‘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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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.


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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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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Curator’s Diary 20/05/15: Discussing & Displaying Tutankhamun

Last week I attended a conference on the complexities of moving and displaying objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun. These world-renowned artefacts, from perhaps the greatest archaeological find in history, have already begun to be moved from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to a new home in the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) in Giza, which will display objects focusing on the themes of kingship and eternity – including the Tutankhamun tomb group. International participants met between 10-14th May in various venues in Cairo to discuss possible approaches.

Dr Tarek Tawfik, Director of the Grand Egyptian Museum Project, opens the conference

Dr Tarek Tawfik, Director of the Grand Egyptian Museum Project, opens the Tutankhamun conference at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC)

The issues posed by the move are manifold. How to conserve often very fragile objects that have rarely – if ever – left their 90 year old display cases? How to transport them safely? How to interpret them in their new display space? There is no doubt that Tutankhamun is a world-wide celebrity, and that his mummy mask is an iconic, instantly recognisable image of ancient Egypt around the world. Ever since the discovery of the tomb by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in November 1922, the objects have spawned an interest in popular culture – ‘Tutmania’. The ongoing interest in aspects of the discovery, clearance, and subsequent popular influence of the tomb’s contents was well-illustrated in a recent exhibition – ‘Discovering Tut’ – at the Ashmolean in Oxford.

View from the Grand Egyptian Museum site towards the three pyramids at Giza. A visitor centre is planned for Spring 2016, with an initial opening in 2018.

View from the Grand Egyptian Museum site towards the three pyramids at Giza. A visitor centre is planned for Spring 2016, with an initial opening in 2018.

But despite all this attention, Egyptologists often falter when asked to explain the importance of the tomb. And this is a significant part of the problem: Egyptology doesn’t really know how to handle the success of Tutankhamun, and so the challenge for the new display will be to harness the extraordinary public interest in the Boy King and at the same time to correct assumptions and misconceptions about the king, the tomb, and ancient Egypt in general.

At the conference we discussed how to present individual objects and object categories, the broader historical context of Tutankhamun’s time, and the value of digital interpretation. These are a set of issues many museums face, including here in Manchester. One big task is trying to distil recent scholarship and present it in an engaging way. Most visitors to the current Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square are foreign tourists on package holidays; these people tend only have time to see highlights and so a priority will be to allow free flow of movement for these groups whilst also providing access for visitors with more time. A recommendation that was welcomed by participants is a dedicated space in the new Grand Egyptian Museum to showcase research – the everyday work of conservators and Egyptologists that increases our understanding of the objects.

Burton's photo of statuettes wrapped in linen, from the so-called 'Treasury'

Burton’s photo of statuettes wrapped in linen, from the so-called ‘Treasury’

Another point of discussion centred on how to arrange the objects – for example, the ancient importance of objects being carefully wrapped in linen before being sealed in the tomb. While this is acknowledged by Egyptologists as endowing and maintaining the sanctity of statuettes of the king, deities and other ritual objects, the linen is often removed for display and is mostly unknown to visitors. I was interested to hear, therefore, about an option to ‘re-dress’ some of the statuettes for display, as they appeared in famous 1920s photographs by Harry Burton.

Towards the end of the conference we discussed the value of replicas. Confirming my own impressions, colleagues from Germany reported that the majority of those who visited replica exhibitions of the tomb were more likely to want to go and see the original objects. This reflects a broader effect of Egyptian collections worldwide; having seen some objects, interested people will want to travel to see more. The innate public desire to know more is a big motivation for the team developing content for the galleries. I wish them luck in this impressive task; the initial opening of the GEM is expected in 2018.


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Object Biography #17: An Anonymous Gilded Mummy Mask (Acc. no. 7931)

The mask on display

The mask on display

This striking gilded cartonnage mummy mask (Acc. no. 7931) came into the Manchester Museum from the collection of William Sharpe Ogden in 1925, and reputedly derives from the Luxor area. At some point after its arrival in the Museum the mask was subject to modern reconstruction for display. The mask’s unusual appearance resulted in it being given a ‘Late Period’ or ‘Ptolemaic’ in some records.

In fact, based on the work of Aidan Dodson, the mask is likely to be one of a small number of examples from the early New Kingdom (c. 1550 BC). The feathered (or rishi) pattern is a distinctive feature of many of these, which exhibit proportionately rather small faces. A comparison may be drawn with a well-known gilded mummy mask in the British Museum (EA 29770), identified by John Taylor as belonging to Queen Sit-djehuty of the 17th Dynasty. Based on this comparison, it may be suggested that our mask belonged to a very high-status women, perhaps even a member of the royal family.

8106A common feature of such early New Kingdom masks is a projecting ‘tab’ or ‘bib’ at the bottom of the broad collar. By chance, a fragment is preserved in Manchester (Acc. no. 8106) that is a strong contender for our missing ‘tab’.  This fragment was also part of the Sharpe Ogden collection and, although the fragment bore a different sale number than the mask, a join is likely because of the pattern 7931_conservationof the edge of both mask and fragment. The mask was in poor condition when it arrived at the museum and it is conceivable that the ‘tab’ snapped off long before it arrived, being given a separate number for sale because it carried a visually appealing set of inked hieroglyphs. These spell out a standard offering formula for the ka of the deceased. Unfortunately, like several other examples of this type, it does not carry a name, almost as if it was a prefabricated piece awaiting magical personalisation (and activation) through the addition of a name. The high quality of the masks with anonymous tabs would seem to argue against an ‘off-the-peg’ arrangement – perhaps  the filling in of the name was a ritualised part of the funerary preparations and was never (properly) completed, or done in less durable pigments than those that have survived?


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Botany in Ancient Egypt – Part 2


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.


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


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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