Ancient Egypt is known throughout the world as one of the birthplaces of civilisation, thriving along the banks of the Nile for nearly three millennia. Perhaps the most fascinating and iconic aspect of Egyptian culture, besides the monumental pyramids they built, was the practise of mummification.
Mummification means the preservation of deceased humans and animals, usually by applying mixtures of chemicals in a process known as embalming. The Egyptians believed the body needed to be preserved in order for a being to reach the afterlife and live for eternity, and so mummified both humans and animals on a scale unparalleled in human history.
While the mummies of pharaohs and the treasures that filled their tombs draw millions to museum exhibits around the world, less attention has been given to the mummies of animals. The Egyptians held animals and nature in tremendous regard, and many of their gods were depicted as animals. Many Egyptians even worshipped living animals, as physical representations of their gods on Earth. The mummification of animals was thus a deeply important part of Ancient Egyptian culture.
The work by Doctors Lidija McKnight and Stephanie Atherton-Woolham of the Faculty of Life Sciences looks at mummified animals that were given as religious offerings to the gods of Ancient Egypt, known as ‘votive offerings’. The Egyptians made these offerings in their millions, and archaeologists are still discovering more of them today. Using advanced techniques such as radiography, CT scans and chemical fingerprints, these FLS researchers have been able to unlock the secrets of animal mummies and the mummification process, and give us amazing new insights into Ancient Egyptian culture and society. They have even been able to discover what the climate was like in ancient times, based on the types of animals that have been found.
Lidija and Stephanie’s work is currently on display in an exhibit at the Manchester Museum, ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’. The exhibit includes numerous examples of mummified animals, such as crocodiles, cats and birds, as well as some beautiful Egyptian relics, artwork and even a simulated CT scanner!
The exhibit lasts until 17th April 2016, and entry is free. The science behind the exhibit can also be seen in the latest episode of the Life Science Broadcast, available here: