Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Soulful Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt - A Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.60

Edward Bleiberg, Yekaterina Barbash, Lisa Bruno, Soulful Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt.   London; Brooklyn, NY:  D Giles Limited, in association with the Brooklyn Museum, 2013.  Pp. 152.  ISBN 9781907804274.  $40.00.

Reviewed by Salima Ikram, American University in Cairo

Although this beautifully illustrated book was produced to serve as a catalogue accompanying the eponymous exhibition, it can stand on its own, and is of interest to both scholars and general readers. It is divided into three main parts, each written by one of the authors, and concludes with an Appendix by Barbash, the author of the first chapter. A brief bibliography of selected readings appears at the end. The book is prefaced by a chronology—but this is unlike other chronologies found in exhibition catalogues: it goes beyond a list of dates as it mentions key points and trends that typify each period—a sort of a mini-history—and is illustrated by objects that relate to the period in question, while resonating with the animal theme of the exhibition.

The first chapter, ‘How the Ancient Egyptians Viewed the Animal World’, by Barbash, outlines the sacred and secular roles played by animals in ancient Egyptian culture. It stresses the ideas of duality (benevolent and dangerous) and balance that are inherent in the ancient Egyptians’ world-view, as manifested by the way in which they presented certain animals and their associated deities. This is followed by a brief but informative section on “Animal Imagery,” including animals that are personifications of kings and gods, and how these concepts display domination of nature and human beings, while maintaining cosmic balance. The chapter then segues into a list of the most common animals that were mummified, as well as their roles in the more prosaic daily existence of the ancient Egyptians: cattle, sheep, goats, canines, felines, antelopes, monkeys, shrews, birds ( ducks, geese, ibises, raptors), fish, reptiles, and insects, in the form of scarab beetles.

Bleiberg is the author of the second chapter, ‘Animal Mummies: the Souls of the Gods’. This contains interesting summaries of the perceptions and misconceptions of other cultures (Jewish, Greek, Roman, and Christian) on Egyptian cults, particularly those involving animals. The author provides a good discussion of how animals fit into the world—echoing and elaborating on Barbash’s contribution. Most of the chapter deals with the role played by animal cults in personal piety, with a short section on the logistics and economics involved in maintaining such cults. It includes a significant number of letters written by supplicants to the gods, transferred via votive animal mummies, which elucidate the relationship between the pilgrim/devotee and the offering and the god. Using portions of an ostrakon-based archive (known as The Archive of Hor1), Bleiberg explains temple organization, the hierarchy of priests, and their respective duties. The economic implications of making offerings of different types are also elegantly illustrated by calculating the worth of higher-end offerings of containers partially or entirely made of bronze, a commodity whose price can be established. This chapter makes an obscure aspect of ancient Egyptian religion accessible, comprehensible, and congenial for the contemporary reader.

The final chapter, ‘The Scientific Examination of Animal Mummies’, by Bruno, presents the results of the scientific analysis and conservation studies carried out on the mummies. In a clear and accessible way it explains the science used to obtain more information about the mummies: dye and textile analyses, Carbon 14 and Accelerated Mass Spectrometry (AMS) dating, analyses of embalming materials using Gas Spectrometry, and various sorts of imaging (x-rays, negative x-rays, CT-scans). Interesting in its own right by illustrating the use of science in archaeology, this is also an excellent tool for scholars of animal mummies as it provides potential parallels in terms of analytical results, as well as prospective avenues of investigation. It is therefore hoped that more results of these varied studies will be published in greater detail. The images in the scientific section are extremely illuminating, particularly those illustrating the negative and positive radiographs (figs. 92 and 93), the ones showing advances in straightforward radiography ( figs. 97 and 98), as well as those demonstrating the differences between what x-rays and CTs capture (figs. 101 and 102).

The brief Appendix ‘Possible Precursors to the Animal Cults’ provides a typology of animal mummies, and touches upon their origins. Although it does not reach any major conclusions about the origins of the cults, it traces back their history very neatly. This essay could have been better integrated into the first chapter, also by Barbash, as it would have given the lay-audience an easier entry into the main focus of the exhibition.

There are very few points to criticize in this work, and some seem due to an attempt to keep footnotes and bibliography to a minimum, in order to make the text more appealing to the general public. Thus, it would be interesting to learn more about the Twenty-second Dynasty royal cache containing a gazelle (p. 41), as this reviewer only knows of the Twenty-first Dynasty gazelle, belonging to Queen Isitemkheb D, buried in Tomb 320 at Deir el- Bahari (Thebes). Similarly, sources for the number of mummies (p. 64) would have been helpful, as would examples of the architectural patterns (p. 111) that are thought to have inspired the patterns of wrappings. Other points for discussion arise in the section on canines (p. 37) where the author lists dog breeds found in ancient Egypt. Technically (alas) until large-scale genetic work is done on ancient dog populations one cannot really apply the names of modern breeds to the Egyptian, although one can suggest that, given the appearance of the ancient ones, the modern greyhound, basenji, and saluki may derive from the Egyptian animals. Some statements appear somewhat exaggerated, such as ‘monkeys appear in almost every animal necropolis of the Ptolemaic Period’ (p. 43), as monkey (including baboon) mummies seem to be largely restricted to Saqqara and Tuna el-Gebel; or, categorically stating that the inhabitants of Esna always eschewed Nile Perch (p. 59) solely on the basis of reports by a classical author.

However, these points are minor ones. The book provides an excellent overview of animal cults in ancient Egypt presented in a language suitable for the general public as well as being appropriate for scholars. Despite being written by three different authors, the essays are seamlessly interconnected and reference one another, emphasizing the collaborative nature of both the exhibition and the monograph. The choice of objects in the exhibition and their photographs are superb, as well as useful—this is the first time in print for the majority of the animal mummies, together with the results of their analyses. Throughout, the authors successfully combine art history, history, cultural studies and science in one accessible volume that is a pleasure to read.


1.   J. D. Ray. The Archive of Hor. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1976.

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