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Interview with Salima Ikram

August 8, 2014

On 26 July the EES had organised a study day: Ancient Animals: Mummies and Mysteries in London.
The first lecturer of the day was Professor Salima Ikram.

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.

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