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Daily Archives: February 14, 2008

Is Ramesses I Older than He Looks?

The “Niagara Falls mummy” was displayed for many years in the Niagara Museum on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. It is featured in a 2006 episode of Nova, “The Mummy Who Would Be King.” (Transcript here.). It was purchased by a Dr. James Douglas of Québec around 1860, who first brought it to North America.

The mummy was later sold to the Michael C. Carlos Museum, associated with Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. At this time, various experts began to think it was in fact a royal mummy, whereas before it was assumed to be a commoner from the Roman era. Experts eventually settled on Ramesses I, founder of the 19th dynasty, as the likely identity. The conventional date for Ramesses I’s reign is 1295-1294 BC. In 2003, the Egyptian government, including Zahi Hawass (Director General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt), accepted the return of the mummy as Ramesses I.

While at Emory, the Niagara Falls mummy was carbon dated to between 1085 and 790 BC. The median value for this range is 938 BC—357 years after the accepted date for Ramesses I! I find it rather interesting that it apparently doesn’t bother anyone that there was such a discrepancy between the carbon range and the conventional dates for that pharaoh.

Of course, it could well be that the 14C date was wildly inaccurate due to the myriad opportunities for contamination of the sample. Who knows how the mummy was handled, exposed to smoke, breathed on, etc., from the time it was brought to North America in 1860 until it finally arrived at Emory? Collecting samples for radiocarbon dating requires special care to avoid contamination by materials from a different time period, and there is no reason for such precautions to have been taken when the mummy was first handled some eighty years before the advent of radiocarbon dating methods. For example, contamination of wood charcoal from a fire by mineral coal (relatively depleted in 14C) would result in a greater age for the sample than would be indicated by the pure charcoal. Conversely, contamination by recent material would result in a sample testing “younger” than it actually was.

I’m curious how this date plays out in the chronological revisions I tend to keep an eye on. In “Centuries of Darkness and Egyptian Chronology: Another Look,” Jeremy Goldberg suggests a general 200-year downdating of Egyptian chronology, in which Ramesses I would have reigned around 1095 BC. This is just outside the 1085-790 BC range: still too old for the 14C dating, but only by a handful of years. Far more interesting, however, is David Rohl’s suggested reign for Ramesses I of 962-961 BC. This comes remarkably close to the median 14C value of 938 BC.

So, is Ramesses I older than he looks (radiometrically speaking)? I’m not sure any firm conclusions can be reached, but it is an interesting question nonetheless.

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