Tag Archives: Saqqara

Animal Mummies #8: Secrecy, wrapping and revealing

Falcon_mummy

Gilded mummy of a falcon, an image of a god (Acc. no. 11293)

Mummies, whether human or animal, were never intended to be unwrapped. The ancient embalmers were wise to the fact that, especially for elite burials, tomb robbers might try to rip the mummies apart in search of valuables. But I doubt the ancients could ever have envisaged the extent of modern scientific curiosity. Yet we are, undeniably, curious. We see a closed, sealed package and it seems like a deliberate challenge: we almost instinctively want to know what’s inside. Modern technology allows us to look under the wrappings without damaging the mummies themselves. But why do we want to look, and why did the Egyptians wrap things in the first place?

Animal mummies and bronze statuettes of deities shared a common votive purpose: they were both appropriate gifts to give to the gods to further one’s prayers. Some bronzes have been found still wrapped in linen, as deposited by temple staff. Some more sizeable bronzes are hollow, with some even containing remains of mummified material; thus the boundary between ‘statues’ and ‘coffins’ is more blurred for animals than for humans. Regardless of what animal mummy bundles might contain, they were – like the bronzes – images of the gods. Such images were sacred and very powerful, and had to be carefully buried – either in a cache deposit or in a catacomb – after they had been donated by visitors to a temple.

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Wooden shrine with linen-wrapped images of gods (EES excavations, Saqqara)

It is important to acknowledge the role of wrapping in ancient Egyptian ritual practice. My predecessor as Curator of Egyptology at Manchester Museum, Christina Riggs, has written a provocative book on this topic, examining aspects of how wrapping and unwrapping have influenced the interpretation of ancient Egypt. Museums almost never acknowledge this. For example, in the tomb of Tutankhamun almost all the images of gods or the king were shrouded in linen coverings but none of these wrappings made it to displays in the Cairo Museum.

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Shrouded divine statues from the tomb of Tutankhamun

Recent controversy surrounding the display of mummies – and the seemingly endless analysis of it – highlights how sensitive we can still be about the subject of wrapping and unwrapping.

Shrouding or veiling draws attention to the fact that a secret is being kept, and adds power and prestige to the item being covered. Wrapping also protects, maintaining and enhancing the sacredness of an object. Modern museum display has tended to favour the removal and quiet disposal of these original wrappings. That is why – for the first time ever, to my knowledge – we have included a rewrapped bronze statuette of Isis nursing Horus in our ‘Gifts for the Gods’ exhibition. We hope this will provoke visitors to think of the bronzes and mummies as two different aspects of the same votive concept.

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Re-wrapping a divine image

Many visitors to the ‘Gifts for the Gods’ exhibition will expect that animal mummies were all pets, and that the Egyptians were very strange for mummifying animals. What we have tried to show is that gifting was – and still is – a very important means of seeking divine attention in many cultures. Ours is the first exhibition that explicitly looks at animal mummies as votives, rather than simply as animals or mummies.

Animals were a category of beings between humans and gods, and were the perfect intermediaries between them. Millions of animal mummies were produced as eternal gifts, tokens of prayers of people who died over 2000 years ago, given in the hope that only the gods would know what was inside.

Secrecy breeds curiosity. There are no texts explaining what the Egyptians aimed to achieve by mummifying animals in such large numbers, so their purpose is something of a mystery that science is helping to. Faced with so many wrapped packages, we are like excited (Western) children on Christmas morning – we simply cannot contain our curiosity to see what’s inside.

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Object Biography # 18: A wooden cat coffin from Saqqara (Acc. no. 9303)

Cats-memeAncient Egypt is closely associated in the popular imagination with cats, and cat statuettes, coffins and mummies are common highlights of museum collections around the world. The reason they proliferate is because these images of the goddess Bastet were considered appropriate gifts to give to her.

 

Recently, archive research by volunteers at Manchester Museum enabled one particular example, previously without sure archaeological provenance, to be contextualised in time for our ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’ exhibition.

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Cecil Firth surrounded by cat coffins and bronzes

At last year’s CIPEG (International Egyptology Committee of ICOM) conference in Copenhagen, I saw an archive photograph currently held in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. It showed the archaeologist Cecil Firth (1878-1931) at the site of Saqqara, surrounded but recently-excavated cat bronzes and coffins. I immediately recognised an example on the left of the image as one now in Manchester Museum (Acc. no. 9303), with occupant still intact. It turned out that this impressive example had been donated by Thomas Alfred Coward (1867-1933), an ornithologist and Acting Keeper of the Manchester Museum during the First World War.

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Wooden cat coffin, acc. no. 9303. From Saqqara.

A letter survives in our correspondence archive from Coward, dated 27th October 1921, to the English excavator and Egyptologist James Quibell. In it, Coward expresses delight at the quality of the specimen he has received and jokes that the Assistant Keeper in charge of archaeology, Miss Winifred Crompton, had a particular liking for the piece:

The long expected lot has arrived. It is a beauty, and I want to thank you very much for selecting it. I had not seen one in a case before. The one by post, of course, came long ago, but this one seems to have taken its time!

As I believe you got it from a dealer, you may have no idea where it was found, but can you give me any approximate period or date for it?

I had to see Miss Crompton put it in a Tac case, or I think she would have taken it home to see if she could make it purr.

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Radiograph of cat coffin, acc. no. 9303, showing a complete cat mummy inside.

A brief note pencilled by Quibell in reply on the reverse of the same letter affirms that the cat coffin in fact came from the excavations conducted by Cecil Firth at Saqqara. This chance find in our archive, scanned and transcribed by volunteers, confirms the cat’s provenance. Coward’s interest in the piece is likely to have been zoological, so it is remarkable that the coffin remained intact. The coffin has now been CT-scanned and radiographed, and is the subject of an innovative haptic interface to enable blind and visually-impaired people. Research by the Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank is enhanced by such sure cases of archaeological provenance, enabling conclusions to be drawn about mummification and bandaging techniques in certain locations at certain times.

Our current exhibition ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies revealed’ is open until April 17th 2016, and can thereafter be see in Glasgow and Liverpool.

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

Ibis_MM_detail‘Discovering Animal Mummies’

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

10am-4pm.

FREE

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

Programme

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.

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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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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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