A New York businessman donated his collection of ancient Egyptian mummies to the New York Historical Society in 1850, which were then later sold to the Brooklyn museum in 1930. But these were not human mummies – they were the mummies of animals.
There was cats, dogs, snakes, hawks and ibises and all were stored in the vaults of the Egyptology department in the museum and forgotten. For decades, the 30 boxes lay neglected until 2009, when finally the boxes were opened and inside each one was an elaborately-wrapped mummy in the shape of an animal.
A team from the Egyptology department led by Edward Blieberg embarked on a comprehensive study of the mummies, which has resulted in a book, Soulful Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt by Edward Bleiberg.
Ancient Egyptians believed that animals possessed a soul, or ba, as humans do. Animal cults flourished outside the established state temples for much of Egyptian history and animals played a significant part in Egypt’s spiritual life. The gods themselves sometimes took animal form.
Horus the patron god of Egypt, was often portrayed with the head of a hawk, Thoth the scribe god, was represented as an ibis or a baboon and the fertility goddess Hathor was depicted as a cow.
In about 1075 BC, after the fall of the New Kingdom, Egypt was in decline. It had lost its possessions in Palestine, and there were revolts and raids in Nubia. Low floods had damaged its economy and it was then that large numbers of animal mummies in special cemeteries began to appear.
An X-ray of this elegantly wrapped hawk mummy dating to between 30 B.C. and A.D. 395 shows it contains only a single bird’s wing
As there was no pharaoh to mediate Egypt’s relationship to the gods, people became more devout and approached the gods on their own. When they visited the temples, pilgrims began to purchase animal mummies from priests to bury as offerings.
Melinda Zeder, who is the curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National museum of Natural History in Washington DC, explains the motivations underlying this practice. “The ancient Egyptians weren’t obsessed with death – they were obsessed with life,” she explains.
“And everything they did to prepare for mummification was really looking at life after death and a way of perpetuating oneself forever. The priests would sacrifice the animal for you, mummify it and then place it in a catacomb in your name. So this was a way of obtaining good standing in the eyes of whatever god it was.”
According to an ancient text, the Temple of Thoth in the necropolis of Saqqara at one time had 60,000 living ibises being readied for mummification, and archaeologists estimate that some four million ibis mummies were eventually buried there.
Profesor Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo estimates that the known 31 animal necropolises once held at least 20 million mummies.
She said “It’s easier to say which animals the ancient Egyptians didn’t mummify. There are no mummified pigs as far as we know, no mummified hippos, and I think that’s about it – because almost every other creature at some time or another has been mummified.”
This bronze coffin dating to between 664 and 30 B.C. held an ibis bundle, the most common type of animal mummy in ancient Egypt
The ibis communicated directly with the god Thoth, who had the body of a man and head of a bird and who was especially good at resolving human disagreements.
The baboon did not fare well. The animal was so popular for mummification purposes that it was ultimately wiped out, forcing priests to start manufacturing fake mummies instead that looked like baboons on the outside but were in fact made from other animals, a fact that only became apparent with modern CT scans.
Dr Ikram explains, “If you wanted to have a baboon as an offering, you make it look like a baboon and if you say it is a baboon, then it magically becomes a baboon. The real ones were very expensive and hard to come by and that’s why the whole genre of fake mummies started.”
This cloth bull is actually a mummy containing a single bone. The piece dates to the Third Intermediate Period, circa 1075-656 BC, or Late Period, circa 664-332 BC
A few mummies have been found with papyri petitioning the gods for help to resolve a family matter or cure an illness.
These messages included complaints, often followed by polite requests. A writer might ask that “justice be procured” following a crime or that a curse be placed on someone who has done evil.
Some of the messages are bargains with a god, promising money or goods to that god’s temple in exchange for mercy or assistance.
“There’s a letter included with one of the animal mummies that suggests there’s this man who is having a terrible problem at work,” Edward Bleiberg reveals. “He has this rivalry with a co-worker and he’s certain that the co-worker is badmouthing him to the boss and making him look bad and he requests that Thoth make him stop.”
“The people who added a written record of their communications with the gods must have had the means either to write the letter themselves or to hire a scribe to write it for them,” Bleiberg observes.
This wooden coffin held a complete mummified cat, an animal that became popular as a domestic pet in the first millennium B.C. and was associated with the goddess Bastet
That would explain why most of the animal mummies have no notes, only a limited number of people could afford them. The ritual, with or without a written note, probably included oral communications with whatever message the person who bought the mummy wanted to send to the gods.
The animals were charged with the responsibility of using their souls in death to carry messages to the gods they had represented on Earth during their lives.
The dog, for example, was the sacred votive or messenger of the god Anubis, who is depicted in ancient Egyptian art as a man with the head of a dog.
Amongst the Brooklyn museum collection there’s a dog so detailed that even its floppy ears are prominent.
An ancient cat has been laid to rest with its little paws drawn across its body, creating an image eerily reminiscent of a human’s funeral pose.
CT scans revealed that these mummies hold complete cat skeletons. The feline on the right had its forelegs and paws laid over its belly in a position similar to the placement of arms in human mummies
X-rays and CT scans of the mummies show entire skeletons inside the mummy bundles, others reveal only partial remains. Some even show multiple animals mummified together in one bundle.
At the necropolis of Saqqara, Egyptologists discovered a draft document detailing a case of corruption against the Temple of Thoth.
This bronze cobra coffin with the head of a human wearing a crown represents the god Atum, who was thought to have swum in primordial waters before creating the world
The document outlines reforms that call for “one god in one jar,” meaning one whole animal per purchase. That implies the priests of Thoth were selling fraudulent mummies that either had no animal inside at all, or held multiple animals that each represented a separate purchase.
These two ibis-shaped mummies are not what they appear. One (left) contains no skeleton, and an X-ray of the other (right) reveals it actually contains snake skeletons. Both could be the result of corrupt temple practices
Whatever their crime, six priests were imprisoned.
The document also describes a programme of oversight by outside priests and states that mummies would be stored in a holding area until they could be buried all at once during an annual festival overseen by reliable officials.
An X-ray of this dog mummy (left) shows how the animal’s skeleton was compressed and its tail tucked behind its hind legs, while an X-ray of a small, bull-shaped linen bundle (right), shows the object contains a bone fragment that could be bovine
A painted wooden coffin depicts a shrew, a nocturnal animal, which represented Kenty-irty, a god with the ability to see in the dark
If you are interested in the work of preserving animal mummies led by Professor Salima Ikram at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo you can learn more at www.animalmummyproject.com
Photographs: courtesy of the Brooklyn museum
Sources: Archaeology magazine, Soulful Creatures:Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt by Edward Bleiberg