Sunday, August 16, 2015

Unravelling the animal mummies of Ancient Egypt

Creepy exhibition reveals what lies beneath the bandages of cats, crocodiles and jackals offered to the Gods 

By Sarah Griffiths for MailOnline

From bandaged crocodiles to cats entombed in wooden effigies, a new exhibition seeks to unravel the mystery of animal mummies.

The ancient Egyptians carefully prepared the mummies in their millions as votive offerings to the gods.

Now, thousands of years after they were made, the exhibition will reveal the contents of these unusual mummies using X-rays and CT scans to the public.

The Gifts for the Gods exhibition at Manchester Museum will explain the background behind what today seems like a bizarre religious practice, in the context of life in ancient Egypt.

While many people may imaging Ancient Egypt to be a sandy wilderness, it was a country of lush grassland and a taxidermy exhibit will show what the mummified animals would have looked like when they were alive.

The strangest one to go on display is a jackal mummy which was found to contain fragments of human bone.

But Lidija McKnight, Research Associate at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester told MailOnline: ‘The ancient Egyptians mummified just about every animal they could find from cats and dogs, to fish, crocodiles, rodents, birds and baboons.

‘Perhaps the more surprising are the mummies which don’t contain animals themselves, or which contain more than species wrapped together.’

While it’s been known for a while that some animal mummies contain no real animal, she said this didn’t matter to the Egyptians that bought them as offerings to gods.

Work by the University of Manchester has shown that as many as a third of the mummies studied have no animal material, a third have parts of animals and the remaining third do have an animal inside.

‘All animal species mummified by the ancient Egyptians were deemed to have close associations with gods, mainly because of characteristics they were seen to share with the deities, or through their appearance at significant sites,’ she explained.
Cats, for example, were sacred to Bastet who was the goddess of warfare, while jackals were associated with Anubis, the god of embalming.

‘Ibis birds were associated with Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing,’ Dr McKnight said.

Egypt’s many gods could take animal forms to express their superhuman nature.

The exhibition explores how images of animals - pictures, statuettes or mummies - could be used to communicate with the gods.

Animal mummies and bronzes statuettes were the most common votive offerings, or gifts to the god and the exhibition will also include a recreation of a subterranean animal catacomb that visitors will be able to enter.

The atmospheric, narrow room will be lined with pots containing votive animal mummies, centred on a focal point for worship.
It is not clear exactly how the animal mummies would have fitted into religious rituals because there is little surviving evidence about how votive worship worked.

‘It is believed that animal mummies would have been symbolic offerings to be given to the gods,’ Dr McKnight continued.

‘So, the person offering the votive was not worshipping the animal itself, nor the mummy, but it was seen as a recognisable and suitable offering to take their prayers to the gods.

‘Their role can be seen as a communication device in personal religion.’

While great care was taken in embalming humans, the practice of votive animal mummifications was hasty in comparison.

‘The animals themselves are not extensively treated,’ Dr McKnight said.

‘There is little sign of natron [a mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate] being applied, certainly not to the extent it was in humans, and a simple application of an emulsion of beeswax and tree resins.

‘In short, the preservation of the animals was simple,’ she explained.

Elswehere, radiography suggests that evisceration - the removal of the internal organs - was often not carried out, presumably because of their size and because the animals were mummified quickly.

But, some of the decorative styles applied to animals does mirror what we see in human mummies for certain periods.

Animal mummies were sometimes given elaborate wrappings, sometimes with extravagantly criss-crossed bandages, so their construction would have taken a great deal of time.

The exhibition will look at the scientific study of animal mummies of which the University of Manchester is a leader.

Using wrapped, partially wrapped and completely unwrapped animal mummies from a variety of UK collections, the exhibition will show what they look like inside and in detail using photography, radiography, CT scans and light microscopy.

The display will combine mummified specimens such as jackals, crocodiles, cats and birds with cultural artefacts such as stone sculpture and bronze statuettes, alongside 19th Century works of art and never-seen-before archives romanticising Ancient Egypt.

Dr McKnight said: This exhibition will showcase the role played by the British in the discovery, excavation, collection, curation and scientific research of this understudied subject. 

'The University of Manchester, with its long history in Egyptian mummy research, is leading the field; helping to shed light on the material remains of this ancient practice and, hopefully, to reveal more about how and why these animal mummies were produced.’ 

The exhibition, Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed, is the first exhibition on animal mummies to be held in the UK.

Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan, Manchester Museum said: ‘It offers the chance to reunite mummified material from different archaeological sites for the first time in over a century.

‘It will feature over 60 mummies, including many never before seen on public display.’

The exhibition will open at Manchester Museum on October 8 and run until April 17, before the mummies go on show at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow and the World Museum, Liverpool.


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