Manchester Museum has featured a few times on this blog in the past three years. And here it is again.
This museum is my second favourite museum and, I think, for good reason. They organise so many fun and interesting things!
On the very first day of the current temporary exhibition, Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed I went to see it. The 25th of February saw a connected After Hours event. The main item on the agenda was the wrapping of an animal mummy. That was enough to make me curious.
Before the ‘re-wrapping’ began I had the chance to see the temporary exhibition again, this time with my best friend. She enjoyed it very much and agrees that it’s a small, but very informative exhibition. It covers all aspects of animal mummies you can possibly think of. This evening, however, we had the added bonus of “Mummy Auction TV”, which transported us to the 19th century when a ship full of animal mummies arrived in Liverpool. The question was: how much would you pay for just one cat mummy to prank your friends. I can tell you that the bids varied greatly.
Throughout the evening there were various activities, so never a dull moment. Anthony Parker read ‘ancient Egypt inspired’ poems. Parts of these poems you could print on textile.
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We had a chat with Pascal Nichols who was creating a clay pot for the ‘Ibis’ mummy. Of course he did not have the time to finish it completely, as in: it would have to be baked later, but we got a good idea on how it was created and how big it would be when completed. To be honest, I don’t think the finished mummy will fit in the pot, but maybe we will get an update on that at a later date.
Visitors also had the option to mummify an orange. It was good fun to see people removing their oranges’ “internal organs” by hand. Some of the bandages were quite colourful which unleashed some creativity and yielded some beautiful results!
Something I have also mentioned before is that Manchester Museum is quite good in using modern technology to support their exhibitions and permanent display. They are also very active on social media. This evening was no different. The whole thing was streamed live to Periscope, so if you couldn’t make it, you could still see how the re-rolling progressed.
The animal mummy re-rolling was done by Drs Stephanie Woolham and Lidija McKnight. We were told this was their very first attempt at creating an animal mummy, but they could have fooled me. Not only did they manage in the few hours they had, the result is amazing.
This may also be the moment to explain that no real animal was used.
In my previous post about the temporary exhibition I did mention the book that goes with it. I have now bought this book and, even though I still have to read it completely, I am quite enthusiastic about it. It’s a comprehensive book with many articles by a variety of people. It covers the entire path an animal mummy could take: from ancient Egypt to the excavations in the 19th century (and beyond), to private collections, to museum collections, to the wonderful uses (fertiliser?), to previous and current research. If you are interested in animal mummies this is certainly a book I would recommend, simply because it covers so much. Oh, the bibliography is seven (!) pages, so this book may just serve as a brilliant starting point for very extensive study, if you’re so inclined, of course. I know I am.
Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed will be at the Manchester Museum until 17 April 2016.
After that it will go to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow (May-September 2016) and finally to World Museum, Liverpool (October 2016-March 2017).
Since I heard about this temporary exhibition I have been looking forward to it; for obvious reasons: I am still very much interested in animal mummies. The first day for the public was 8 October. I wasted no time, took the afternoon off and went to Manchester Museum to see the exhibition for myself. I was not disappointed.
Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed is a small, but very well presented exhibition. Both are very good points, I think, because it seems that nowadays people lose interest very quickly. This being a small exhibition means you don’t have to spend a lot of time there if you don’t want to (even though I think you should) and it being well presented means that there is something interesting for every visitor.
The set up is very logical. It starts with a short introduction on what kind of animals you could find in Egypt, followed by a few examples of animal deities. Via an explanation of various types of animal mummies and interpretations in art you make your way to displays with quite a number of animal mummies. At this point it gets more detailed. The emphasis shifts towards technology: how do we know what is in the wrappings and what else can we learn from scientific research? It all ends with a bit of fun: if you want you can send a message to a (or several) ancient Egyptian god(s). And yes, of course I did!
The fact that I have an interest in ancient Egypt and specifically in animal mummies means that I am biased. Manchester Museum being my second favourite museum also adds to that. Thankfully I did not go alone. I brought a friend who has never been to Manchester Museum before and knows absolutely nothing about animal mummies, or ancient Egypt, for that matter.
I was quite happy to hear that he enjoyed the exhibition and felt his lack of knowledge on the subject did not stop him from understanding the information. He also did not feel overwhelmed by the amount of information. The possibilities to interact with the exhibition is another thing he appreciated. Let’s face it: most people love to ‘look’ with their hands.
On this occasion I have not bought the book that goes with this exhibition, so I can’t review that at the moment. I fully intend to visit again (I have another friend who is interested) and buy the book then. A review of it will follow.
I have mentioned in a previous post that Manchester Museum is quite good at using technology and media (social or otherwise) to promote their collection and exhibitions. This is a very good example. As if waiting almost two years for this excellent exhibition wasn’t enough, the curator (Dr Campbell Price) managed to wet my appetite (and probably other people’s as well) by publishing several blog posts on Egypt at the Manchester Museum.
My verdict is very positive, but don’t just take my word for it. There is a guest book at the end of the exhibition and on the afternoon of the first day there were already plenty of positive entries. I think this is an exhibition you cannot miss.
1. Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed – press release
2. Animal Mummies #2: Animals in the Ancient Egyptian landscape
3. Animal Mummies #3: Giving Gifts to the Gods in Ancient Egypt
4. Animal Mummies #4: Travellers, Collectors and Souvenirs
5. Animal Mummies #5: Seeing inside the wrappings
6. Animal Mummies #6: Making experimental mummies in Manchester
7. Animal Mummies #7: Micro Encounters with Animal Mummies
Needless to say I am very excited about this upcoming exhibition!
Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed
8 October 2015-17 April 2016, Manchester Museum
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.
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On 14 February I attended a Manchester University study day called From Amulets to Golden Flies: Understanding Egyptian Jewellery. This was the third Manchester University study day I attended and, as before, Campbell Price was one of the speakers.
Campbell Price is the Curator of Egypt and the Sudan and, among other things, runs the Egypt at the Manchester Museum blog. It would probably take an entire blog post to list everything he does; he is a very active person. One of the things on his resume that caught my attention is the Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project. I asked if he would talk to me about it and he agreed.
SJ: Why has the Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project ended?
CP: The Saqqara Geophysical Survey Project started through the interest and enthusiasm of Ian Mathieson who was a retired civil engineer and who had worked with Egypt Exploration Society in the 70s and 80s. As the story goes, at the end of the 1980s he went to the Egyptian government and said ‘I’d like my own consession to work using geophysical equipment’ which he had pioneered for the use in Egypt and the antiquities service said ‘pick a site at Saqqara’ and he drew a big red line around the whole of the Saqqara plateau. He got his wish and for twenty years he worked using geophysical techniques. Ian Mathieson was really an exceptional person. He inspired me a lot personally. He basically was used to using techniques for geophysical prospection in industry and for commercial reasons. For prospecting for oil and looking for different things in the Middle East. He had always been interested in archaeology and when the chance came up to help an archaeological mission, he really took it. I think it was professor Harry Smith at UCL who really encouraged him and the rest is kind of history. He used all these techniques. He got a team of people that knew a lot of different geophysical techniques; a lot of about surveying. Because if you do geophysics and you do a survey of any type you need to know where in the world you are to position it correctly. So he had excellent surveyors, excellent Egyptologists, excellent geophysicists, particularly a gentleman called Jon Dittmer who from the mid 1990s was involved. My connection with Ian Mathieson dates back to when I was a schoolboy, when I was 17 years old. I went to a lecture and I heard this incredibly enthusiastic, he was in his mid 70s then, I think, speaker talking about what they had found at Saqqara. And they had done some selective excavations. I thought ‘wow, this guy is amazing’. And proof that someone with a Scottish accent, because he was Scottish, could do something in Egyptology. So, several years after I first spoke to him, I said ‘I’d love to be part of the team’. I had a little bit of experience doing geophysics at a site called Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham, which is at the north west coast of Egypt, west of Alexandria, and I just wanted to be involved in the only Scottish mission in Egypt. It was really exciting. And so he said ‘Oh, come along’. In 2006 I went out for a season and again in 2007 and we didn’t go out in 2008, because Ian was taken unwell, but we went out in 2009. Sadly Ian Mathieson died in 2010, so he was 83, but people thought he was much younger. People were surprised when we said he was 83. It happened just before the Egyptian revolution. And to be quite frank we attracted attention when we were working before 2011, because we were mapping things out and people know you’re mapping. And so something we would see there was disturbed ground in the morning after we’d been doing some work. So there was a real ethical issue having completed pretty much completed the geophysical mapping of Saqqara, essentially completed. Should we go back to try and fill in little bits where there might not be anything and attract attention to those bits in times of unstable political situations, that might be a bad idea. And ultimately we were producing a treasure map. And I remember the first time I spoke at a conference about this. A Dutch Egyptologist said to me ‘You realise you’re producing a treasure map? And if people can find the map and can understand it, they will go and use it.’. So, for those reasons and for the fact that the people involved have other commitments we decided to stop the geophysical survey. So that is a very potted history.
SJ: Why Saqqara?
CP: Because I think it’s one of the richest, in terms of the spread of the cemetery, in terms of the times it was occupied, in terms of the status of the people buried there, it’s right next to Memphis, the principal city, the capital city for most of pharaonic times. It was very important. It was intensively used, but no one really had an idea of how all the different bits fitted together. It had been excavated from very early on in history by tourists, explorers and people not doing a good job. And then it had been scientific exploration by the Egypt Exploration Society, by Dutch, Polish, Czech mission, German missions, French missions. There needed to be an overall plan of the site, I think. So that was why Saqqara was chosen in 1990. That’s when the project started.
SJ: On the Project’s website four types of technology are mentioned [resistivity, conductivity, ground penetration radar and magnetic gradiometer], but looking at other publications there are two which are mentioned most [ground penetration radar and magnetic gradiometer]. Are all four technologies used equally or are these two predominantly used?
CP: I think those two, the gradiometry which is planning, so a plan – like a house plan, and radar were the predominant ones when I was involved. Before there were different people so different expertises who got involved and you play to your strengths, whatever is most appropriate for the people there, most appropriate for the time and the money as well. Because we were fortunate, we had equipment donated, certainly in that last season. We had new radar equipment donated, which is now being used, I should say, by other missions in Egypt. That was quite important, because people can use it and make use of this incredible technology which, in commercial terms, was old-fashioned, but in archaeology was cutting edge. So all four techniques, yes, you’re right, were used at some point, but latterly, in the last five years when I was involved, it was just the radar and gradiometry.
SJ: Staying on the subject on technology, you’re probably aware that now even satellite imagery is being used? How do you feel about that? What are you expecting for the next decade or two?
CP: If you could combine satellite technology and ground penetrating radar and gradiometry, that would be amazing! You could do a 3D map, you could map in three dimensions what’s under the ground. Give it twenty years and probably that will happen. I’m a little bit sceptical about the satellite imagery, because that doesn’t penetrate very far into the ground.
SJ: Using the technologies mentioned before, is it possible to determine if several things were built on top of each other?
CP: If you see a strong black line, that must be closer to the surface than the “ghost” structures. So, again, with fancy technology you could penetrate deeper using the radar or gradiometry and distinguish between the two. The penetration we used was five metres, so: really strong line: near the surface; really ghostly line: near the bottom and if you could develop some 3D technology you could see what’s above and what’s older and what’s younger.
SJ: Based on what’s been found by the Project have many excavations happened or do you expect more to happen in the future?
CP: We did ground testing, but to my knowledge no one has used the map to excavate. We were asked by some Egyptian colleagues about that, but nothing happened.
SJ: Because the two predominantly used technologies are non-invasive, is it much easier to get permission for this type of work than it is to get permission for an excavation?
CP: Yes, absolutely. It was much easier, diplomatically, to say ‘we’ll map the ground and help manage the site’ than to say ‘we’re going to come with our spades’ and dig it up. Technically when we were working there was a monitorium on new excavations in the Delta. So it was easy for Ian Mathieson to get repeated permissions, because you have to apply every year you’re there.
I would like to thank Campbell for an interesting and fun (as always!) lecture and afterwards taking the time to talk to me.
One of the new temporary exhibitions at the British Museum is Ancient lives, new discoveries and it’s something a little different.
If you’ve been to a temporary exhibition at the British Museum in the past few years you will have gone to the Great Court and would have entered the exhibition either via the stairs at the side of the Reading Room or downstairs to the right of it. Not this time. This exhibition is located near the book store, which is now the exhibition shop.
What is also different is the fact that tickets are limited. They will only let a limited number of people in at any given time to ensure everyone gets an equal chance to have a good look (and read!) while inside. This means that even members of the museum have to book in advance.
All in all, the smaller numbers of people inside and the somewhat out of the way location make this a very nice and quiet experience.
Those of you who are familiar with my blog know that the British Museum is still my favourite museum. And you know I study Egyptology. However, that ‘mummy thing’ has been done a million times before, hasn’t it?
Yes, but not like this.
This exhibition tries to shed light on life in ancient Egypt by looking more closely at eight mummies, all from a different period in its very long existence. In this case ‘looking more closely’ means CT scanning. That’s been done before as well, but I get the idea not many museums make those scans available to the public by adding it to their display or exhibitions. Previously I visited the British Museum to see the CT scans they made of Gebelein man and found it fascinating.
Should you not know, Manchester Museum also uses some of its CT scans in their display (upstairs). I’m hoping they will use more of these scans in the future.
In the case of ‘Ancient lives, new discoveries’ there are limited scans available of each mummy. For each mummy a different aspect has been highlighted and additionally some items related to the same aspect are displayed nearby.
For example, the first mummy you see had bad teeth. So the focus is on health and medicine.
The mummies themselves are obviously also on display. They are behind glass and it’s possible to almost completely walk around them.
The scans which have been made available can be manipulated. Again, this has been limited, depending on the focus of that particulaar display. Sometimes you can only turn the scan left, right, up or down. In other cases you can look beneath the wrappings and find the amulets etc.
As always there is a book which accompanies this exhibition and, as always, it’s very hight quality.
I think this is the best temporary exhibition I have seen so far. I am a very lazy museum visitor – I don’t like to spend the majority of my time reading. So large amounts of text near the object I am looking at do not make me happy at all. That is positive point number three (numbers one and two are the quiet location and low numbers of visitors) for this exhibition. There is text, but not to the extent that you spend 15 minutes or more reading before moving on to the next mummy.
All the information you could want is in the book. So I can simply sit in the comfort of my own home at a time of my choice and read the details.
Positive point number four is the fact that, like other museums, the British Museum also seems to focus more on life in ancient Egypt, rather than death. Obviously, all we have left are items and dead people and animals, but they can tell us so much about how these people used to live! And isn’t that what we are most interested in?
I am happy to see we’re stepping away from the supposed fascination the Egyptians had with death. After all, they most certainly knew how to live. As there is slowly but surely more balance in the way museums tell the ancient Egyptians’ stories, there is also a beautiful balance in the story of this exhibition. Well worth a visit.
To those interested in ancient Egypt Salima is very likely quite well known. She has written books, appeared on television and she is the director of the Animal Mummy Project. I have seen her in several documentaries and was captivated by her passion.
After reading Divine Creatures I was hoping to have a chat with her. She was kind enough to allow just that during a break on this very busy day.
SJ: What sparked your interest in ancient Egypt?
SI: Well, I’ve always been interested in the past and on my 8th birthday I was given the Time Life Book of Ancient Egypt. And then, when I was 9.5 my father said “Do you want to go to Greece or Egypt?”, and I said “Crete?”. He said “No, Athens or Cairo”. So, of course, like an intelligent person, I picked Cairo. We went to the Egyptian museum and I met Rahotep and Nofret and I thought that they were my people. That was the end of that. So I decided that I would study ancient Egypt.
SJ: How did you become involved in the Animal Mummy Project?
SI: I’ve always been interested in animals in the living world and one of my favourite rooms in Cairo museum was that of the ancient Egyptian environment, the natural habitat. My mother was always very interested in flora and fauna and things like that so I’ve always had that background. I’d worked on mummification to a particular extent for my dissertation on food. When I went to live in Egypt I found that the animal mummy room had been closed for some time and I though to resurrect it. Therefore I started my work on animal mummies thinking sideways from my food mummies, doing all kinds of animal mummies.
SJ: Do you have a particular favourite type of animal mummy or a particular site?
SI: Very hard to say, because they are so adorable, many of them. I love the massive crocodiles. I think the little shrews are adorable. Cats and dogs are, of course, charming, especially when they are pets. And it’s just quite funny to get a dung ball as a mummy. So it’s hard to say. I have a snake mummy which has a shrew which is undigested in its belly.
SJ: What would you find more interesting, human mummies or animal mummies and why?
SI: Both are very interesting, but animal mummies are far more fun because they are more than one species. The mode of preparation is greatly varied as is the mode of wrapping. And one never knows what one is going to get. So on the whole I think animal mummies are fare more valuable, bang for your buck, as it where, than humans.
SJ: So you can’t really compare animal mummification and human mummification?
SI: Of course you can! Often I think they experimented on humans before trying it on an animal.
SJ: Not the other way around?
SI: Why not? You have human mummies often before. Just because we choose animals first because we think we can, doesn’t mean it was always so.
SJ: During the lecture you showed a photo of spells which were included in an animal mummy’s wrapping. Are they found often in animal mummies?
SI: No. Those are found on human mummies. Some of the linen I have from TT11 has inscriptions on parts of it and there are occasional mummies of animals with spells. Dieter Kessler has some very nice examples.
SJ: And does the same go for amulets?
SI: Yes, there are much rarer on animal mummies. I think you get them more on sacred animals: rams, some monkeys. Again, I think Tuna has the best representation. I think there are some on Ibises.
SJ: Have you ever encountered any proof of mummification gone wrong? For example: during the lecture you mentioned internal combustion.
SI: Yes, that happened in humans as well, but combustion happened after the mummies were wrapped.
SJ: You mentioned you mummified two cats for people. Does that mean you have now really figured out how mummification was done?
SI: Well, I’m going to open up one of the graves this fall to see how the cat has survived and then I’ll know.
SJ: How often do you find inscriptions on an animal mummy, for example on its wrappings or its coffin/container?
SI: It varies. There are lots of examples as Dieter Kessler said from Tuna and we’ve got quite a few from Saqqara. In fact, if you look at the publications of the EES, there are now examples of the bandages and the jars or wall inscriptions. But the majority are from Tuna el-Gebel. Because you get animal burials in so many places, but Tuna seems to have the concentration of this particular genre of evidence, which of course clues how one looks at that side in relation to others.
SJ: Does this evidence also help to understand why these mummies were made?
SI: Not always. Sometimes it’s just ‘so and so sent this from such and such’. There is space for the extrapolation argument which increases exponentially as you will see perhaps during the question and answer time.
I would like to thank Salima for a very interesting and entertaining lecture and for taking the time to talk to me.