Scientists hope DNA will reveal mummy's identity

Sunday, December 16, 2001

ATLANTA -- The body is remarkably well-preserved, filled full of resin and stuffed with rolled linen some 3,000 years ago. It has a mouthful of teeth, an intact facial profile and long arms still crossed over the chest.

A scientist at Emory University hopes DNA from a single loose molar will tell whether the ancient corpse is that of the lost pharaoh Ramsses I, founder of the famed Egyptian dynasty that produced Seti I and Ramsses II.

Doug Wallace, a geneticist, is developing a process he hopes will yield Y-chromosome DNA -- the kind passed on from father to son -- from the pulp of the tooth. He wants to compare it to DNA samples from other royal mummies in the Ramsses line from an Egyptian museum in Cairo.

Wallace has been working with the teeth of other mummies in the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory to develop the procedure, which involves exposing dentin underneath the tooth enamel, reducing it to powder and harvesting DNA from it.

"What we've established now is that we can get ancient DNA from mummies from teeth," he said. "Now the question is can we do Y-chromosome typing from it, and that's what we're working on now. I'm quite hopeful."

If the mummy, which arrived unwrapped and without a coffin or burial trappings, turns out to be Ramsses I, the Carlos museum will return it to Egypt so it can assume its rightful place among the other pharaohs.

Cooperation needed

Whether that happens, though, depends on factors outside Wallace's control -- whether the mummy's teeth offer up usable DNA and whether Egyptian authorities decide to cooperate and provide samples for comparison. Neither is assured.

Circumstantial evidence suggests the mummy was a king and not a random Egyptian who could afford the elaborate and careful embalming usually reserved for royals.

His arms are crossed right over left, as was typical for pharaohs of the era. His left hand looks as if it had grasped an object, possibly a scepter. And carbon dating puts the body in the era of Ramsses I, who rose to the throne in 1293 B.C. and ruled for two years.

Perhaps most compelling is a facial profile that is strikingly similar to other mummies of the Ramsses line, including grandson Ramsses II, a great builder and warrior believed to be the pharaoh of the Bible's Exodus story.

Oral surgeon required

If Wallace's procedure works, the museum will call on Atlanta oral surgeon Mollie Winston to extract the mummy's loose tooth. A woman is required for the job to ensure that Y-chromosome DNA remains uncontaminated.

Should teeth from the other royal mummies become necessary for comparison, the decision to make them available will rest with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. Peter Lacovara, curator of ancient art at the Carlos, said initial contacts have been encouraging.

"I think everyone is taking a wait-and-see attitude," he said.

The mummy came to Atlanta in 1999 after spending about 150 years at the Niagara Falls Museum in Ontario, Canada, alongside such curiosities as a five-legged pig, Wild Bill Hickok's saddle and barrels from daredevils who went over the falls.

The Ontario museum likely received the mummy from a Canadian doctor who had the artifacts smuggled out of Egypt in the early 1860s.

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