Category Archives: Egypt events at the Manchester Museum

Animal Mummies #5: Seeing inside the wrappings

A Liverpool kitty in the CT-scanner

A Liverpool kitty in the CT-scanner

X-rays have been used as a method by which to see inside bodies since they were discovered by Wilhelm Rontgen in 1895. Some of the first ‘patients’ to be studied in this way were Egyptian animal mummies which were not able to be damaged by the somewhat unknown effects of radiation. Since this time, radiography has become increasingly invaluable in clinical practice on living humans and animals, but it has become one of the primary research techniques to investigate the contents of wrapped mummy bundles, preventing the need to unwrap, and ultimately destroy them.

Radiography has been widely used at the University of Manchester since the 1970s to study the mummy collections. From these early stages when plain film X-rays were the main method, the technology involved in radiography has developed quickly and we are now able to use much more advanced technologies to gain a better understanding of mummies and how they were made. Although CT scans have been around since 1979, their routine use on mummies has really occurred since 2000. Advances made since 2005 with the introduction of fully digitised methods have reduced the complexity of the X-ray and CT process and have made it much easier to share results with fellow researchers around the world.

Inside a kestrel mummy

Inside a kestrel mummy

As part of the Ancient Egyptian Bio Bank project, over 300 animal mummies have been studied through a collaborative partnership with the Central Manchester NHS Trust. The Trust have allowed access to radiography facilities and experienced staff outside of clinic hours to enable this work to take place. In fact, the mummies always attract a lot of attention when they go to the hospital with patients and staff alike taking a keen interest in the rather unusual patients! We tend to study mummies in groups of around 20 mummies at a time, simply because it is logistically difficult to deal with more than this in one session. We always have experienced conservators and curators on hand to ensure that the mummies are kept safe during the process. Most mummies do not need to be handled at the hospital at all as they can be scanned in their protective boxes which minimises the dangers of handling and keeps movement to a minimum.

2D30134F-BC22-454F-BF80-D15C70FAABA8During their visit to the hospital, all mummies are given a full investigation using X-rays and they also receive a full body CT scan. X-rays are taken in two opposing angles to ensure that we obtain the maximum amount of information about each specimen. In some cases, the contents are lying at an unusual angle within the bundle which means that further images are required taken at oblique angles to capture any missing information. X-rays have the advantage of giving excellent spatial resolution of the contents, but they do suffer from magnification and superimposition of structures which can make interpretation difficult. The advantage of a CT scan is that images are obtained from multiple directions which eliminates these issues and allows for direct measurement of bones and increases our chances of identifying anomalies. The data obtained through the CT process to 3D print anomalies from inside mummies, giving the ability to handle them directly and compare them to skeletal collections. CT has proved successful in identifying non-skeletal material within mummy bundles such as egg-shell, feather and reeds which often don’t show well on X-ray.

928E7059-C6E8-418F-B615-4EE48CC33D00Clinical radiography is limited by the radiation doses allowed by the equipment. For mummies which reveal interesting anomalies, it is sometimes possible to use industrial CT (micro-CT) where higher radiation is used to obtain better resolution. Some mummies which have appeared ‘empty’ when scanned at the hospital, have revealed skeletal contents when scanned using this technique. This battery of radiographic techniques provides the best available method to see inside mummies non-invasively.

Find out more in the exhibition (including an interactive micro-CT scanner!), Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed, at Manchester Museum from 8th October 2015..

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Animal Mummies #4: Travellers, Collectors and Souvenirs

“it would hardly be respectable, on one’s return from Egypt, to present oneself in Europe without a mummy in one hand and a crocodile in the other” (European monk, 1883)

Tourists climbing the Great Pyramid at Giza, late 1800s.

Tourists climbing the Great Pyramid at Giza, late 1800s.

Ancient Egypt has, it seems, always held a special allure for the West. From the curiosity of Greeks and Romans through to modern sightseers, Egypt is seen as an exotic treasure house filled with endless mysteries. Early British fascination with ancient After the defeat of Egyptian-Sudanese forces by the British in 1882, Egypt became a British ‘protectorate’ enabling the British Empire to considerably increase its influence in this strategic part of the world.  This created a unique link between the African country and the European super-power.

To wealthy British socialites of the 19th Century, Egypt represented the ideal travel destination where they could experience the wonders of an ancient civilisation, a warm climate to cure ills brought on by the inclement British weather, and collect tales and mementos with which to astound family and friends upon their return. It is through the surviving memoirs of early travellers that we learn much about the attitudes towards the people and customs of both ancient and modern Egypt. Personal accounts echo, yet also contrast with, Romantic, orientalising depictions of Egypt in 19th Century paintings. The collection of monumental sculpture and inscriptions were highly prized, yet these were very expensive to procure and unwieldy to transport. Acquisition of such impressive antiquities was largely the privilege of national governments, who competed to stock state museums.  Mummies, however, were relatively easy to come by at this time and embodied many perceptions of Egypt as a strange, eternal, yet somehow familiar land.

The Gods and Their Makers, 1878 (oil on canvas), Long, Edwin Longsden (1829-91) / © Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnley, Lancashire / The Bridgeman Art Library

The Gods and Their Makers, 1878 (oil on canvas), Long, Edwin Longsden (1829-91) / © Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnley, Lancashire / The Bridgeman Art Library

The custom of purchasing mummies as souvenirs sparked a trend for ‘mummy unrollings’, popular in 18th and 19th Century Britain. Interestingly, although these events were destructive acts largely staged as entertainment, those conducting the theatrical ‘performance’ were often trained clinicians, well-versed in human anatomy and respected in their fields. The audience may not have necessarily understood what they were witnessing, but the person wielding the scalpel invariably claimed to; so although the resulting destruction of irreplaceable artefacts would be considered unforgivable to modern eyes, at the time it represented the best that scientific mummy studies could offer.

Marianne Brocklehurst

Marianne Brocklehurst

Despite their relative abundance, human mummies still posed logistical challenges for a traveller, as the Macclesfield heiress Marianne Brocklehurst describes during her 1873-4 trip along the Nile: the mummy she purchased was too much of an inconvenience to take home.  In contrast, an animal mummy was the ultimate portable curio; a little piece of ancient Egypt that would fit neatly into a trunk for shipment to Britain, especially at a time when it was popular to hunt the living relatives of mummified species. Even the famous explorer and showman Giovanni Belzoni performed the “unrolling” of the mummified monkey. Many animal mummies in UK museums left Egypt with such travellers, were installed in their homes as talking points and objects of fascination, before being donated to museums during life as philanthropic acts, or bequeathed upon death when surviving relatives found little use for them.

One such traveller was William Wilde (1815 – 1876), Irish surgeon and father to eminent writer and poet Oscar Wilde. With a keen passion for archaeology, William travelled extensively in Egypt from 1830s, publishing his travel memoirs as ‘Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Tenerife, and along the shores of the Mediterranean’ in 1840. William’s account is typical of 19th Century adventurer-travellers and document Egypt at first hand, describing the people he met and the spectacles he witnessed. Wilde draws particular attention to the catacombs at the site of Saqqara:


Wilde_ibis_urns_detail“At length we arrived at where we could stand upright, and creeping over a vast pile of pots, and sinking in the dust of thousands of animals, we came to where we felt the urns still undisturbed, and piled up in rows with the larger end pointing outwards.”

He even mentions comparing ibis bones from the catacombs with some zoological specimens:

“In the museum of the school of medicine at Cairo, I had an opportunity of seeing and comparing both the black and the white ibis with the bones of those found in the mummy-pits at Sackara [sic]……..Great heat must have been employed in the preparation of these mummies, as the majority of them are so much roasted, as to crumble to dust on being opened.”

Sadly, we do not know the current whereabouts of the six ibis pots mentioned in Wilde’s memoir; however, like many early travellers, his account is immensely evocative, fuelled by the magic and mystery of ancient Egypt and the quest to report on the riches of its civilisation for the benefit of a Western readership.

This is a version of a chapter which appears in a new book to accompany the exhibition: L. McKnight & S. Atherton-Woolham (eds) Gifts for the Gods: Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies and the British. Liverpool University Press.

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Animal Mummies #3: Giving Gifts to the Gods in Ancient Egypt

The Egyptian gods, it seems, were rather demanding. They required constant attention in the form of perpetual temple ritual, a major component of which was the presentation of a range of offerings that were expected to satisfy divine appetites as they might sate human ones. Yet, the gods also appear to have been relatively easily placated, with the gifting of objects being an obvious form of appeasement. Although it is only ever the king who is depicted as giving offerings to the gods on temple walls, the reality of such pious action encompassed all of society.

Cache of bronze statues from Saqqara - courtesy of the EES

Cache of bronze statues from Saqqara – courtesy of the EES

Many objects that have survived from Pharaonic Egypt can be interpreted as gifts to the gods. Those associated with animal cults during the first millennium BC survive in abundance, a testament both to the scale and longevity of such votive practice.  These most often take the form of images of the gods themselves, appealing perhaps to a divine sense of vanity. The giving of votives was a materialised form of prayer, physically marking an appeal or an expression of thanks. The durability of metal – as opposed to more perishable tokens, though these do occasionally survive – and the careful collection and deposition of votive bronzes rendered these intentions permanent, to the eternal benefit of deity and donor.

It may be significant that earlier, New Kingdom, votive practice appears to have a focus on cult of the goddess Hathor, whose animal manifestation – that of a cow – had particular popular appeal. Bronze images of deities from the first millennium BC survive in comparable numbers to the millions of animal mummies with which they are closely connected. The portability of both of these types of objects is a reflection of their ancient context of use and a reason for their wide modern distribution as museum objects. Sadly, this has resulted in a lack of sure provenance for most votive bronzes, leading in turn to a general lack of study.

Bronze statuette of Osiris, with dedication on base: “May Osiris give life (to) Djedbastetiuefankh, son of Padikhonsu, his mother is Herybastet.” World Museum, Liverpool. M13519. Excavation site unknown.

Bronze figure of Osiris, with dedication on base: “May Osiris give life (to) Djedbastetiuefankh…” World Museum, Liverpool. M13519. Excavation site unknown.

It is a particular characteristic of Egyptian monuments (including small objects) that their texts reinforce their function. Be they large stone statues or small votive bronzes, all are dedications to impress the gods. Hieroglyphic script (‘divine words’) was targeted as much at a readership among the gods as by human beings; to some extent it was immaterial whether inscriptions were seen and read or not for the dedication to ‘work’.

Bronzes, because of their small size, do not usually bear extensive texts explaining their purpose.  Any inscription is mostly limited to a short caption of favourable intent (the gift of ‘life’ is most commonly mentioned), echoing the immaterial benefits that the king receives from the gods on temple walls. Titles are rare and in many cases only the name of the donor is recorded, though this should not create the undue impression of a broad social spectrum of donors; all but the crudest bronzes cannot have been cheap.

Many of those votive bronzes found in situ, such as those from the Sacred Animal Necropolis at Saqqara, retain evidence of having been wrapped in linen. The cultural importance of this wrapping has recently been discussed in Unwrapping Ancient Egypt by Christina Riggs and emphasises the conceptual link between the votive bronzes and animal mummies: both are physical forms of the divine, shrouded in linen to maintain and enhance their sacredness.

Bronze figure with mummified material still in place. Plymouth Museums.

Bronze figure with mummified material still in place. Plymouth Museums.

Some hollow bronze images of gods even contain small amounts of the mummified material, illustrating the blurring between categories of ‘votive’. For example, a bronze statuette of a lioness-headed goddess – Sekhmet or Wadjit – now in Plymouth Museum preserves linen remains in the cavity of its seat. While the sliding panels in statuettes of falcons for mummified fauna have been suggested as food for the gods represented by the statuette, the animal remains may have been thought to enhance the power of the figure itself.

The occasion of offering the bronze votives is nowhere explicitly recorded, but these are not likely to have been formal, prescribed rituals but rather ad hoc, at the convenience of individuals or family groups, perhaps especially at festivals. The gathering together of votives en masse for permanent deposition in caches is likely to have mirrored the practice of collecting and depositing animal mummies. This recalls again the similarity in the basic intention of both votive bronzes and animal mummies: to act as a conduit between the divine and a human supplicant, and to permanently mark – and thus make more efficacious – the pious act of donation.

This is a version of a chapter which appears in a new book to accompany the exhibition: L. McKnight & S. Atherton-Woolham (eds) Gifts for the Gods: Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies and the British. Liverpool University Press.

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Animal Mummies #2: Animals in the Ancient Egyptian landscape

Exhibitions on Ancient Egypt often favour black or beige as a way to represent either a gloomy/scary concern for death or sandy, washed-out monumental backdrops. ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’ challenges these notions and opens with an imagined vista of Saqqara at the beginning of the Late Period (c. 750 BC), populated with taxidermy specimens of species that might have been encountered. Contrary to many expectations, there’s a lot of greenery here. We have chosen green – the colour of new life and, importantly, the assurance of renewal after death – as the colour palette throughout the exhibition.


This recreated image shows the area just to the north of Saqqara, near the cultivation, is often referred to as the ‘Lake of Abusir’ and was once much marshier than it is today. This area has been suspected by Egyptologists to have been home to many ibis birds, sacred to the god Thoth, which were mummified as votive offerings to the gods. Much of this and other forms of wildlife have disappeared since ancient times.

Most of the ancient Egyptians worked on the land, and all would have had many more opportunities to observe animal behaviour than most of us do today. Since Predynastic times, the gods were shown as animals, or with animal heads, to illustrate the superhuman power of nature. The Egyptians believed that animals could pass between the worlds of humans and gods. As a result, representations of animals – pictures, statues and mummies – were used to carry messages to the gods.


The evidence of millions of animal mummies – many without a full animal inside – suggests that demand for animals for mummification outstripped supply. Were animals therefore bred specifically for mummification? It is very difficult to locate large areas of animal habitat or even the sites of animal mummy production firmly in the archaeological record – but it seems likely these areas must once have existed. They may be lost because they were close to the river and have since been built on top of or been washed away by the Nile.

Some researchers have claimed to have found evidence of force-feeding birds of prey; however, it is difficult to establish this with certainly based on a single example. Establishing evidence of intentional farming from the mummified remains is difficult, mainly because diseases common in captive populations may not have manifest themselves in the skeletal remains during the relatively short lifespans of the animals. Finding evidence for cause of death, a further aspect of the management of these votive populations, is notoriously difficult to assess using radiography when many mummies have suffered extensive post-mummification damage.

Ultimately, in the absence of archaeological or extensive evidence, our best sources of information are the mummies themselves. The use of non-invasive imaging techniques means that we can recover the maximum amount of information from them, whilst keeping them intact for future research.

Find out more at the Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank

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‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’ – Press Release

Wooden cat coffin, acc. no. 9303. From Saqqara.

Wooden cat coffin, acc. no. 9303. From Saqqara.

Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed

8 October 2015-17 April 2016, Manchester Museum

Free Entry

This myth-busting exhibition will present and explore ancient Egyptian animal mummies, prepared in their millions as votive offerings to the gods. Gifts for the Gods will explain the background behind this religious practice in the context of life in ancient Egypt and the environment in which the animals lived. It will explore the British fascination with Egypt, the discovery of animal mummies by British excavators, and how the mummies ended up in the UK, as well as taking a look at the history and future of their scientific study in Manchester. 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.

The exhibition will open with a reconstruction of the ancient Egyptian landscape which shows Egypt not as the desert we now imagine, but as a land focussed on lush grassland near the River Nile, with taxidermy specimens showing what the animals would have looked like when alive.  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 are the most common votive offerings – gifts to the gods.

The exhibition will include a recreation of a subterranean animal catacomb, creating an immersive and atmospheric experience for the visitor with a dark, narrow room lined with pots containing votive animal mummies, centred on a focal point for worship.

Radiograph of cat coffin, acc. no. 9303, showing a complete cat mummy inside.

Radiograph of cat coffin, acc. no. 9303, showing a complete cat mummy inside.

The British were fascinated by a ‘romantic’ concept of ancient Egypt, highlighted in the exhibition by 19th Century paintings of how animal mummies were perceived by British Victorians. They were intrigued by the mysteries of the animal mummies; alongside the pyramids of Giza, one of the main tourist attractions in Egypt during the 18th and 19th centuries was the ‘Tombs of the Birds’, a catacomb at the site of Saqqara, subsequently lost and only re-identified in the 1960s by a British team.

Photographs, archive material and travel journals will show how the animal mummies were excavated and selected by archaeologists and museum experts, including how they were collected and distributed as curios and souvenirs. The study of animal mummies is a relatively new field of research, and more recent excavations are featured, in particular at Saqqara.

A section on the scientific study of animal mummies highlights the importance of the University of Manchester’s research in this area, and more broadly, how Britain has contributed to this study. Using wrapped, partially wrapped and completely unwrapped animal mummies from a variety of UK collections, the exhibition will look at the use of imaging (photography, radiography, CT, light microscopy) to learn more about the subject.

The Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank Project based at the University of Manchester, and conducted by Dr. Stephanie Atherton-Woolham and Dr Lidija McKnight aims to catalogue consistent data from animal mummies in museum collections outside Egypt. Currently, this includes over 800 individual animal mummies from collections in Britain, Europe and the United States.

Dr Lidija McKnight & Dr Stephanie Atherton-Woolham make a bird mummy using an experimental technique.

Dr Lidija McKnight & Dr Stephanie Atherton-Woolham make a bird mummy using an experimental technique.

The exhibition will open at Manchester Museum (October 2015-April 2016) before being displayed at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow (May-September 2016) and World Museum, Liverpool (October 2016-March 2017).

Dr Lidija McKnight, Research Associate, the Ancient Egyptian Bio Bank Project 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.”

Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan, Manchester Museum said, “We are excited as this is the first exhibition on animal mummies to be held in the UK, and 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. We are extremely pleased to be able to tour this Manchester-based exhibition to partner institutions. We expect the exhibition to be very popular at Manchester Museum, and look forward to enabling more visitors to share in this exciting subject.”

Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed is supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award and a Research Project Grant from The Leverhulme Trust.

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Lecture 17/07/15: “Making Colossal Statues in Ancient Egypt”

“Making colossal statues in Ancient Egypt”

by Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt & Sudan

1pm Kanaris Lecture Theatre, Manchester Museum

FREE but booking advised

More info here

As part of our programme of events for the exhibition “Making Monuments on Rapa Nui”, I will be giving a lecture on how the ancient Egyptians created colossal monuments.

Like the Rapa Nui of “Easter Island”, the ancient Egyptians are well-known for creating impressive, over-lifesize stone statues. This talk explores the means of quarrying, transport and ritual activation of colossi in ancient Egypt, and asks why we find such monuments so appealing today.


Colossus of Ramesses II at Memphis

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Wonders of the World: Sea life activities at Manchester Museum

In the third of her guest blogs for the Museum, Sajia Sultana, a Manchester University student and Manchester Museum Summer Public Programme Intern described activities involving the Egyptology collection.

Welcome to Global Explorer, this week families visiting Manchester Museum have been inspired by the collections to create sea life creatures from junk modelling materials.

Here are a few examples of the sea creatures that have been created.  Families have made everything from mythical sea creatures to sharks, starfish, dolphins, jelly fish and many more…


They have not only taken inspiration from our Natural History collection but from our Ancient Worlds objects too.

Bronze Oxyrhynchus fish on the gallery

Bronze Oxyrhynchus fish on the gallery

Sea life was present in many forms in ancient Egypt, from objects used in everyday life to religious artifacts and tomb goods.

Sacred animals such as the Oxyrhynchus fish were offered to the Gods as gifts in the hope of gaining their help.

Fish-shaped palette on the gallery

Fish-shaped palette on the gallery

Cosmetic palettes made from slate designed in the shape of a fish were used in everyday life.

Shells were also used for cosmetic pots, jewellery and bracelets.

Hor-psamtekLook out for the statue of a kneeling man – the “Admiral of the Fleet” called Hor-Psamtek in the Egyptian Worlds gallery.  The hieroglyphs in the inscription on the statue refer to a sea called the “Great Green”, which may be a reference to the Mediterranean Sea, at a time when trade with Greece in the area was important for Egypt. Read more about ‘Hor-Psamtek’ here

What other sea life creatures or objects can you find in the museum?

Tell us about your discoveries on Facebook at #Global Explorer.

Our Global Explorer activities are daily from 11am-4pm running through the summer holidays until Sun 31 August. 

Next week we’ll be making junk model creations inspired by the animals in our collections.

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