I), and even an excerpt of the memoir from Dr. James Douglas where he describes his acquisition of mummies for the Niagara Falls Museum (I obtained this from the Michael C. Carlos Museum).

Now, it has been a while since I have read this information,[2] but there are a number of details that stand out in my mind about the history of these mummies. I want to tell you my impression about how Ramesses I was “stolen from Egypt and displayed” in the Niagara Falls Museum

To put things in perspective, it must first be understood that there was something of a mummy craze during the 1800’s. People in the Western world could obtain mummies relatively easily. Since they were the remains of ancient people, these mummies fascinated the public. People who could afford it would purchase a mummy from Egypt, return home, invite friends over, and have an unwrapping party. They would unwrap the mummy, keeping an eye out for any valuable trinkets that might be among the wrappings. Ever hear of mummy brown? It was a paint made from ground up mummies. These provide a couple of examples of the mummy craze during the 1800’s.

Since people from the Americas and Europe were interested in getting mummies, people living in Egypt were happy to oblige them. Peasants who knew of the location of tombs would remove mummies from their tombs and sell them to tourists. It gained them more money than their typical farming jobs did. That is where the Abd el-Rassul family comes into our story. They happened to find a particularly rich cache of mummies at a place called Deir el-Bahari. This cache was created by the ancient Egyptians. As Egyptian history wore on, they began running out of tombs for people who died recently. So they took mummies out of their original tombs and placed them all together in one location. That is how the Royal Cache at Deir el-Bahari was created.

Now, the el-Rassul family were not archaeologists. They did not care what the mummies where, they cared what they could sell the mummies for. Thus, mummies were taken out of coffins and sold, without regard to who the mummies were or where they ended up. Once real archaeologists and Egyptian authorities caught up with the el-Rassul family in 1881, they learned about the Royal Cache. However, it had been pretty well plundered at that point, and several coffins, such as the coffin of Ramesses I, were missing their mummies.

I should mention that the reason it was so easy to purchase mummies was because the laws for the excavation, sale, and transportation of artifacts were much laxer than they are today. Nowadays, almost every country has laws regulating who can search for artifacts, what happens to artifacts when they are discovered, where the artifacts go after they are discovered, and whether or not those artifacts can leave the country. There were some such laws in Egypt in the 1800’s, but they were much looser and not well enforced. In fact, some people who were supposed to regulate the discovery and sale of artifacts used their positions get a kick-back from the sale of artifacts. They would allow a sale as long as they got a portion of the money. Such was the case with Mustapha Aga Ayat. I do not remember his position, but it involved regulation of the sale of artifacts. It is widely believed that he worked with the el-Rassul family, allowing them to recover mummies without interference and actually helping them sell some of the mummies that could go for a higher price.

That describes the situation when Dr. Douglas came to Egypt. I believe it was a personal trip for him, but a friend, Thomas Barnett, the founder of the Niagara Falls Museum, requested that he pick up some mummies for the museum while he was there. Dr. Douglas obliged, purchasing a total of ten mummies, all of which were transported back to the Niagara Falls Museum.

It is important to note that Dr. Douglas’s memoir only described the purchase of one mummy in any detail. He notes that he purchased on particularly nice mummy with the help of Mustapha. That is about all the information he provides: he does not detail where the mummy came from, who provided the mummy to Mustapha, and he does not tell how he acquired the other nine mummies. Presumably, since the other mummies are of lesser quality and less significant, it is possible that he picked up the other mummies from vendors on the street.

The mummies remained in the Niagara Falls Museum for over a hundred years. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, interest began to build in one of the mummies in the collection. Egyptologists who visited the museum to see its mummies noted some details about this mummy that typically appeared in royal mummies. However, no official discoveries were made until the entire Egyptian collection was sold to the Michael C. Carlos Museum in 1999. They conducted more thorough research on the ten mummies in the collection and, with the help of Egyptologists from Egypt, determined that one mummy was the missing mummy of Ramesses I. Because Ramesses I was a significant figure in Egyptian history, its mummy was repatriated back to Egypt.

As an interesting aside, I have spoken with people who are not entirely convinced that the mummy is truly the mummy of Ramesses I. There were, unfortunately, no identifying marks on the mummy. The identification basically boiled down to, it looked royal, it came from the right location (Deir el-Bahari), and the style of mummification is typical of the type of Ramesses I. That is good enough for a lot of people, but there are a few who think that the Michael C. Carlos Museum was little over-eager to make nice to the Egyptian government.

Having gone through all of that, can this long and complicated history of the mummy of Ramesses I be simply summarized as the mummy of “Ramesses I was stolen from Egypt and displayed in a private Canadian museum for many years,” as Wikipedia characterizes it? I do not think so. If you want to pin the theft on anyone, it was the el-Rassul family, with Mustapha Aga Ayat as a willing accomplice in the sale of the mummy. Remember, the laws where much laxer back then. Today, it would be impossible to remove a mummy out of Egypt without having a very good reason, and proof of its intended use and care. Even then, it may be impossible. Back then, the law required much less. In my opinion, Dr. James Douglas had every right to remove the mummies out of Egypt once he purchased them.

Do note that the only reason Ramesses I was repatriated back to Egypt was because the Michael C. Carlos Museum wanted to: they were not under any legal obligation to return it. In fact, the other nine mummies from the Niagara Falls were not repatriated. I know for sure that two of them were later sold to a collector, Dr. John Kardatzke, and put in the museum that he founded, the Museum of World Treasures. That is how Braided Haired Lady ended up there (the other mummy from the Niagara Falls Museum at the Museum of World Treasures is just a head and it is not on display).

Instead of actually reflecting how the mummies were taken from Egypt and put in a museum in Canada, I believe that Wikipedia’s characterization of the mummy being stolen has more to do with the narrow view of the world people have today. It seems like people today only view the past from the lens of the present. Yes, today it would be impossible to remove a mummy from Egypt, but that was not the case in the past. Today it would be considered theft, back then, it was common practice.

Now, some may argue that any artifact is the heritage of the country where the artifact was found. That may be argued, but unless you have laws in place to establish who artifacts belong to and what should happen to them, then the theory that artifacts are the heritage of a country is just that: a theory. In point of fact, not all countries have the same laws regarding artifacts, their excavation, and removal. They do not all ascribe to the exact same theory anyway.

Rather than leveling an accusation of theft on the Niagara Falls Museum or on the British (remember the British Museum meme mentioned earlier?), people should step off of their high horses and just understand that the world of today is not the same world of the past. Just because things were not done the way you think they should have been done does not mean that it was wrong.

Thoughts from Steven.

[1]Ramesses I article, section titled Rediscovery and repatriation, retrieved from  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramesses_I#Rediscovery_and_repatriation on July 3, 2021.

[2]I am also using the book Inventing Niagara by Ginger Strand (published by Simon and Schuster in 2008) to jog my memory. The third chapter of the book is about the Niagara Falls Museum and the discovery of the mummy of Ramesses I.

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