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Beloved Beasts: Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies

13 April 2008

Dr. Salima Ikram is Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo and co-Director of the North Kharga Oasis Survey.

 Following her introduction, Dr. Ikram noted that she had also spent one year of her graduate education at UC Berkeley and took one of her first Ancient Egyptian language class from Dr. Terry Moore, plus had her first introduction to museum work from Joan Knudsen at the Hearst Museum – both ARCE/NC chapter members.

 We have known a great deal for a long time about how the Ancient Egyptians mummified people, but we’ve not known as much about the animals they mummified until relatively recently.  Animals were very important to the Ancient Egyptians.  Many deities were inspired by animals and they were often represented with the head of their representative animal and a human body.  They also valued animals as food, for leather, sinew and gut for various purposes, as pets, and as votive objects.  Thus animals had a variety of major roles in Egyptian life.  It is not unusual or unexpected, therefore, that they mummified them for the same reasons human bodies were mummified – to preserve them for eternity.

 Beloved pets were mummified and placed in the tombs of their owners, so that they might pass into the afterlife together. In fact, pet burials date back to the Predynastic period Food was mummified and placed in tombs so that the ancient Egyptians, who truly believed that “you CAN take it with you”, could have sustenance on the journey to the afterlife and beyond.

 The ancient Egyptians believed that a fragment of the spirit of a god entered into a particular animal’s body throughout its life as a manifestation of that god.  Upon the death of the specific animal it was believed that the god’s spirit flew to another animal, which could be identified by special markings.  When these most sacred animals died they were mummified.

 Votive mummies were offerings made to the god of the specific sacred creature which represented the god – rather like long term insurance for the well being and eternal life of the individual. Cats, shrews, falcons, ibises, monkeys, crocodiles and other animal were bred and mummified for this specific purpose then buried in huge repositories, some containing thousands of mummified animals.  In the 1800s, many visitors to Egypt took a mummified animal back to England as a souvenirs.  However when mummy curse crazes developed – as during the excavation of KV62, the tomb of Tutankhamun – the British Museum suddenly found itself inundated with animal and human mummies which individuals decided had been the cause of their family’s ill fortune, and they left them at the door of the museum to rid themselves of their particular curse.

 Sometimes animal mummies were used as fuel and thousands were burned.  Also, cat mummies were used as ballast for boats, and others were ground up to create fertilizer – a process which did not prove very successful.

So, why do we study animal mummies?  Dr. Ikram noted several reasons. 

-          They give us insight into the life and culture of ancient Egypt;

-          We learn about the climate and environment through their study;

-          We learn about the various species who lived in Egypt at various times;

-          They provide information about funerary practices and religious beliefs;

-          Information about trade can de deduced – such as where resins came from and other insights into the economy;

-          DNA analysis contributes to the record of animals and how they moved around the world.

Animal mummies are studied though visual inspection, smell, sometimes taste (thought not highly recommended!), CT scanning, tests of embalming materials and study of the effects embalming has had on the bodies. 

We know how to mummify and a bit about the rituals involved in the process, but little else.  Animals are embalmed similarly to humans, and sacred animals in particular received the same reverent care that the body of a person would have received.  The body was eviscerated via a cut down the ventral surface of the body - vice a left side opening as in humans - and the internal organs were removed – lungs, stomach, intestines and liver might be mummified or discarded (depending on the animal being mummified) along with the rest of the offal from the body cavity.   The cavity was washed with palm wine then desiccated using natron which has de-fatting and dehydrating properties.  When the natron was removed the body was dry and brittle, so it was necessary to massage some or all of the seven sacred oils into the mummified remains to return enough flexibility to wrap the body.  If, of course, too much oil was applied, it in effect reversed the mummification process, and the remains ultimately rotted away.

Human bodies required 70 days to complete the mummification process; 40 days to desiccate the remains and 30 days to oil, conduct the appropriate rituals and wrap the body in linen bandages including amulets to protect the deceases through his journey to the afterlife.   Animal mummification required various time periods depending on the size of the animal.  Fish, for example, desiccate in natron within a matter of a few days, whereas a fat, pampered Apis bull probably required considerably longer – perhaps as much as 3 or 4 months.  Birds seem often to have just been held by the neck and dipped into a vat of bitumen or boiling oil before being wrapped 

In the spirit of “experimental archaeology”, Dr. Ikram’s classes have investigated how mummies were actually made through experimental embalming projects.  Her students embalmed ducks, rabbits and fish (all purchased from the butch, by the way). The creature’s bodies were eviscerated then put into natron which the students collected at the Wadi Natrun and ground by hand, just as the ancients would have.  Very quickly the experimenters learned that the natron must be changed regularly or the desiccation ceases when the natron becomes saturated with fluids.  Putting it out in the sun to dry proved a workable alternative, which allowed it to be reused.   It also became apparent quickly that there was a good reason why the ancient embalmers put the natron into small cloth packets as it was extremely smelly, “icky”, and difficult to remove when left loose.

Once the desiccation was complete, the students used four of the sacred oils to massage the animal so that the limbs could be moved for wrapping – cedar oil, lettuce oil, almond oil and balanites oil - then wrapped using strips of linen.  Several different animals were used in this experimental process and each one produced new insights into the process and results as materials or methods were modified.

 The ancient Egyptians mummified many kinds of animals.  Cats, which were kept as pets, used as vermin hunters, and revered as manifestations of deities, were mummified in large numbers.  Beloved royal pets – both cats and dogs – were often buried with their owners, and sometimes in their own carved sarcophagus.  Some owners even had their pet placed in the coffin with them.  Princess Makare was buried with a bundle which turned out to be a pet monkey when it was X-rayed.  If the owner predeceased a pet, the pet was perhaps buried in the courtyard of its owner’s tomb when it died, sometimes in its own anthropoid coffin.  X-rays of some of these pets provide information about veterinary care received by the animal as in the case of a pet baboon which had suffered a broken arm bone that had been successfully treated and healed, and had had its canine teeth removed. Gazelles were kept as pets and several examples of mummified gazelles survive.

Food mummies have been found in many tombs.  Perhaps the most well known are the 42 or so pieces of mummified meat and fowl found it the tomb of Tutankhamun.  The skin or feathers were removed before mummification and sometimes the meat appears even to have been braised.  One of the most popular cuts of meat mummified as food for the deceased was the foreleg. Dr. Ikram explained that there is a very practical reason for using this cut, as it functions quite well as a “pump” to help drain blood from the animal’s carcass after the animal’s throat was cut.  Poultry were popular food item.  Geese, ducks and other water fowl, but no chickens were included.  Chickens were not introduced into Egypt until rather late, probably during the 19th Dynasty.  Also, cuts such as “spare ribs”, tails and some internal organs survive as food offerings.

Sacred animals, which were believed to contain the spirit of a god, are of many kinds and have been found in hundreds of sacred places.  Some of the most well known are the Bubastion which housed cat mummies and the Serapeum which housed the remains of the Apis bulls at Saqqara, the burials of the Mnevis bulls at Heliopolis, and the burials of the Buchis bulls at Armant.  When these revered animals died and were mummified, they were buried with such things as bull masks, net dresses and in several cases, devices that resembled an oil can.  Thanks to a veterinarian in England, these devices ware identified as enemas.  The enemas were probably used to embalm the Buchis bulls.  The body cavity of the bull was pumped full of cedar or juniper oil, the orifice was plugged and the oils liquified the internal organs.  When the process was complete, the oils and dissolved organs were drained from the body and the desiccated body was ready for wrapping.  Dr. Ikram noted that he students tried this process, also described by Herodotus in his Histories, and found that it worked just as described.

Crocodiles, sacred to several Egyptian gods, including Sobek, were mummified in large numbers. While cleaning a crocodile mummy at the Cairo Museum, Dr. Ikram advised that she had found what she initially thought were sticks in the mouth, only to discover that they were baby crocs being carried protectively in their mother’s mouth.

Sacred rams have survived in a mummified state, but interestingly, when X-rayed, they proved not to have any horns.  Dr. Ikram speculated that they might have been removed to use as part of kingly or priestly headdresses or regalia.

Mummified votive offerings range from sacred beetles to crocodiles, all of which were bred to serve this purpose.  Dogs, cats, shrews (sacred to the sun god), raptors, crocodiles, ibis’s, falcons, snakes (some with their heads severed), and baboons or monkeys all served their cults in this way. Dr. Ikram has looked at all of them to try to date them and determine where they came from.  Sometimes these votive mummies turn out to be fakes.  The bundle may be made form mud or stray or even papyrus stems, with only a bit of hair or bone from the sacred animal included in the bundle, to “make it so”.   In other words the part symbolized the whole.  She noted that in her experience, the finer the wrappings the more likely the contents will be fake.

Dr. Ikram, and Dr. Cruz-Uribe, who was in the audience, summarized the exaggerated animal aspects of Egyptian religion, particularly in the Late period and into the early Greco-Roman Period, as a reaction to the impact of invaders. The uniqueness of the “animal” deities gave the Egyptians a sense of approachability to their gods.  There may also have been a connection to the decline in state support for the temple complexes – similar to the selling of indulgences in the Medieval Period in Europe.