Secrets of the Animal Mummies.

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hztZ1MijB10″>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hztZ1MijB10

Snake unlikely to have killed Cleopatra

Academics at The University of Manchester have dismissed the long-held argument that the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra was killed by a snake bite.

cleopatraAndrew Gray, Curator of Herpetology at Manchester Museum, says venomous snakes in Egypt –  Cobras or Vipers – would have been too large to get unseen into the queen’s palace.

He was speaking  to Egyptologist Dr Joyce Tyldesley in a new video which is part of a new online course introducing ancient Egyptian history, using six items from the Museum’s collection.

According to Dr Tyldesley, the ancient accounts say a snake hid in a basket of figs brought in from the countryside, and was also used to kill one or two of her serving maids.

But according to Andrew Gray, Cobras are typically 5 to 6 feet long but can grow up to 8 feet – too big to hide very easily.

There would also be too little time to kill 2 or 3 people-  because snake venom kills you slowly-  with in any case only a 10 per cent chance of death.

He said:

Not only are Cobras too big, but  there’s just a 10 per cent chance you would die from a  snake bite: most bites are dry bites that don’t inject venom.

That’s not to say they aren’t dangerous: the venom causes necrosis and will certainly kill you, but quite slowly

so it would be impossible to use a snake to kill  2 or 3 people one after the other. Snakes use venom to protect themselves and for hunting – so they conserve their venom and use it in times of need.

Cleopatra is strongly associated with snakes, like many ancient Egyptian kings and queens of Egypt. In addition, Cleopatra also believed she was the embodiment of the Goddess Isis, who can take on the form of a snake.

Dr Tyldesley, who’s book Cleopatra: Egypt’s Last Queen was a BBC Radio 4 book of the week, says one aspect of the accounts has proved to be correct. The ancient Egyptians believed snakes were good mothers.

Very few snakes have a maternal instinct. However, the cobra is an exception: they sit on the nest and protect them until they hatch. So in this case, it seems the Egyptians were right.

The free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘A History of Ancient Egypt’, launches on 26 October.

Dr Tyldesley added:

The MOOC includes behind-the-scenes access at the Museum and detailed descriptions of many objects from our Egypt and Sudan collection.