The Animal Mummies exhibition, which has previously been at Manchester Museum and the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, is now installed at the World Museum, Liverpool until 26 February 2017. Entry is free and it’s a great indoor holiday activity.
I was able to visit in late November when the exhibit was quiet, and found myself impressed. It may surprise the reader to learn that animal mummies are not this Egyptologist’s most favourite thing, but it happens to be true. Despite this I found the exhibition well laid out and highly informative. It has enough information to interest the general visitor, together with sufficient specialist material for the archaeologist, and child-friendly material including a downloadable family pack to help you get the most out of the experience. The schoolchildren who appeared during my visit particularly enjoyed the interactive elements, showing how mummies were made and are scanned and investigated, and the opportunities to dress up.
Broadly speaking the exhibit covers three main areas: The ancient Egyptian religious context for the creation and deposition of animal mummies as offerings to divinities, the rediscovery of animal mummies by archaeologists and their impact upon the Victorian imagination, and the modern rediscovery of animal mummies, their scientific investigation and potential to contribute to scientific discovery. Taken together the exhibit is informative without feeling like it’s too much to digest (or walk around).
One of the highlights, is that the curators have sourced and presented the absolute best of animal mummy artefacts. The gilded ibis statue from the Burrell Collection (left) is a striking and beautiful object that demonstrates the overlap between coffin (since it has a hollow compartment for an ibis mummy) and cult-statue.
Another super object is the cat coffin (above right), carved in two halves with its occupant sealed inside it. It is a beautiful object and a long way from the unfortunate ends that some animal mummies came to. The destruction of so many mummies is described in the second part of the exhibition, together with some beautiful paintings showing the Victorian impression of Egyptian animal religion. Although sometimes hilariously inaccurate these attractive images have had a powerful influence over perceptions of Egyptian religion and the, often inaccurately portrayed, role of animal mummies in it.
A crucial element of the exhibition is how it showcases the role of science in animal mummy investigations. Upon x-ray a small humanoid coffin (above) from the University of Liverpool Garstang Museum was found to contain the mummy of a cat. Precisely what religious or emotional purpose prompted this conjunction of mummy and coffin is unclear. Did someone pay extra for a special product in memory of a child? Was it a pet? Or was it just expediency?
Detailed MRI and CT scans have shown that some mummies contain very little animal material, perhaps a single bone padded out with linen, while others comprise more than one individual. The former might be anything from outright frauds, to cheaper versions containing the minimal effective (religiously speaking) animal matter for the poorest patrons. Examples with more than one individual include crocodiles (below) and one can’t help thinking that it was easier (and safer) to kill younger, smaller animals and parcel them up together, rather than feeding a single crocodile till it grew large enough to be mummified (or eat you).
The exhibition is a fascinating tour through animal mummies, their meaning to the ancient Egyptians, their meaning to their Victorian discoverers and purchasers, and the things we continue to learn from them. They even charmed this animal mummy sceptic and there’s plenty for children to do. So if you’re in Liverpool and have the opportunity over the Christmas holidays, then have a look at the animal mummies. They’ll make a nice change from reindeer and ‘Elf on a Shelf’ (although those crocodiles look like they might find an Elf to be a tasty treat).
For further reading about the science behind animal mummies see;
Zakrzewski , S. Shortland, A. and Rowland, R. 2016. Science in the Study of Ancient Egypt. Routledge: London. 200-201.
Ikram, S. Kaiser, J. and Walker, R. 2015. Egyptian Bioarchaeology. Sidestone Press: Leiden. 169-200.