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Return of the mummies

Carlos Museum debuts new collection of Egyptian art

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The Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University has just become a cultural destination of significant national importance. Last Saturday, the museum reopened its Egyptian Galleries with Ancient Egypt, Nubia and the Near East, a jewel-like permanent exhibition of ancient funerary art that places our city at the level of New York, Boston and Chicago as a center for Egyptian art.

It's difficult to imagine the former Niagara Falls Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame as the source of the numerous artifacts in this regal display. In fact, many of the objects came from a collection established in the late 19th century by a Canadian entrepreneur who sent his son to Egypt to buy mummies and curios for his Niagara Falls tourist attraction. For almost a half-century, the coffins were shown alongside barrels that had carried thrill seekers over the falls.

In 1999, encouraged by the museum's ancient art curator Peter Lacovara, the Carlos acquired the neglected Egyptian collection after a monumental one-week local fund-raising campaign. Carlos director Anthony Hirschel recalls making the trip to Canada to bring the collection back: "It really felt like a rescue mission."

Carlos conservator Therese O'Gorman and teams of experts and volunteers worked for more than two years to restore the mummies and objects now on view. At one point, the process took the wrapped bodies to Emory Hospital for CAT scans, revealing that one of the mummies may be royalty, the great Ramses the First. That mummy remains in seclusion, awaiting a special exhibition in his honor planned for 2003.

Other discoveries were a female mummy with hair extensions and a red-haired man with a full beard. Beyond that, they were able to confirm the actual identities of certain coffin owners. The wealthy Tanakhnettahat, who once sang at the temple of the god Amun, was the first occupant of one of the women's coffins. Her wonderfully restored funerary box, sans her mummy, is embellished with images of gods and goddesses, animals, birds and intricate patterns in rich blues and reds. Conservators found that the Egyptian woman's coffin was reused; her name was erased from exterior glyphs and a new name added in one place.

Ancient Egypt, Nubia and the Near East includes loans from other museums as well as recent acquisitions and objects collected by the Carlos in the 1920s. The museum's original architect, the renowned Michael Graves, designed the new galleries that hold the exhibition. Inside a twilit hall, the array of decorated coffins, human and animal mummies, canopic jars (holding the mummies' organs), statuettes, basketry, tools, amulets and jewelry holds an aura of magic and mystery that may well stimulate a new wave of Egyptomania in Atlanta.

-- CATHY BYRD

Ancient Egypt, Nubia and the Near East is on view at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, 571 Kilgo St. Tues.-Wed., Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs. 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun. noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $5. 404-727-4291.

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