Ancient Egyptian Mummies

 

 

Content Warning: Images of unwrapped mummy. 

 

 

The discovery and analysis of mummies from ancient Egypt, has fueled a long-standing fascination with ancient Egyptian culture. Mummies enable the modern audience to connect with the physical forms of people who lived thousands of years ago. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mummies inspired morbid curiosity among the upper classes and wealthy patrons would host ‘unwrapping’ parties where the remarkably preserved bodies would be have their bandages removed, bringing people face to face with ancient Egyptians. Modern analysis of mummies is far more controlled and scientific, involving scanning, x-rays, DNA analysis and blood tests. For example, the mummy displayed here at the Garstang Museum is known to be blood group A from the tests performed on it in preparation for their later use in testing the mummy of Tutankhamun. The stunning preservation of mummies enables archaeologists to reconstruct ancient lifeways in beautiful technicolour, but the process of mummification is perhaps one of the most intriguing practices in ancient Egypt.

IMG_5670

The Garstang Mummy (2015/13)

How to make a mummy?

The extensive, 70 day embalming and burial process was an important part of Egyptian belief, and was crucial for a successful journey into the afterlife. The mummification process consisted of two main components: the embalming of the remains, and the wrapping and burial of the body.

canopic1

Canopic jar heads in the shape of the hawk-headed deity Qebehsenuef and the baboon-headed deity Hapi (E.7840 E.7841).

During the embalming process, the body was washed with water from the Nile for purification. The internal organs were then removed and stored in canopic jars. Canopic jars come in sets of four, each identifiable with a specific god; Imsety, a human-headed jar to store the liver; Qebehsenuef, a falcon-headed jar to store the intestines; Hapy, a baboon-headed jar to store the lungs; and Duamutef, a jackal-headed jar to store the stomach.

Next the heart (ib) was put back into the body, and the body was stuffed and covered with natron (salt) to dry it out, before being covered for 40 days. The body was then unwrapped for the final time to be coated in embalming oils before being stuffed with dry materials to give the corpse the appearance of life.

The wrapping of the corpse began with the head and neck, then the individual fingers and toes, and finally limbs. Ritual spells would be spoken over the mummy by priests during the wrapping to protect against evil spirits in the journey into the afterlife. The limbs were then bound into the body with cloth that was wrapped around the entire corpse, and liquid resins were used to glue the bandages tightly. The body was then placed into a series of coffins for its final journey.

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Canopic jars featuring the human-headed deity Imsety and the hawk-headed deity Qebehsenuef (E.5267 & E.5266).

How do we know about the mummification process?

Greek historical texts are a useful (if often confusing) source of information for mummification; writers including Diodorus of Sicily and Herodotus discuss mummification practices in ancient Egypt. Herodotus left little to the imagination in his description of the processes:

“…making a cut near the flank with a sharp knife of Ethiopian stone, and then take out all the intestines, and clean the belly, rinsing it with palm wine and bruised spices.”

Perhaps even more interesting in Herodotus’ writing is the discussion of burial practices when there is little physical body to preserve:

“…anyone, Egyptian or foreigner, known to have been carried off by a crocodile or drowned by the river itself, must by all means be embalmed and wrapped as attractively as possible and buried in a sacred coffin by the people of the place where he is cast ashore…”

Mummy Mysteries

At the Garstang Museum, a mummy placed in a child’s coffin was always believed to be the remains of a child. However, X-Ray analysis revealed that the mummified remains were those of two cats, wrapped to look like a child.

There are two obvious possibilities here; the most likely theory is that there was a mistake by the embalmers leading to the original body being lost and replaced, but it is possible that the child was carried away by some creature from the Nile. The embalmers may have crafted the best impression of a child mummy they could to allow the ka (soul) of the child to carry on into the afterlife with some form of a physical body buried in their place, as alluded to in Herodotus.

 E.537 (2)

E.537 (3)

Child’s coffin containing the mummified remains of two cats (E.537).

Preserving Identity

The processes and rituals behind mummification have long fascinated societies around the world, from ancient Greek travellers and historians to modern archaeological scientists. Mummies provide a remarkable opportunity to understand ancient Egyptian people, their lives and their identities. Arguably, the most striking feature of mummies is how easily identifiable they are as humans, allowing a modern audience to look directly into the face of the past.

Greta Brown.

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Object Biography: Meet ‘Felix’ one of our mummified cats

E.5425 a.k.a. 'Felix'

E.5425 a.k.a. ‘Felix’

This is ‘Felix’ one of our mummified cats, or more officially E.5425. Felix often goes with us on outreach activities though he is fairly quiet and doesn’t really eat much even when on the road! Really we should probably call him a more Egyptian name such as ‘Ta-miu’ (literally ‘the girl cat’, think meow), which is the name of the pet cat of a Prince Thutmose, but Felix rather stuck.

However, Felix was not buried in such a lofty location as the Valley of the Kings, in fact we are unsure of where he was originally buried. Instead, we know where he spent a portion of the 20th century- in an attic. On Thursday 12th November 1992, workmen were clearing the loft areas of one of the university buildings not too far from where the museum stands today; as they cleared the space they found some ancient pottery, basketry, mummified pieces and Felix. The building they were clearing, 11 Abercromby Square, had been part of the Institute of Archaeology before the 1940s and it appears that these objects were placed under the eaves for safe keeping and forgotten about for fifty years! An unusual find, but only last year another mummified cat was found lurking in an attic: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2278585/B-B-owner-finds-stuffed-cat-hidden-attic-2-000-year-old-EGYPTIAN-MUMMY.html (although the daily mail suggests that it was a mummified pet- keep reading and we will let you decide whether this is correct).

Scarcophagus of ‘Tamiu’, the pet cat of Prince Thutmose ©Madam Rafaèle

Scarcophagus of ‘Tamiu’, the pet cat of Prince Thutmose ©Madam Rafaèle

Why mummify a cat?

There are two reasons to mummify a cat, the first of these is to provide a pet with a caring burial (like Tamiu), and the second, more common reason is for ritual purposes. A number of animals including cats were mummified to serve as ritual offerings to the gods. Felix is probably one of these offerings. Cats were often offered to the cat-headed goddess Bastet as votives, with the practice of mummifying animals peaking in the 1st Millenium BC.  Huge numbers of animals were often stored on mass in underground galleries. As this was done on such a large scale, most of the mummified cats which were offered as votives were kittens, this was so that the temple could continue to produce these votives without spending unnecessary time raising an adult cat.

 

Wholesale cat mummies for fur-tiliser

Cartoon from "Punch" (15th February 1890)  showing a grizzly result of using the mummified cat fertiliser

Cartoon from “Punch” (15th February 1890) showing a grizzly result of using the mummified cat fertiliser

Liverpool also has an unusual link with mummified cats, on 10th February 1890, 19.5 tons of mummified cats (approx. 18,000). Found by accident in 1889 in Speos Artemidos, this large shipment was auctioned off in Liverpool and caused quite a stir in the media. The reports of the sale vary but they seem to agree that the cats were sold off wholesale when they had disintegrated (for use as fertiliser), with the more well preserved cats being sold whole or just as heads/bodies. There are even reports of the auctioneer using the skull of one such cat as a gavel!

For more on this, see:

http://blog.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/2011/06/a-mummy-cats-tale/

http://www.strangehistory.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/egyptian-cats.pdf