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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.

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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.

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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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DAYSCHOOL 24/10/15 – Egypt: 7000 Years of History In A Day!

AbuSimbelDAYSCHOOL: Egypt: 7000 Years of History  In A Day!

With Sarah Griffiths, Deputy Editor, Ancient Egypt Magazine

When boy king Tutankhamun came to the throne in around 1336 BC, the pyramids were already ancient history, over 1000 years old, and Cleopatra would not appear on the scene for more than a thousand years later.

Ancient Egyptian history stretches over a vast period of time – from the earliest prehistoric hunter gatherers to the Arab conquest and beyond and is peppered with fascinating pharaohs, monumental building, wars, invasions and conquests, the development of writing and literature, amazing advances in technology and medical treatment, tomb raiders and treasure seekers and great archaeological discoveries.

In this study day we will chart the entire span of 7000 years to build to a complete timeline of ancient Egyptian history, from Predynastic pots to pyramids, warrior kings to murdering queens, through feasts, floods, famine and pharaohs, mummies and monuments, gods and goddesses, ascendency and assassination, death and divinity,  providing a broad overview of Egyptian history through a closer study of the key people, monuments and events of each period – ideal for beginners and for those wishing to bring perspective and context to their knowledge of this ancient civilisation.

Saturday, 24th October, 2015           

Time: 10.30am– 4.30pm.

Venue:

Cross Street Chapel

Cross Street, Manchester, M2 1NL

Bookings and further details: bit.ly/7000Years or www.mancent.org.uk

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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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Bob Partridge Memorial Lecture 10/06/13: The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

Amenemhat sphinxThe next Manchester Ancient Egypt Society lecture will be given by Dr. Toby Wilkinson.

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

Monday 10th June, 7:30pm
Days Inn, Sackville Street, Manchester, M1 3AL
All welcome

Ancient Egypt has all the ingredients of an epic novel – glittering courts, dynastic intrigues, murky assassinations and epic battles; individual stories of heroism and skulduggery, of triumph and tragedy; powerful women and tyrannical kings – but the real history is even more surprising. The Ancient Egyptians were the first group of people to share a common culture, outlook and identity within a defined geographical territory governed by a single political authority – concepts of nationhood that continue to dominate the planet. As the world’s first nation-state, the history of Ancient Egypt is above all the story of the attempt to unite a disparate realm and defend it against hostile forces from within and without. In this lecture, Toby Wilkinson sets out to reveal Ancient Egypt in all its complexity, including the relentless propaganda, the cut-throat politics, the brutality and repression that lay behind the appearance of unchanging monarchy, as well as the extraordinary architectural and cultural achievements for which the pharaohs are justly famous.

Dr Toby Wilkinson is a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. He is a regular media commentator on Egypt, has lectured on Ancient Egypt throughout the UK and overseas and has contributed to many television and radio programmes. Toby is the author of 8 books on Ancient Egypt, the most recent of which, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, was named by the Times, the Sunday Times, and BBC History Magazine as one of the history books of the year, and won the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for the best popular history of 2010.

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Curator’s Diary 26/4/12: Ancient Egypt for the visually impaired

Henshaws visitOn Thursday I met with a group of around 30 visitors from Henshaws, a charity that provides support for blind and visually impaired people.

I confess to a little trepidation at the task of describing in sufficient detail objects that I am used to presenting in primarily visual terms – through photos or line drawings. We tend to speak of Egyptian ‘visual culture’ rather than ‘tangible culture’, and most museum displays assume that objects – because they are usually behind glass – are only viewed by sight. But what if you are blind or visually impaired?

The selection of objects for the session was dictated mainly by texture. Along with Conservator Irit Narkiss, Andrea Winn, the Museum’s Curator of Community Exhibitions, and I chose objects that provided a range of surfaces: part of a carved limestone block with a biographical inscription; a pre-Dynastic cosmetic palette, worn on one side; a small travertine kohl pot; a Late Period hard stone scarab amulet.

All our handling objects are accessioned pieces from the collection judged safe enough to touch. That sense of being able to touch the past was something that instantly struck a chord with our Henshaws visitors.

Henshaws visit 2Usually I would discuss an object based on appearance, and this would invite questions about age or function immediately. However, in this case questions were more likely to arise once each person had handled the object. In that sense, engaging with the pieces was a much more individual experience than is usually the case in a museum handling session. The question of how certain objects were made – asked more frequently than how old they were or what they were used for – gave me a greater appreciation of how tactile objects can be, picking up details that I have otherwise missed.

Meeting the Henshaws group afforded a genuinely new perspective on how people experience ancient Egyptian material culture. Our new Ancient Worlds galleries will include handling objects as well as new Hapic technology that will allow users to experience the feel of objects too fragile to be touched regularly, but which can be simulated through advanced computer software programmed to control a stylus. This will enable visitors to trace the contours of an object remotely – a very exciting innovation in how we interact with museum objects.

Read a blogpost about the visit from a member of the Henshaws group here.

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