Tag Archives: Saqqara

FREE Study day 14/11/15 – ‘Discovering Animal Mummies’

Ibis_MM_detail‘Discovering Animal Mummies’

Saturday 14th November, Kanaris Lecture Theatre, Manchester Museum.



A chance  to discover more about the fascinating stories behind our exhibition, ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’


10:00     Registration and coffee

10:20     Dr. Campbell Price (Manchester Museum) – Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies as Votives and Souvenirs

11:10     Dr. Chris Naunton (Egypt Exploration Society) – The Search for Imhotep? Emery at Saqqara

12:00     Lunch

13:00     Prof. Paul Nicholson (Cardiff University) – The Sacred Animal Necropolis at Saqqara

13:50     Dr. Ashley Cooke (World Museum Liverpool) – Auctions and Air-raids: Animal mummies at Liverpool

14:40     Coffee

15:00     Dr. Stephanie Atherton-Woolham and Dr. Lidija McKnight (University of Manchester) – Scientific Study of Animal Mummies

15:50     Concluding remarks

16:00     The end

Book onto the study day here.

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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.


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.


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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Dogs in ancient Egypt

Our newest exhibition ‘Breed: The British and their Dogs’ has just opened, and has given me cause to ponder the relationship between the ancient Egyptians and their dogs. The canine that features most prominently in iconography, and which is most associated with the pharaonic Egypt, is the god Anubis – represented either as a recumbent jackal or as a jackal-headed man. As a guardian of the cemetery, the origins of the jackal god are often associated with desert scavengers who preyed on recently interred burials.

Acc. no. 11498. A limestone statuette of Anubis, from the EES excavations at Saqqara. Late Period (c. 750-332 BC)

Anubis was the deity who oversaw the mummification process, and (like another jackal deity Wepwawet, ‘The Opener of the Ways’) helped conduct the deceased into the afterlife. Perhaps these divine attributes reflected the attentive aspect observed in dogs. Many hundreds of dogs were buried as animals sacred to Anubis – in the form of votive dog mummies – at the Anubieion at Saqqara. Domestic dogs might also receive individual burials, either along with their owners or in their own coffins.

One ancient Egyptian word for dog is iwiw, an onomatopoeic reference to its bark. From the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2181 BC), dogs generally shared the same names as humans and are often shown in attendance on an elite tomb owner, captioned with their names in hieroglyphs. Some dogs carry names likely to reflect their qualities, such as ‘Brave One’ and ‘Good Herdsman’, and the abilities of dogs as hunting companions appears to have been particularly prized.

Scene from the tomb of the 26th Dynasty official Pabasa, showing his dog Hekenu under his chair. Photo by Ken Griffin.

Evidence of breeding is difficult to trace and is unlikely to coincide with modern practices of the type illustrated in the exhibition ‘Breed’. Yet, despite a strong association in the popular imagination with cats, ancient Egypt provides ample early evidence for man’s best friend.


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Lecture: “In the Shadow of the Step Pyramid: Geophysics at Saqqara”, Middleton Archaeological Society, Thurs. 26th, 7.30pm

I will be giving a lecture on the recent work of the Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project at Middleton Archaeological Society at 7.30pm on Thursday 26th of July, at the Olde Boar’s Head pub. More details at the Society’s website.

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Object biography #7: A statuette of the Apis bull (Acc. No. 13000a-b)

Acc. no. 13000a-b. © Paul Cliff

Acc. no. 13000a-b. © Paul Cliff

This small (8.2 x 7.5cm) copper alloy statuette depicts the sacred Apis bull – recognisable by the remains of a sun disk between its curved horns. The bull was at the centre of an elaborate cult, and was believed to be the earthly incarnation of the god Ptah. Only one living Apis was recognised at any one time, in a system not unlike the selection of the Dalai Lama. The sacred bull was selected by priests who travelled the length of the land looking for an animal with the correct markings. Once installed, Apis was housed in a temple on the outskirts of Memphis. There he was afforded ever luxury – including a ‘harem’ of cows – and was regularly visited by pilgrims, who interpreted his movements in relation to petitions put to him. After death, the bull was mummified and given an elaborate burial in a set of catacombs – called the Serapeum – located on the Saqqara desert plateau.

Cache of statuettes found at the Sacred Animal Necropolis by the EES. An Apis bull statuette on a sledge is highlighted.

This figurine is just one of hundreds of images of various gods given as votive offerings at a range of temples. Many examples, such as this, were excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society at the site of Saqqara. Saqqara was the home to the Sacred Animal Necropolis, the centre for the veneration and dedication of sacred animals in the Late Period (c. 750-330 BC). These were found in a pit within the enclosure of the Sacred Animal Necropolis temples. They had, according to excavator Bryan Emery, been “arranged in an orderly manner.”

It is typical of Egyptian religious practice that temple objects were considered sacred after they had been used, and had to be collected together and buried in consecrated ground. These caches of temple objects provide a useful insight into what sorts of objects were dedicated to the gods. Such hoardes were doubtless the point of origin of many more unprovenanced metal statues that appear commonly in museums around the world. Even when hidden from view, votive objects could continue to function as records of piety; they keep alive the hopes of the pilgrims who had dedicated them. Interestingly, this example shows signs of ancient repair – so may have been accessible in the temple for some time before it was buried.

Procession dragging a mummified bull. From a scene in the tomb of Iset-hetem at Atfiyeh. After Petrie, Heliopolis, Kafr Ammar, and Shurafah, 1915, pl. 41.

Procession dragging a mummified bull. From a scene in the tomb of Iset-hetem at Atfiyeh. After Petrie, Heliopolis, Kafr Ammar, and Shurafah, 1915, pl. 41.

This statuette was attached – by means of a tang – to a wooden base in the shape of a sledge. The sledge alludes to the movement of a statue of the Apis bull, or its mummy, along a processional route. At Saqqara, this route is known as the Serapeum Way – because it leads from the valley up to the Serapeum. Rituals conducted along the Way for the funeral of an Apis bull were lively affairs, involving wailing women, dancing dwarves, and even twins selected specially to impersonate the sister goddesses Isis and Nephthys. Showing the bull on the sledge implies – or assures – the involvement of the donor of the piece in these rituals. 

The Serapeum Way, as planned by Mariette, 1882.

The Serapeum Way was planned by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette (1821-1881) but has since been mapped more accurately by the Scottish Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project. Further fieldwork is planned to reveal more information about the structure of the Way, and add more to what is already known about the cult of the Apis bull.


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Manchester Ancient Egypt Society June Study Day: Epigraphy at Saqqara

The Manchester Ancient Egypt Society will be holding a study day at the Days Inn, Sackville Street on Saturday 23 June featuring lectures by Dr Yvonne Harpur and Paolo Scremin to raise funds for the pioneering photographic work of the Oxford Expedition to Egypt being carried out in Old Kingdom tombs at Saqqara.

–          Members and non-members are invited to come and find out about life in the field with the expedition staff, and enjoy a well-illustrated description of the expedition’s past, present and future projects in Egypt.

–          Learn about how the team are bringing the past to life and overcoming the technical and logistical difficulties of tomb photography, and the secrets to achieving the best results.

–          Hear the story of the earliest fully decorated tombs of Ancient Egypt at Maidum, the destruction of these beautiful works of art by treasure seekers and vandals, and the reconstruction work being carried out on the fragments that have been rescued.

The recent revolution in Egypt should be a timely reminder of the importance of tomb documentation in Egyptology. The vast majority of tombs have never been documented in detail for more advanced or specialised types of research. Hear more about the expedition’s most recent rescue project, initiated last year in response to rapidly changing circumstances in Egypt and see some rare and unique scenes and details from the best Old Kingdom tombs.

Dr Yvonne Harpur is the Field Director of the Oxford Expedition to Egypt, a Research Fellow at Linacre College Oxford University and Assistant photographer of the expedition.

Paolo Scremin, the Deputy Field Director of the Oxford Expedition to Egypt is an Academic Visitor at Linacre College Oxford University and the professional photographer of the expedition.

For more details or to book a place please email MAES Secretary Sarah Griffiths at sarahgwen1@hotmail.com

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Curator’s Diary 8/4/12: Visiting Egypt (2) – Return to Saqqara

On Tuesday I returned, for the first time in over two years, to a site I know very well. Saqqara is most famous as the home of the Step Pyramid of King Djoser (c. 2667-2648 BC), Egypt’s (and arguably the world’s) first major monumental construction entirely built in stone. Over the last few years conservation work has been undertaken to shore up the pyramid’s crumbling walls. Though necessary, the scaffolding remains something of an eyesore and detracts slightly from this impressive monument.

Since 2006, I have been a member of a pioneering research project that uses a range of geophysical techniques to map the necropolis surrounding the Step Pyramid – revealing many structures that previously lay undetected beneath the sand. The Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project (SGSP) is Scotland’s only archaeological mission in Egypt, and was the brainchild of Ian Mathieson. Ian was a real pioneer of the appliance of science to Egyptian archaeology, a charismatic Scotsman who became a close friend and mentor. Since he passed away at the age of 83 in 2010, his energy and interdisciplinary approach to fieldwork have been much missed. Those of us who worked with him are keen to continue his exciting work.

SGSP Geophysical plan

Geophysical plan of the 'north temples' - previously undetected by archaeologists. © SGSP

Some of the last objects to enter the Manchester Museum collection from Egypt (in the 1970s, when the Egyptian authorities still permitted a proportion of finds to be exported abroad by their excavators) come from Saqqara. During the First Millennium BC, Saqqara was at the heart of a peculiarly Egyptian religious practice: the cult of sacred animals. Although the ‘Sacred Animal Necropolis’ focussed on the worship of one sacred bull, a large number of species were bred, killed, mummified and buried here as votive gifts to the gods. The remains of several million mummified birds, cats, dogs, and baboons have been discovered in underground catacombs at Saqqara. The new Egyptian World gallery will feature more information about the work of the SGSP in establishing where this vast industry of sacred animals operated, what the religious rationale behind the cult was, and new scientific research on the animal mummies themselves.

Figure of Anubis from the tomb of Maya

Figure of Anubis from the tomb of Maya

The last season I spent with Ian and the SGSP in 2009, we surveyed an area around the tomb of Horemheb – a high-ranking army general under Tutankhamun (c. 1336-1327 BC), who himself became king and was subsequently buried in the Valley of the Kings. Our work revealed the outline of several unknown tombs in this area. Some others nearby have been excavated and restored by an Anglo-Dutch mission, and have recently been opened to the public. A highlight of my visit was to see the superbly-decorated burial chamber of a man called Maya, treasurer under Tutankhamun and contemporary of Horemheb.

Murray Saqqara Mastabas

One of Murray's Saqqara publications

Saqqara has another connection with Manchester. Before she came to Manchester to pioneer the scientific investigation of mummies with the unwrapping of the Two Brothers, Margaret Murray spent several seasons working at Saqqara as a student of W.M.F. Petrie. The result was a number of handsome volumes publishing mastaba tombs there. In Murray’s day, such results were only possible through digging – and the ultimately destructive effects of archaeology. Now, with geophysical techniques, it is possible to plan many of the tombs Murray identified without lifting a trowel. Archaeological fieldwork is of prime importance to understanding and properly contextualising museum objects. I hope to develop further both the legacy of Ian Mathieson and Margaret Murray, to better understand Saqqara – a site from which we have a very rich collection of objects.


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