Tag Archives: Gifts for the Gods

Understanding ancient Egyptian attitudes to animals

Our award-winning touring exhibition ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’ opens at its fifth venue – the National Trust property at Lyme Park in Cheshire – next weekend. As part of the BBC Civilisations Festival, it seems timely to consider the popular understanding of that distinctive aspect of ancient Egyptian civilisation: the role of animals in Egyptian religion.

Ancient Egypt is synonymous in the public imagination with animals and animal imagery. Gods and hieroglyphs could take a vast range of two-and three-dimensional animal forms (the British Museum’s ‘Gayer Anderson Cat’ is one iconic example). Yet, the idea of animals as gods still fundamentally strikes us – in the West, at least – as faintly ridiculous.

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The Roman writer Juvenal (1st-2nd Century AD) asked his (Roman) readers/listeners the rhetorical question: “who knows not what monsters demented Egypt worships?” In contradistinction to the Greeks and Romans, who venerated exclusively anthropomorphic deities, the Egyptians were being mocked as primitive, deranged. Juvenal’s impressions of Egypt, as a Roman, were informed by misunderstandings, built on stereotypes and reinforced xenophobic assumptions – knowing his audience would lap it up. Something like a UK Daily Mail journalist today.

This is ironic as there is plentiful evidence for the continued patronage of Egyptian temples and cults by Roman emperors and elite members of society well into the Second Century AD. The famous Roman Period painted mummy portraits further attest to the ongoing investment in Pharaonic funerary customs. Yet Juvenal hits a nerve when he sneers at the “demented” Egyptians, exploiting his audiences’ anxieties about otherness.

Those anxieties continue to be shared today. Most visitors to our Gifts for the Gods exhibition were unfamiliar – if intrigued – with the nature of Egyptian animal mummies. Most believed that they would learn more about the Egyptians’ pets. Trying to explain the finer points of votive animal mummification on an industrial scale is challenging, given the limits on word-length and attention-spans in most museums today.

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The exhibition tries to persuade visitors to adopt a different perspective, based on an alternative set of values, and to suspend many modern preconceptions. Visitors were invited to leave messages to three different animal gods, using hieroglyphic stamps to add the relevant animal image of each deity. Analysis showed that most responses recognised the associations outlined in the exhibition interpretation (e.g. the ibis god Thoth with writing and knowledge).

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The exhibition’s ‘votive interactive’

In the UK, the pet industry accounts for billions of pounds a year. At the latest count, British people spend an average of £1150 a year on their pets. Yet pet ownership is a modern affectation, little attested in the ancient past and – interestingly – not very popular in Egypt today.

The scale of the modern pet industry is no less than Egyptian production of votive gifts – images of the gods (statues, mummies) – were produced in tens of millions and presented to temples and shrines in the earnest hope of divine favour.

Now, animals are fetishized in the West in a way that would leave the ancient Egyptians incredulous. I can imagine the reaction of an ancient time-traveller: “You spend how much on animals – in what you claim to be a Christian/secular country – and you think WE’RE weird?!”

The question is one of shifting values and of understanding the concerns and priorities of cultures in many ways different from our own. We have inherited something of Juvenal’s tabloid-worthy sneer of others, but research shows the impact exhibitions can have in countering this. It is to be hoped that the BBC’s Civilizations series tackles some of these sorts of misconceptions and follows in one of the core missions of Manchester Museum, to promote understanding between cultures of the past and of the present.

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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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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.

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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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