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Investigating Animal Mummies (I): Crocodiles at Hawara

Preparations are now well underway for our upcoming exhibition, ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’, opening October 8th. Working with the Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank at the University of Manchester, the exhibition will present their research, investigating how animal mummies were made, deposited, collected, excavated and studied. In the first of a series of blogs in the run up to the exhibition, we look at the origin of some of the mummies.

Hawara_May2015

The site of Hawara, with the pyramid of Amenemhat III in background, was home to thousands of croc mummies

The Classical historian Herodotus, living in the 5th Century BC, records the importance (some) Egyptians gave to crocodiles in Book II of his Histories: “The crocodile is esteemed sacred by some of the Egyptians, by others he is treated as an enemy. Those who live near Thebes, and those who dwell around Lake Moeris (the Faiyum region, including Hawara), regard them with especial veneration.… The people of Elephantine on the other hand, are so far from considering these animals as sacred that they even eat their flesh.”

Herodotus also mentions a spectacular monument at Hawara, associated with the crocodile god Sobek, “Lord of the Lake” which he calls ‘The Labyrinth’, “near the place called the City of Crocodiles”:

It has twelve covered courts — six in a row facing north, six south — the gates of the one range exactly fronting the gates of the other. Inside, the building is of two storeys and contains three thousand rooms … they contain the tombs of the kings who built the labyrinth, and also the tombs of the sacred crocodiles.

The site was first investigated archaeologically by W. M. Flinders Petrie between 1888 and 1889, when his main sponsor was Manchester cotton industrialist Jesse Haworth. Unsurprisingly, the Manchester collection contains several crocodile mummies from these excavations. Petrie remarked on the great quantities of crocodile mummies all over the site. While some were apparently buried in reused non-royal tombs, others were found in less discrete groups amidst the limestone chips of earlier buildings. Petrie observed that the large number of mummies related to their ancient function:

On the north-east of the cemetery, out in the desert, was a region of broken ground with a large amount of limestone chips. I looked over it several times, and in the last week at Hawara I excavated here to ascertain the nature of the remains. In every direction the work brought up crocodiles, of all sizes, from monsters 15 feet long, to infants, and even eggs. The apparent number was swelled moreover by quantities of dummies, evidently made for a ceremonial purpose. The imitation crocodile mummies consist of bundles of reeds or grass, with an egg or only a single bone inside; and they seem to have been intended to testify a worshipper’s devotion to Sebek by such pious care bestowed on the sacred animal: doubtless their preparation and sale was a priestly trade.

Mummified baby crocodile from Hawara, EA 19/2

Mummified baby crocodile from Hawara, EA 19/2

Botanical examination by Percy Newberry identified Egyptian sugar cane, sea club-rush, and Phoenician juniper from inside crocodile mummies, implying that at least a selection of these mummy bundles had been unwrapped – the only possible means of identification in the field at the end of the 19th Century.

Recent research at the University of Manchester has indicated the presence of Cyperus papyrus (papyrus sedge) in mummies lacking full skeletons of individual crocodiles. As sugar cane does not appear in Egypt until the mid-eighth century, this identification is unlikely. It is possible that there was some confusion about the two plant species which both exhibit rigid characteristics, although the lack of nodes at regular intervals displayed on radiographs present in Saccharum aegyptiacum indicated that Cyperus papyrus was more likely.

Investigating the radiograph of a crocodile mummy

Investigating the radiograph of a crocodile mummy

The question of why some mummy bundles were composed in this way will be the subject of future posts.

Read more:

Petrie, W.M.F. (1889) Hawara, Biahmu, and Arsinoe. London: Field and Tuer.

Atherton-Woolham, S. D. (2015). ‘Imaging ancient Egyptian crocodile mummies from Hawara.’ Current Research in Egyptology 2014. Oxford and Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 181-193.

McKnight, L and S. Atherton-Woolham (eds) (In press) Gifts for the Gods: Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies and the British. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Articles in forthcoming issues of Ancient Egypt Magazine and Egyptian Archaeology

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Botany in Ancient Egypt – Part 2

Campbell@Manchester:

The second part of Jemma’s blog on Botany in Ancient Egypt

Originally posted on Herbology Manchester:

by Jemma

Part 1 of this blog post (https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/botany-in-ancient-egypt-part-1/) focused primarily on how the ancient Egyptians acquired their extensive botanical knowledge. This second blog post will now look more closely at some of the plants that they commonly used – some of which you may know!

An Egyptian mummy wrapped in garlands of unidentified plants. An Egyptian mummy wrapped in garlands of unidentified plants.

Papyrus

One of the most well-known plants associated with ancient Egypt is Cyperus papyrus. The most famous use for this plant was to make an early form of paper. However, papyrus was used by the Egyptians for multiple purposes and was not limited solely to the production of paper. Other common uses of papyrus include the production of ropes, mats, baskets, sandals and chairs. The plant was also used to hold together bouquets of flowers and eaten as food. The open head of a papyrus plant was also a hieroglyph called ‘wadj’, meaning ‘green’, or…

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Botany in Ancient Egypt – Part 1

Campbell@Manchester:

A great blog from Jemma in the Herbarium on Botany in Ancient Egypt!

Originally posted on Herbology Manchester:

by Jemma

During my research into the Materia Medica collection (plant, animal and mineral based medicines used in from the 1800s) at the Manchester Museum, I have notice a recurring feature; many of the plants had in fact been used by humans for thousands of years and a large portion of these by the ancient Egyptians!

Plants featured heavily in Egyptian culture: in food, medicine, religion, perfumes and beyond. Early medicinal texts, such as the Ebers Papyrus from 1550 BCE, provide detailed insight into their extensive herbal knowledge. Unfortunately no complete record has yet to be found, but the fragments that have survived show just how knowledgeable these ancient peoples were when it came to plants and their uses. Many of the applications documented are the same used right up until the introduction of modern medicinal practices. Even today, large portions of herbal remedies used as ‘alternative’ medicines feature plants…

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Rah-rah, Senenmut – Lover of the Egyptian Queen?

Campbell@Manchester:

Upcoming lecture on Senenmut

Originally posted on Museum Meets:

Collection Bites: Rah-rah, Senenmut – Lover of the Egyptian Queen?

Wed 4 Feb, 1-2pm. In 2013, an unassuming stone fragment in the Egyptology stores was identified as part of a statue of one of ancient Egypt’s most famous personalities: Senenmut, chief minister and possible lover of Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s female pharaoh. Dr Campbell Price will explain the significance of the statue, and tell the story of an incredible personality from the past – as heard on BBC Radio 4’s “In Our Time”!

Book online at mcrmuseum.eventbrite.com or phone 0161 275 2648, free, adults

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Biblical migrations: Re-telling the Story of Exodus

A modern view of Tell el-Maskhuta, the EEF's first excavated site

A modern view of Tell el-Maskhuta, the EEF’s first excavated site

Migration is a central theme in the Biblical story of Exodus. Quite apart from the debated historicity of the account of the departure of Hebrews from Egypt, the story of the Exodus has played an important role in the popular perception of ‘Ancient Egypt’.

For many people who were aware of Pharaonic history in the 18th and 19th Centuries, much of their information derived from the Bible. This is a major reason why the Manchester Museum has such an important collection of archaeologically-sourced objects from Egypt. In 1882, an organisation called the Egypt Exploration Fund was set up to preserve the remains of Egypt’s ancient past through archaeological recording. The first site chosen for the Fund’s work was Tell el Maskhuta, in the eastern Nile Delta – believed to be a store-city mentioned in Exodus. An account of findings from the site was published in 1885, under the title ‘The Store-City of Pithom and the Route to Exodus.’ The newly-formed Fund tapped into widespread popular interest in the supposed route of the Hebrews, and received donations specifically to investigate Biblical sites. The Fund’s founder, the redoubtable Miss Amelia B. Edwards, even wanted to give early subscribers the chance to own a genuine mudbrick, ‘made without straw, by an Isrealite in bondage’.

Thus, several monumental pieces of granite from the Delta sites came to Manchester as a result of the Egypt Exploration Fund’s focus on the area of putative Biblical events; perhaps unsurprisingly the Museum’s major Egyptological benefactor, Jesse Haworth, was a keen churchman.

Ridley Scott's new film

Ridley Scott’s new film

The appeal of the Exodus narrative continues today; the latest cinematic adaptation by Ridley Scott – Exodus: Gods and Kings – cost an estimated $140 million to produce. The presentation of ‘Ancient Egypt’, the backdrop to most of the film, is a fantastical conflation of surviving archaeological evidence and different degrees of misinterpretation of that evidence. Other commentators have elsewhere addressed the question of why ancient Egypt is so misrepresented, and which aspects of a film like ‘Exodus’ might have been improved.

For me, one particularly problematic cliché that the film perpetuates is of the ancient Egyptians as one-sided, whip-cracking slave drivers. Although most would scoff at the idea aliens built the pyramids – and, incongruously, there seem to be several pyramids under construction at once in the new Exodus film – it is still difficult for the modern Western mind to conceive of a large group of people accomplishing monumental feats such as building pyramids without cruel coercion.

The Manchester Museum preserves a world-class collection of objects that challenge the notion that ‘slaves built the pyramids’. These come from a town of specialist craftsmen who were paid, and well looked after, for their task of preparing the king’s tomb. This is one of many reasons why museums are so important. Hollywood presents a skewed version of reality, but one that has – as it is so fond of telling us – a basis in real places, amongst real people.

Museums preserve and present the artefactual evidence of living people who inhabited ancient Egypt, without the cinematic gloss (although not always without bias). One of a number of research projects currently at work on our Museum’s collection of 18,000 objects from ancient Egypt and Sudan attempts to chart the migration of people and cultural motifs from around the ancient Mediterranean into Egypt. This work is as meticulous as it is fascinating, using the latest advances in analytical scientific techniques to understand the lives of people in the past.

Dr Valentina Gasperini of the Liverpool University, examining imported pottery from New Kingdom Egypt

Dr Valentina Gasperini of the Liverpool University, examining imported pottery from New Kingdom Egypt

Perhaps one day, someone will make a film about the remarkable commonplace discoveries in museums that, among other things, help us understand the movement of people around the ancient Mediterranean – rather than repeating a lazy, monolithic vision of ‘Ancient Egypt’ that has been around for at least 200 years.

I suspect our stories would be a lot more interesting.

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Manchester TAG 2014 – Cataloguing Magic: Papers abstracts

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A Guest Post From Our Museum Beekeepers

Back in 2012,  Campbell’s blog post Beekeeping in ancient Egypt and today mentioned that we hoped that the Museum would soon have its own beehive – and now it does!

 

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Keen eyed visitors to our Ancient Worlds galleries may have spotted the inscriptions of bees on display but we also now have a rooftop hive.

In fact we’ve just   come to the end of the season for beekeeping for 2014. We’ve put them to bed for the winter.

The bees worked really hard to produce 3 supers (one of the boxes that hold the honeycombs in the hive) of honey.
Their numbers will reduce, though a core group will remain. Gathering round the queen fanning with their wings to regulate the temperature for the queen. We extracted the honey and have left one super with them to see them through the winter months.

The winter can be a tough time for bees so it’s the honey will be needed to fuel this activity as they can’t forage during winter. Hopefully this honey will see them through until the more clement weather in the spring.

The honey they have produced is a delicious and citrusy crop flavoured by the foraging from the lime trees across campus.
While we haven’t yet had enough honey to share widely it’s been a really good year for our bees, we have seen the arrival of a new queen and the colony has grown and gone from strength to strength.
We’re hoping for a short and mild winter to give them a good start for the new year.

One of the Museum’s two objectives is ‘Working towards a sustainable world’ which is a big part of why we support the bees as they’re essential to the pollination process and a healthy environment.

Ours is one of a number of hives across the Manchester PartnershipManchester Art Gallery have two, we have one and the Whitworth is set to join the fun in March 2015 – following the opening.

While we don’t have enough honey to sell this year you can still win some by suggesting a name (with a link to Manchester Museum and our collections)  via our Facebook or Twitter by this Sunday

Sam, Sally & Steve
(with thanks to Campbell)

 

 

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by | November 19, 2014 · 6:38 pm