Ancient Egypt’s embalmed animals back in favor

Once ignored by all but children, Egyptologists have started taking animal mummies seriously again.

July 14, 2011 21:54
animal mummies

animal mummies. (photo credit: British Museum)

A baboon sits in a lotus position swathed in yellow bandages. A cat, his body crisscrossed by elaborated folded strips of linen, looks up as if expecting a morsel from its owners. A hunting dog is preserved so carefully that individual strands of fur are identifiable as well are a pair of sleepy, half closed eyes. He stands erect on his four feet.

These animal mummies – all of them housed at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum – seem more alive and evoke more warmth than their human counterparts, usually fond lying rigid topped by an expressionless face, the stuff of monster movies and nightmares. That has made the animal mummies and the sarcophagi that house many of them popular with museum-visiting school groups. Now Egypt’s animal mummies are getting serious attention from Egyptologists.

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Last month, the Brooklyn Museum took a big part of its collections to a nearby veterinary hospital to have them examined under a computerized tomography (CT) scanner to reveals their secrets.  The museum plans to mount an exhibit of its collection sometime in 2013.

“Animal mummies were not a huge feature of the Egyptology landscape. People said, ‘Yeah, yeah, they’re interesting,’ but they weren’t a focal point. There has been a huge upsurge in interest in animal mummies,” says Salima Ikram, who is widely regarded as the woman who rescued animal mummies from oblivion. “Animals have gained an increased amount of significance both for scientists and the general public.”

But for many years, there indeed was little love lost between the embalmed creatures and serious scholars Archeologists trying to get to the more important relics at excavations had to dig past them. Museum curators consigned them to the storerooms. Early generations of Egyptologists, trying to win respectability in the world of science, spurned them because they demonstrated just how weird the ancient Egyptians were by modern standards.

And because there were so many, they were regarded as commonplace. In the 1880s, Egyptian peasants from Itsabl Antar, a small village on the banks of the Nile, discovered an ancient cat cemetery under their field. They found mummified felines in veins 20 and 30 cats deep, according to contemporary accounts. A few interesting ones were sold to tourists, but the rest were shipped off to England as fertilizer.

Pakistani by birth, Ikram encountered her first animal mummies as a child on a trip to Egypt and Cairo’s famed Egyptian Museum. By the time she came back with her degree in Egyptology, the museum had closed its animal mummy exhibit, she recalls. She brought it back in the late 1990s, even launching an adopt-a-mummy program for children to help raise money. A lot of those kids got their first taste in Egyptology through the program and went on the become researchers themselves.

Naturally, some wanted to know how to make an animal mummy themselves and Ikram is happy to oblige. She’s embalmed her fair share of animals in order to learn the lost secret. “My latest is a cat, which we finished up on the 8th of June,” she told The Media Line.

While there’s no universally accepted recipe, natron (or, lacking that, a mixture of salt and baking soda) is used to dry out the body. A swig of gin (for the mummy, not the embalmer, sorry) and various oil are used to clean and soften the flesh.

Besides cats, Ikram has used rabbits. The Egyptians were quite happy to kill animals to obtain mummies – many of the cute mummy kittens show evidence of broken necks – and had strong enough stomachs to get involved in removing and preserving organs. But to avoid all that, she recommends obtaining a fresh chicken from the butcher. “Don’t try it without adult supervision,” she warns.

The Egyptian Museum isn’t alone in giving more attention to the mummies. The British Museum spiffed up its display about 12 years ago. In 2004, researchers at the Universities of Bristol and York discovered that animal mummies often got the same respectful treatment as human ones even though far more animals than humans were subject to embalming.

Among the recent discoveries as a result of the heightened interest is the extent to which animal mummification was prevalent in Egypt from the seventh century BC until Christianity pushed aside polytheism, Edward Bleiberg, the Brooklyn Museum’s curator for Egyptian and ancient art, told The Media Line.

“New excavations have made it clear that during the Ptolemaic and Roman period the number of animal mummies grew to gigantic proportion. A dog cemetery near Saqqara has seven million individual canines. The ibis cemetery is believed to hold five million individuals. All of these animals were buried in a relatively short time frame,” he says.

But the biggest revelations are likely to come from technology. CT scanners and other tools are opening up new vistas in mummy research by giving scientists more detailed, three-dimensional pictures of their insides without having to damage the relics by opening them up.

“We’re not quite at the point where there are breakthroughs,” John Taylor, assistant keeper in the British Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, told The Media Line. “The techniques being used now are fairly new and numerically not many specimens have been studied. But as it increases, we will get interesting results.”

At the Brooklyn Museum, much of the collection of five-dozen animal mummies had been subject to x-ray analysis, but that doesn’t reveal nearly as many of the mummies’ secrets as a CT scan. On a recent Friday afternoon in Manhattan’s Animal Medical Center, four-footed patients were left in the waiting room as cats, ibises, mice, hawks and even an egg or two were subject to high codes of radiation. One disappointment is that not a few of the mummies were Pharaonic-era fakes – feathers, miscellaneous bones or sawdust inside an often elaborate sarcophagus or linen wrapping, the better to fool the unsuspecting mummy buyer.

So much information was gathered that it will take time to analyze the results and make sense of them, but Bleiberg said the CT scans revealed some unexpected results.

“One surprise was a cat mummy, which was positioned as a human mummy,” he says. “Usually cats are all curled up, but in this case the paws were extended over the chest and crossed. That was quite unusual. Also it was found in a rhinestone sarcophagus with painting on it. Something unusual was going on there but we’re not certain what it is yet.”

The Egyptians mummified people to preserve them for the afterlife, which explains why some animals got the wrap, too. The pharaohs and the few Egyptians who had the money and power to afford it didn’t want to enter into eternity empty-handed and their tombs contained useful and valuable objects, including mummified meat. Family pets, which might be anything from a dog to a baboon, got to go, too.

But most animal mummies were prepared as votive offerings, deposited in temples and tombs because they were representative of a particular god and any message they carried would therefore to be looked upon favorably. The Ibis was Thoth, falcons Horus and dogs Anubis, to name a few.

The practice went back to the earliest days of ancient Egypt, but sometime after 700 BC, the Egyptians went ape for animal mummies. Whole industries developed around raising and catching animals, killing them when natural causes didn’t work fast enough, mummifying them and making sarcophagi. If the idea of mass-production mummies seems odd to people today, the ancients shared the view even though animal sacrifice was a common practice.

“They were even exotic to their contemporaries,” notes Bleiberg.

Apparently supply couldn’t meet demand and, a person buying a mummy was in no position to check under the hood, hence the temptation to cheat or cut corners was overwhelming. That’s why today museums have discovered their collections include mummies of feathers where a whole bird should have been.

Taylor of the British Museum says he isn’t sure that the so-called fakes were indeed acts of fraud. “It could be that there were deceptions …but there may be an idea that you need only a part of the animal – a few bones inside counts. Maybe there is not just one explanation,” he speculates.

Why moderns have suddenly taken an interest in embalmed animals is also a bit of mystery that Egyptologists have trouble explaining. Certainly new technology is one factor, Egyptologists agree. Another, says Taylor, is that they can teach something about the domestication of animals, about international trade and natural history.

Bleiberg says the new interest has also been spawned by the growing interest among all historians in the history of ordinary people as against the traditional preoccupation with kings and generals. Animal mummies are mostly a popular phenomenon and shed light on the lives and preoccupations of common people.

But for Ikram, they remain as compelling as when she first saw them as a child. “They’re cute. They’re absolutely adorable. What’s there not to love?”

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