Category Archives: Egyptian mummies

The Cult of Imhotep (Part 2): Depiction in Popular Culture

In the second part of his look at the impact of the historical figure of Imhotep, Matt Szafran charts the character’s role in recent mummy movies. An exhibition on this topic is under discussion… 

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Depiction of Imhotep from original storyboard for The Mummy Returns (2001).

In Part 1 we considered the ancient, and modern, cultists of Imhotep and what they worshipped. Today, outside of Egyptology and medical history, Imhotep is most known for giving his name to characters in popular culture – especially in monster movies (although not exclusively). To the proverbial ‘person on the street’ the name of Imhotep is only known from popular culture, predominantly through representations in movies. The name Imhotep was first seen used on film for Boris Karloff’s titular character in The Mummy (1932), however in more recent times the name is probably best known for Arnold Vosloo’s portrayal in The Mummy (1999) and reprised in The Mummy Returns (2001).

Whilst the Imhotep of these productions is a priest, this is essentially where the similarity to the real-world Imhotep ends. Unfortunately none of these representations draw any historical parallel or venerate Imhotep for his intellect, ingenuity or medical prowess and instead depict him as a (virtually) unstoppable force, with a host of supernatural powers, acting as a malevolent force working against the movies’ protagonists to bring about the end of the world.

The Mummy (1932 film) - Wikipedia

Poster for the 1932 move ‘The Mummy’, with Boris Karloff as Imhotep

The 1932 Imhotep worked alone, and the movie did not contain any form of cult to him. In his 1999 outing Imhotep does have followers, however Imhotep’s cultists are essentially portrayed as mindless slaves who follow Imhotep in a mob chanting his name and used as mindless instruments to enact their master’s will. It is not until the 2001 reprisal that we see a more recognisable cult to Imhotep.

This version of a cult of Imhotep is evident in the movie through their ‘uniform’ of red and black robes and turbans – something more akin to the modern day context of a cult member. This cult appears to mostly be comprised of thugs, with little interest in the worship and adoration of Imhotep and his achievements, as with their ancient world counterparts, and more interested in the strength and power granted Imhotep in the 1999 movie’s ‘Hom-Dai’ ceremony (itself issued as punishment for Imhotep’s adulterous actions with the wife of the king). These movie cultists wish to use Imhotep as a mindless force for destructions, something which is diametrically opposite to the real-world cultists who venerated Imhotep’s wisdom and powers of healing.

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British Museum Curator, and leader of the cult of Imhotep, Baltus Hafez and the re-animated mummy of Imhotep in The Mummy Returns (2001).

It is only the cult leader, Alun Armstrong’s Baltus Hafez character, who demonstrates any form of academic inclination in his role as curator at the British Museum. Even so, Hafez is still always seen in his uniform red and black turban – even when wearing civilian clothing. Hafez does perform rituals to Imhotep however rather than trying to take on Imhotep’s attributes, as with ancient the ancient cultists, these are instead almost the opposite and are to essentially attempt to control Imhotep – analogous to the use of a golem or a voodoo zombie. The Hafez character leads his cult in pursuit control of the ‘armies of Anubis’, hoping to use Imhotep as a ‘blunt instrument’ to further this goal, in a bid for world domination – something Campbell has assured me is not the typical behaviour for Egyptology curators!

We therefore see that the popular culture depictions of the cult of Imhotep bear very little resemblance to that of the ancient cults; instead of focussing on knowledge they focus only on the power Imhotep could bring them. It should also be noted that the Ancient Egyptians viewed the mummy, or saH, as a ritually purified divine entity and not something which should be ‘re-animated’ for use under the control of a cult to abuse its power.

It is unfortunate that most people will only know this nefarious power-hungry version of Imhotep and that Hollywood has subverted the name of the original man and his undeniable achievements and influence. Today only scholars of Egyptology truly know the reality and extent of achievements of Imhotep – at least until a more accurate version of him graces the silver screen.

– Matt Szafran

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Study Day – Saturday 16 Feb 2019: The Two Brothers

The Two Brothers: Kinship in Ancient Egypt – Manchester Museum Day School

Full Programme and Abstracts here

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The ‘Two Brothers’ tomb group has been an important part of the Egyptology display in the Manchester Museum for over a hundred years. It is one of the finest group of objects from a private burial of the Middle Kingdom and this year’s annual study day brings together experts to review this collection, examine the scientific investigations that have been carried out and the results of the latest DNA studies. The discussion will widen to consider kinship in general in ancient Egypt. Proceeds from this event will be donated to hellofuture – Manchester Museum’s new development project.

Venue – Lecture Theatre A, University Place (opposite Museum). Price – £35. Bookings can be made here: www.bit.ly/AEkinship.

Programme

9.15          Registration: tea/coffee

9.45          Welcome and Introduction

10.00          Interpreting the Two Brothers at Manchester Museum – Campbell Price

10.45          The Two Brothers: Health and disease Rosalie David

11.30           Tea/coffee break

12.00          Were they brothers? The DNA evidence – Roger Forshaw 

12.30          Picture perfect and bad blood: Funerary evidence of familial relationships from the Ancient Egyptian necropolis at Saqqara – Iwona Kozieradzka-Ogunmakin

1.15            – Lunch – (please make own arrangements)                         

2.15      So what did it mean to be brothers in ancient Egypt? – Leire Olabarria

3.15             – Tea/coffee break 

3.40            Gladden her heart as long as you live: wealth, death and divorce in non-royal close-kin marriages in ancient Egypt – Joanne Robinson

4.30            Conclusion

 

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Interpreting the Two Brothers (I): Alternative readings, brothers and lovers

Manchester Museum’s well-known ‘Two Brothers’ were recently the subject of DNA analysis using a Next Generation Sequencing technique, which demonstrated a genetic link between the two men through the maternal line – confirming the texts on their coffins naming a common mother, Khnum-aa. Like most such scientific analysis, however, the DNA results (‘facts’) do not act as a ‘magic wand’ to reveal everything about the Brothers; in fact very little can be ‘revealed’, despite the widespread appetite for revelation and discovery. Theories concerning the (social, personal) identities of the Two Brothers tell us perhaps more about our own interests and anxieties than about ancient people.

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During the UK’s LGBT History Month, I would like to re-visit one theory that has gained (perhaps surprisingly) little traction among the museum-going public in metropolitan Manchester, and very little attention from Egyptologists. Gregory Reeder, an independent scholar based in the US, has written several articles about a pair of much earlier (twin?) “brothers” Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep – who are depicted in their joint Old Kingdom tomb chapel at Saqqara using iconographic conventions usually reserved for husband and wife (more on this below).

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Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep from the 5th Dynasty tomb at Saqqara

Reeder’s 2005 article in the American popular journal KMT takes up the subject of the “mysterious brothers” of Manchester Museum. In a valuably critical reappraisal of the details of the tomb group, Reeder suggests a close bond between Khnum-nakht (who died around 30-40 years of age) and Nakht-ankh (who died, possibly the following year, around 60 years of age). Both men claim to have a mother who was called Khnum-aa, and a father who was a district governor, although the 1908 autopsy of the brothers’ bodies showed differences considered strikingly different at the time. For Reeder the degree of difference “almost certainly rules out that they were blood relatives”, and he favours Rosalie David’s interpretation that one or both of the men was adopted into the family – a claim made several times in biographies of do-gooding contemporary governors.

Reeder also discusses the repeated assessment of Nakht-ankh’s skeleton as that of a eunuch. The unfortunate image conjured of the Oriental harem, and a modern equation with effeminacy, is, however, deserving of critique. The resulting impression of the “elderly eunuch” adopting “the much younger [“virile”, according to an 1910 anatomist] priest into his household” is evidence for Reeder (quoting David) of their “deep affection”.

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Statuettes of the Manchester ‘Two Brothers’ found in the coffins

To further illustrate this bond, Reeder cites the presence of a small statuette of each man in the coffin of the other. Reeder raises, but skirts around, the problematic (and persistent) theory that because the profiles of the statuettes of each man more resemble the skull of the other, they must be mislabelled. Aside from the sinister spectre of eugenics in this assessment, the implication that we must know better than the ancient Egyptians is laughable. For Reeder, the placement of the statuettes is meaningful and “subtly indicate(s) something about the relationship between the old eunuch and much younger priest.”

Here we must be cautious. Very few intact coffins from the Twelfth Dynasty survive to show how common such statuette placement was – but we do have cases where the statuettes of children are included deliberately in a parent’s coffin. To my mind, the (social, ritual) role of Khnum-nakht was most plausibly that of ‘son’ towards Nakht-ankh – the elder, and better-equipped (in materials terms, at least), half-brother.

Reeder, like many others, hoped that DNA might provide definitive proof. The recently-published evidence of a genetic link, confirming the stated familial relationship, does cast doubt on the implied idea of (quasi-)sexual intimacy between two unrelated men.

At a conference on Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt held at Swansea University in 2006, I particularly remember Richard Parkinson (formerly a curator at the British Museum and long-term advocate of LGBT visibility in museums, now Professor of Egyptology at Oxford) declaring that “as an out, gay Egyptologist,” while part of him wished to see the Old Kingdom “brothers” Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep as a same-sex couple, there simply wasn’t the evidence for it. As an out gay Egyptologist myself, I am inclined to agree with him.

The cultural construction of identities (especially of past cultures) is notoriously difficult to interpret, and previous interpretations seem bound to have favoured hetero-normative readings. In each case, we ought to acknowledge that any modern reading is contingent, and coloured by what we might hope to find.

 

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DNA confirms the Two Brothers’ relationship

Using ‘next generation’ DNA sequencing, scientists at the University of Manchester have confirmed a long-held supposition that the famous ‘Two Brothers’ of the Manchester Museum have a shared mother but different fathers – so are, in fact, half-brothers. This is the first in a series of blog posts presenting the DNA results, and discussing the interpretation and display of the Brothers in Manchester.

 

The ‘Two Brothers’ are among Manchester Museum’s most famous inhabitants. The complete contents of their joint burial forms one of the Museum’s key Egyptology exhibits, which have been on almost continuous display since they were first entered the Museum in 1908.

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The Two Brothers’ inner coffins: Khnum-nakht (left) and Nakht-ankh (right), 2011

Central to public (and academic) interest have been the mummified bodies of the men themselves – Khnum-nakht and Nakht-ankh – who lived around the middle of the 12th Dynasty, c. 1900-1800 BC. Their intact tomb was discovered at Deir Rifeh, a village 250 miles south of Cairo, in 1907 by an Egyptian workman called Erfai – a rare case where the non-European discoverer is named. He was working for Ernest MacKay and Flinders Petrie, the British archaeologists who wrote the reports and the names people usually remember. Unusually, the entire contents of the tomb – mummies, coffins, and a small number of other objects – were shipped to Manchester, rather than being divided among different international museum collections as was usually the case.

Once in Manchester, in 1908, the mummies of both men were unwrapped by the UK’s first female Egyptologist employed by a University, Dr Margaret Murray. This procedure, which mixed both science and spectacle, set the tone for more than a century’s worth of scientific investigation, exploiting the intact ‘time capsule’-like nature of the burial.

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Margaret Murray and team with the remains of Nakht-ankh, 1908

Murray’s team –namely Dr John Cameron, an anatomist – concluded that the skeletal morphologies were quite different, suggesting an absence of a biological relationship. Although notoriously difficult to age such skeletal remains, the team suggested that Khnum-nakht had been around 40 years of age when he died and that Nakht-ankh had died at around the age of 60, perhaps around a year later than Khnum-nakht (based on year dates inked onto the bandages of both mummies).

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Margaret Murray’s original publication of the tomb group

Hieroglyphic inscriptions on the coffins indicated that both men were the children of an unnamed local governor (thus, they were of the elite in society) and had a mother of the same name, Khnum-aa. It was thus that the men became known as the Two Brothers. Based on contemporary inscriptional evidence, it was proposed that one (or both) of the Brothers was adopted. Up until recently previous attempts to extract and analyse DNA from the Brothers’ remains had been inconclusive.

Therefore, in 2015, the DNA was extracted from the teeth, removed by Dr Roger Forshaw, a retired dentist, and analysed by Dr Konstantina Drosou, of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester. Following hybridization capture of the mitochondrial and Y chromosome fractions, the DNA was sequenced by a next generation method. Analysis showed that both Nakht-ankh and Khnum-nakht belonged to mitochondrial haplotype M1a1, suggesting a maternal relationship. The Y chromosome sequences were less complete but showed variations between the two mummies, indicating that Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht had different fathers, and were thus very likely to have been half-brothers genetically.

The study, which is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, is the first to successfully use the typing of both mitochondrial and Y chromosomal DNA in Egyptian mummies.

 

The Brothers pose a number of questions of interpretation, which – despite much interest in them – have not been fully explored. Some of the issues concerning their display and interpretation will be examined over the coming weeks on this blog.

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Representation and Reality in ‘The Mummy’ (1999)

Following on from my own thoughts on the most recent installment in the ‘Mummy’ genre, I’m pleased to welcome a guest blog from armchair Egyptologist and film fanatic Matt Szafran – hopefully the first in a series!

 

It’s easy to be annoyed when a subject you’re knowledgeable in is depicted inaccurately on screen. I know medical workers who get annoyed when a procedure is performed in a fatally incorrect manner, IT people who balk at the incessant use of the word ‘firewall’ and locksmiths who laugh at the way a highly trained secret agent uses lock picks the wrong way round. It sounds obvious but sometimes we forget the fact that films are simply entertainment for the masses and in our haste to condemn the inaccuracies we often overlook the more accurate details.

To that end let us consider the Stephen Sommers directed The Mummy (1999) film, and observe what the filmmakers actually got right instead of debunking its inaccuracies. The film certainly has some egregious historical inaccuracies, however the team at Industrial Light and Magic, with the help of Egyptologist Dr Stuart Tyson Smith, included some surprisingly accurate details even though they know that the proverbial man on the street wouldn’t know a cartouche from a cartonnage. For the sake of brevity I’m going to cherry-pick a few examples of these, rather than consider every point in the film.

The end of the first act sees Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep character being cursed with the ‘Hom Dai’ and being mummified alive alongside his priests. Due to ancient Egyptian decorum and secrecy we don’t know exactly how mummification was actually performed, however through mummy research and experimental archaeology we do have a good idea of the majority of the processes involved. In the film we see what appears to be excerebration and wrapping being performed on Imhotep’s priests, with some of the embalmers are wearing jackal headed masks. There are depictions in ancient Egyptian visual culture of masks being used whilst performing rituals like the ‘opening of the mouth’ ceremony, and there are also extant examples such as the Late Period clay mask in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim or the Late Period cartonnage mask in The Royal Pump Room Museum in Harrogate. The wrappings applied to Imhotep look to be very accurate, with a herringbone weave pattern on the torso and strips of outer wrapping encircling the body and legs in the traditional figure-eight style. It’s not shown in this scene but when Imhotep’s coffin is later discovered it’s said that ‘the sacred spells have been chiselled off’ and that the occupant was ‘condemned not only in this life but in the next’. The spells removed from Imhotep’s coffin are likely to reference the Book of the Dead, which acts as a guide for the challenges faced in the afterlife and was painted on the inside and out of coffins, without which the deceased may find themselves lost in the underworld of Duat.

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We’re introduced to Rachel Weisz’s Evelyn ‘Evy’ Carnahan character in the library of the ‘Cairo Museum of Antiquities’, which has shelves stacked with case bound books and binders. Those binders are actually imitation field reports by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES), with each binder being for different topics such as ‘art’ or ‘tools’. Interestingly the EES logo used is actually the original logo of the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) with the word ‘fund’ changed to ‘society’. As the film is primarily set in 1926 having an EEF logo would anachronistic, as the EEF became the EES in 1919. This is an excellent example of a tiny accurate detail that you ultimately can’t even see on screen, but the art department spent time creating it anyway. There is an interesting parallel here with the way much the ancient Egyptian visual culture would never be seen by human eyes other than its creator, and was purely for the consumption of the gods rather than man.

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When the protagonists leave Giza aboard a riverboat heading for Hamunaptra, we see Evy reading a book during the journey. This is actually The Dwellers on The Nile by E. A. Wallis Budge published in 1885. Even though his works are not well regarded today, it would be wholly appropriate for Egyptology scholars of the 1920s to be reading Budge. The art department could have used any book but chose to use something historically accurate which the character would likely have been reading, even though only a tiny handful of people would ever realise the significance.

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There is exceptional symbolism when we see the camera pan down a carved obelisk depicting Seth, the god of chaos and disorder, and on to Imhotep leading a mob of boil ridden ‘slaves’. As Campbell mentioned in his review of The Mummy (2017) (see post below); even though Seth is the preeminent choice for an ‘evil’ god he’s surprisingly rarely depicted on screen. Given how much research has gone into the other aspects of the film this feels a deliberate and appropriate backdrop to the antagonist as he’s about to commit another act of violence.

Seth

There are plenty more examples of accurate and otherwise interesting Egyptological details in both The Mummy (1999) and also in its sequel The Mummy Returns (2001). It can be enjoyable to watch the films and only look at the background, endeavouring to work out what references were used. Some of the origins of those props and sets, especially the ones used for hieroglyphic texts, can be equally surprising and obscure!

-Matt Szafran

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A review of ‘The Mummy’: sex, death and inaccuracy

Mummy movies play an undeniably powerful role in feeding (pre)conceptions about ancient Egypt among the general public, particularly for museum-goers. In my experience of working with school groups in the last ten years, a good deal of time was spent correcting misinformation gleaned from the swashbuckling Brendan Frasier/Rachel Weiss 1999 ‘Mummy’ franchise. To ignore the most recent re-boot, starring Tom Cruise and on general realise from today, would be churlish. Some Egyptologists will simply laugh it off while others will grumble about inaccuracies, perhaps assuming that Egyptology is in some way an exact science or that museums don’t construct their own ‘facts’ about the Egyptians all the time.

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Leaving aside the issue of the quality of the film (which I actually found quite enjoyable), ‘The Mummy’ tells us some interesting things about museums, archaeological research and the ancient Egyptians. The film’s opening exposition connects with very current issues – U.S. intervention in the Middle East and the iconoclastic tendencies of Daesh – and is jarringly candid about the Black Market in the antiquities trade. In this 2017 reboot, it’s the looters and traffickers (rather than the archaeologists) that get their comeuppance by unleashing an ancient evil. There is, of course, a vague but consistent sense of archaeological enquiry; as always, this is never research for the sake of it – this film perpetuates the myth of archaeologists (and researchers in general) as on the hunt for particular things, trying to fathom a specific ancient mystery. The pernicious subtext has always seemed clear to me: don’t trust anyone with a doctorate who isn’t a medic, because research that isn’t hard science is somehow frivolous and indulgent.

Ancient Egypt appears, as usual, much more boring than it actually was: a bland, overly-sandy wilderness as backdrop to some predictable palace-based intrigues. Although, unsurprisingly, no Egyptologists are credited (or would own up to being) among the ‘researchers’, there’s some passable vocalised Late Egyptian among the confused dialogue. One might charitably assume that the name of Princess ‘Ahmanet’ is a reference to Amunet, the female counterpart of the god Amun, representing ‘hiddenness’ – but this may simply be a coincidence. Researchers also seem to have picked up on the idea of (gilded) finger- and toe-stalls from genuine mummies (such as Tutankhamun and Third Intermediate Period royals from Tanis) to add an unusual detail to ‘other’ even further the ancient princess. The appearance of pseudo-hieratic tattoos indicate her possession by the evil forces of Seth, who is actually very rarely name-checked in mummy films as a bringer of chaos.

One intriguing twist in Ahmanet’s backstory is her stated role as the ambitious and capable heir of her father, resentful of being displaced in the succession by the arrival of a baby half-brother. It is easy to see this as a nod to the historical person of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (c. 1473-58 BCE); with ‘Ahmanet’ even suffering the same eventual fate, of being stricken from the historical record. More might have been made of this, but the opportunity was lost.

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Regarding the ‘horror’ of the film, perhaps most interesting is the fundamental premise of the eponymous Mummy as a sexual being. Ahmanet is a kohl-eyed seductress, who uses men to advance her position. In this, the story returns to early fictional treatments of the Egyptian mummy not as a shuffling (male) servant/lover of a princess, in 20th Century films, but as a beautiful princess herself ‘stripped’ of her bandages and – restored to life – able to tempt mortal men. This in some way misrepresents genuinely ancient sexualised images of the deceased woman as eternally young and fertile, to aid in her own rebirth. Perhaps the best cinematic example of these misinterpretations was Valerie Leon’s Queen Ta-ra in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) – inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel Jewel of Seven Stars.

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A film critic for The Guardian was quite wrong that the ‘mummy’s curse’ has no basis in ancient Egyptian reality. Imprecations against those who would damage monuments are common in Pharaonic sources, and appeals to the spirits of the ‘bad’ dead to desist from bringing harm are relatively well-attested. The Demotic tale of ‘Setne Khaemwaset’ vividly describes the consequences of stealing secret knowledge from the tomb of a magician. The same trope of illicitly acquiring ancient, hidden knowledge from an ‘archive’ of papyrus scrolls still appears here, in 2017, attesting to its continuing fascination.

So, what will this film add to – or detract from – popular knowledge of ancient Egypt? Well, the impact of the movie will likely be lessened by the fact it is not a ‘family’ film; it is aimed at an older audience than the Abbott and Costello-style treatment of the 1999 franchise. It represents ancient Egypt (specifically the ‘New Kingdom’ – described variously as ‘5000’ or ‘3000’ years ago) as a place of sensual exoticism – but also of disquieting horror. There is little point in quibbling about individual points of inaccuracy – if anything, the overall effect was more ‘accurate’ to our present idea of ancient Egypt than many previous ‘Mummy’ movies.

Most people who enter Manchester Museum have some idea of Egyptian mummies from fiction. For many visitors, mummies are not real. Our other main attraction in Manchester – ‘Stan’ the T-Rex – is a cast; many people have no experience of seeing a real corpse; mummies exist in fiction, alongside werewolves and vampires – so can’t be real. Given that this new ‘Mummy’ launches Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’ series of such characters, this film will likely reinforce these assumptions.

Egyptian mummies exist in a strange dimension between desire and revulsion. This film exploits that quandary more than most of recent times. Although she is evil, there are moments when one feels sympathetic towards Ahmanet. In the end, the film proves that unlike many other subjects contained within – and created by – museum collections, ancient Egyptian material has a uniquely seductive mixture of glamour and horror – of sex and death – that people are drawn to time after time.

For museums, it is useful to have this ‘pop’ fantasy as a counterpoint to debunk.

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‘Mummies, Magic and Medicine’: New book honouring Rosalie David

cover-2Prof Rosalie David OBE is the UK’s first female Professor in Egyptology, and former Keeper of Egyptology at Manchester Museum, whose pioneering work at the University of Manchester on Egyptian mummies, magic and medicine has been of international importance.

The volume, published by Manchester University Press, celebrates Professor David’s 70th birthday. It presents research by a number of leading experts in their fields: recent archaeological fieldwork, new research on Egyptian human remains and unpublished museum objects along with reassessments of ancient Egyptian texts concerned with healing and the study of technology through experimental archaeology. Papers try to answer some of Egyptology’s enduring questions – How did Tutankhamun die? How were the Pyramids built? How were mummies made? – along with less well-known puzzles.

Rather than address these areas separately, the volume adopts the so-called ‘Manchester method’ instigated by Rosalie David and attempts to integrate perspectives from both traditional Egyptology and scientific analytical techniques. Much of this research has never appeared in print before, particularly that resulting from the Manchester Egyptian Mummy Project, set up at the Manchester Museum in the 1970s. The resulting overview gives a good history of the discipline, illustrating how Egyptology has developed over the last 40 years, and how many of the same big questions still remain.

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Rosalie David at Manchester Museum in 1974

Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum and senior editor of the book, said: “As the Museum’s Keeper of Egyptology for 30 years, Rosalie David has inspired many people, old and young, and has brought the collection and her subject to the widest possible audience. This book celebrates her work and a proud Manchester Museum tradition.”

The book, published in June 2016, is aimed at researchers and students of archaeology or related disciplines with an interest in multidisciplinary approaches to understanding life and death in ancient Egypt and Sudan.

‘Mummies, Magic and Medicine in Ancient Egypt: Multidisciplinary Essays for Rosalie David’ C. Price, R. Forshaw, P. Nicholson and A. Chamberlain (eds) Manchester University Press 2016.

Details, including Table of Contents, can be found at the Manchester University Press website: http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781784992439/

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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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New light under old wrappings (II): The temple singer Perenbast

Perenbast about to be CT-scanned at the Manchester Children's Hospital

Perenbast about to be CT-scanned at the Manchester Children’s Hospital

The British Museum opens its latest exhibition, Ancient Lives, New Discoveries, this week. Here in Manchester, which the exhibition acknowledges is the home of mummy studies, we have been carrying out similar research on our 20 human mummies, and many of the discoveries we have made tie in with those presented in the BM exhibition.

Between 1908 and 1909, while clearing the courtyards of some New Kingdom tombs on the Luxor west bank at Qurna, W. M. Flinders Petrie discovered an unopened tomb of “about the 25th Dynasty.” This camped space turned out to contain the burials of a man and a woman, presumably husband and wife, which can now be dated to the 22nd Dynasty based on their funerary provisions and the iconography of their coffins. In addition to the coffins, the burial contained a Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure and two shabti boxes for each occupant. Most of the objects are wooden, covered in a black resin, with details on the coffins picked out in yellow and white paint. The assemblage belonging to the male mummy (whose name is not preserved) was sent to Bristol Museum and the group belonging to his (presumed) wife, a temple singer named Perenbast, came to Manchester.

Perenbast and her presumed husland after Petrie's discovery of their tomb

Perenbast (right) and her presumed husband after Petrie’s discovery of their tomb

X-rays taken in the 1970s as part of the Manchester Egyptian Mummy Project revealed some dense shapes in the area of Perenbast’s chest. These were identified as likely to be amulets but it was only in 2013 that their precise nature was understood. Using the latest CT-scanning technology, it is possible to visualise the objects at high resolution. What appeared as grainy masses on the older X-rays were revealed to be a plaque on the left side of the abdomen, used to cover the embalming incision, a scarab beetle and detached wings, and an ‘ib-shaped’ heart amulet. It is not clear if these objects are made of metal, faience, or perhaps wax.

Scan showing heart scarab and 'ib' amulets. (Image courtesy of Professor J Adams, Central Manchester Healthcare Trust)

Scan showing heart scarab and ‘ib’ amulets. (Image courtesy of Professor J Adams, Central Manchester Healthcare Trust)

It is now also possible to isolate objects such as amulets and print then in three dimensions, using resin. Such 3D renderings are displayed in the BM show and are planned for Perenbast to enable visitors to handle copies of objects which will never be seen for real. It would be interesting to know what, if any, similar amulets occur in the wrappings of “Mr. Perenbast” in Bristol.

The “revelation” of the “secrets” of Egyptian mummies – whether through physical unwrapping or more modern non-destructive methods such as CT-scanning – has a perennial favourite with the general public for over 200 years. And for just as long there have been (often circular) arguments about the ethics of investigation and display. In a provocative new book, Christina Riggs, formerly Curator of Egypt and Sudan here at the Manchester Museum, charts (and challenges) our obsession with mummies, evaluating ancient intentions and modern preconceptions.

The response to the latest British Museum exhibition shows that, more than ever, we want to probe underneath the mummy’s bandages in new and visually stimulating ways. The value of the answers these investigations provide depends, I suppose, on the value of the questions we come up with in the first place.

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New light under old wrappings (I): Reinvestigating Asru

Inner coffin of Asru

Inner coffin of Asru

The mummy and coffins of Asru, an elite lady from 25th-26th Dynasty (c. 750-525 BC) Thebes, were among the earliest additions to what was to become the Manchester Museum collection when they were donated to the Manchester Natural History Society by William and Robert Garnett in 1825. She has already been unwrapped, probably at one of the fashionable ‘mummy unrollings’ of the period. In modern times, Asru proved to be the perfect patient when she was investigated by the Manchester Egyptian Mummy Project in the 1970s, because she had suffered from so many ailments – including arthritis, and parasitic infestations such as Strongyloides and Schistosomiasis (Bilharzia).

In 2012, in preparation for the re-opening of our Ancient Worlds galleries, all of the Museum’s 20 complete human mummies – including Asru – were scanned using the most up-to-date technology at the nearby Manchester Children’s hospital. The scans, conducted in collaboration with Professor of Radiology Judith Adams, featured on a number of TV reports but much of the new information derived did not become apparent until the scans had been properly and carefully analysed, sometimes taking months after the scanning session. PhD researcher Robert Loynes was instrumental, bringing his knowledge as a medical practitioner to the study of mummified remains.

Asru. Photo by Paul Cliff.

Asru. Photo by Paul Cliff.

The latest CT-scans confirmed Asru to have been an elderly woman for ancient Egypt, between 50 and 60 years of age at death. Interestingly, there was new evidence of arthritis in her neck, consistent with bearing a heavy weight over a prolonged period. Greater Manchester Police had established in the 1970s that, on the basis of her fingerprints, Asru’s hands and feet showed that she had lived a life of comparative ease. Perhaps what she carried on her head had a ritual rather than practical function?

Most interesting of all was the new information revealed about Asru’s mummification technique. CT-scans confirmed that, like many Egyptian mummies, Asru’s brain had been removed from the skull. Yet, rather than evidencing the standard method of extracting the brain through the nose, Asru’s ethmoid bone was found to be intact. Instead, transorbital excerebration had been performed: the removal of brain matter through the eye sockets. This is known in other cases but appears to have been extremely unusual.

Asru1

Asru’s outer coffin base. Photo by Paul Cliff.

Recently an opportunity also arose to examine Asru’s two coffins more closely, and to read the extensive inscriptions on them. These texts are mainly formulaic prayers for offerings and provide very little in the way of personal information. This is contrast to ideas held when mummies and coffins, like those of Asru, were arriving in the West; collectors believed that the texts were largely biographical and gave detailed accounts of the life of the coffins’ occupant. Such ‘biographies’ that were supplied in displays were often completely fictional, in an attempt to add interest and a humanising gloss to a curiosity. Thus, when Asru (read as ‘Asroni’) was first exhibited she was referred to as a ‘maid of honour in the court of the 20th(!) pharaoh’ – perhaps just because of the prestigious ‘look’ of her mummy and coffins.

Detail of Asru's outer coffin, giving genealogical information

Detail of Asru’s outer coffin, giving genealogical information

Asru’s own name means “Her arm against them”, probably a reference to the protective power of the goddess Mut, consort of the Theban god Amun. This apotropaic formulation is especially typical for non-royal names during the Late Period (c. 750-30 BC). Asru holds no titles and is in fact only ever designated ‘Lady of the House’ (= ‘married woman’) on her coffins. The title ‘temple singer’ may come from confusion with other female mummies in the collection or developed out of her false identity as a ‘handmaiden.’

Most excitingly of all, it has been possible to read the names of her parents. Asru’s mother is identified as the ‘Lady of the House’ Ta-di-amun (‘She whom Amun has given’) and her father was called Pa-kush (‘The Kushite’), a ‘document scribe of the southern region’.

Given that, based on the style of her coffins, Asru is likely to have lived and died at Thebes in the 25-26th Dynasty, this is of potentially great interest. Egypt was ruled by Kushite kings during the 25th Dynasty, who had a stronghold at Thebes. Might Asru’s father have been a part of their administration? If so, she may have been very important indeed. Such findings prove the value of reassessing evidence which may already seem well-known.

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