Light at the end of the tunnel……?

As an avid user of social media, I have been slightly dismayed this week by a number of my friends posting Christmas cartoons and captions. Much as I love the festive season, I can’t help feeling slightly perturbed by the speed at which it is approaching! This brings to mind another saying I came across recently which seems to hold more truth the longer I spend in academic research – ‘When you realise that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train’! I frequently think this motto should be emblazoned across the whiteboard in the office!

September marks the anniversary of our Leverhulme award funding and the time at which a progress report is due to the Trust justifying how money has been spent and what exactly has been achieved over the past year. Whilst writing the report yesterday, I realised that we have actually achieved a lot. The Bio Bank database has grown to 797 from just shy of 600, with a further 150 mummies waiting to be added when time allows (probably early 2015). We have conducted one imaging session with a further two planned for October and two for Spring 2015. We have grown our ‘flock’ of experimental mummies to 10, thanks to donated cadavers from the NHM and friends and family who have collected all manner of critters for the greater good. All in all, we’ve done well.

Perhaps the biggest achievement is the progress that has been made towards our exhibition. When we started the grant, preliminary discussions with the director of Manchester Museum were positive and we knew that if we managed to find funding, the exhibition would go ahead, in some form at least. What we are now faced with is the first touring Manchester exhibition and the first in the world to focus exclusively on votive animal mummies and their scientific study. Incorporating mummies and associated material from over 18 UK collections, this is proving to be no mean feat! Almost a year to the day that I’m writing this, we will be standing at the preview evening for ‘Gifts for the Gods – animal mummies in ancient Egypt’, hopefully smiling at what we have managed to achieve.

This brings me on to why Christmas seems so daunting this year. The exhibition preview evening will be something of a double-edged sword as we will also launch our book on the same day. Seeing our work in print and on sale to the amassed crowd in the Museum shop will no doubt be quite something for everyone who has contributed text and images, and helped to support the project since it started. In order for the book to be released in time, everything has to be with the publisher by New Year’s Day (ha ha). On that note, better get back to it!

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Manchester Museum’s Animal Mummies in Micro

Today, five of Manchester Museum’s animal mummies got the ‘micro-CT treatment’ – the first application of the technique to mummified remains in the collection. In the thirty-five years since the initial radiographs were taken of the mummies, radiological capabilities have increased enormously, along with our ability to investigate the contents of wrapped mummy bundles in a non-invasive manner. The five mummies studied today were chosen because recent clinical CT investigation had revealed results worthy of further, more detailed, examination, made possible through this technology. The mummies were accompanied on their journey to the Manchester X-ray Imaging Facility, part of the University of Manchester’s Material Science Department, by Dr Campbell Price, Curator of Ancient Egypt and the Sudan. Ably supervised by KNH colleague Tom O’Mahoney, the scanning process revealed clearer details about the bundle contents than have ever been seen before. We look forward to sharing the results of the investigation once the lengthy process of image manipulation has been completed and we hope that the micro-CT data will add a further element to the exhibition!












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National Mummy Week

This week will go in the diary as Mummy Week – we have doubled our cache of experimental animal mummies to a grand total of 10! This is largely due to a number of friends who have either pointed me in the right direction of dead animals in their gardens, or have collected them for me and donated them to the cause. I am sure I am developing quite a name for myself as the ‘odd friend’ who keeps asking for dead things via social media and being surreptitiously handed freezer bags full of ‘goodies’ at the school gates!

I have been fortunate to have an extra pair of hands in the lab this week to help with the experiments in the form of work experience student, Alana Parker, who has been invaluable. Thanks also to my colleague, Tom, who photographed one session for me – resin covered gloves and a camera are not a wise combination! 

Our experimental candidates this week have been part of our ‘unidentified’ series, mummified with a view to assessing the likelihood of determining a positive identification using radiography. These were either ‘fresh’ birds killed by pet cats, small insectivores, feather bundles and one largely decomposed large bird complete with a resident population of maggots! It has to be said that they were not very fragrant so it remains to be seen whether the process is successful; however, through our work on the ancient mummies, I am fairly convinced that many mummies were made from less-than-savoury offerings found pre-deceased in sacred areas. These experiments form a crucial part of the Leverhulme funded project, in helping to increase the potential of morphometric studies suing radiographic imaging. Photographs were taken prior to the mummification and radiographs will be obtained in around 6 months when the bodies have desiccated. 

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All five experiments have used the same resin-beeswax mixture as the first five to maintain a fixed variable. I introduced the use of an organic soil matrix and sand to a couple of bundles in an attempt to see whether these look like the ancient ones when we come to radiograph them. I am looking forward to seeing their progress and hoping that they really can help to aid our interpretation of the ancient mummified animal remains.

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Another busy week coming to a close….

Recording crocs

The weeks seem to be flying by at an alarming rate at the moment. I actually heard myself saying to someone today – ‘it’ll soon be Christmas’. When you have a publisher’s deadline on January 1st, that is not a thought you wish to dwell on, believe me!

This week we met up with a software company who work on producing public engagement tools for exhibitions – mainly in the form of interactive virtual autopsy tables which use CT and micro-CT data to enable viewers to visualise what is inside a body, or in our case, a mummy. We have been pondering the question of how to bring the enormous amount of data we have to the public in a  format that is easily understandable and can be manipulated to give the viewer a sense of discovery as they view the contents of a mummy bundle for the first time. We were very impressed with the capabilities of the system in visualising what is essentially a massive, complex dataset. Watch this space!Today, Campbell Price, Curator of Ancient Egypt and the Sudan at the Manchester Museum, met with a student from the University of York interested in pursuing research on crocodile mummies. It was interesting to chat to a current York undergraduate and see how the Archaeology department has changed since I left in 2000. It was quite sad to hear that the small portable X-ray unit I used in 1999 to image the animal mummies from Bolton Museum is no longer there. This is not totally surprising with the quality of images that can be produced using clinical and veterinary equipment. When I think back to the summer I spent in a cupboard (literally) developing the images by hand, times really have changed where radiography is concerned. Now when we want images, the material comes to Manchester and we use state-of-the-art facilities to obtain the best possible images for our research. The meeting made me realise how lucky we are at Manchester to have the collaboration with the Central Manchester NHS Foundation Trust who are so accommodating of our bizarre research requests. I guess having a teaching hospital next door has it’s advantages! 


I am pleased that a new generation of researchers are being encouraged to study animal mummies. Let’s hope that between us we can uncover some of their secrets!


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More Experimental Mummies!

Yesterday, we made two more experimental bird mummies with an important research question in mind. The birds used had died naturally and were found locally – one at the local train station on the commute to work and the other in a friend’s back garden. Importantly, we don’t know what species they are which is important for this batch of experiments, designed to help improve our knowledge of species identification from radiographs. Identifying species, particularly in birds where dimorphism is slight, is notoriously difficult using radiography. This is even more difficult in animal mummies where we often have complete animals and often the most significant diagnostic elements are not present.

In our other experimental mummies, we have had clear identifications of the birds before we began the process. These experiments were designed to test the efficiency of the mummification method that we have observed radiographically in the ancient mummies and , so far, have proved to be successful in achieving bodily preservation. With these latest mummies, we are less concerned with preservation, rather on improving our identification of skeletal contents. We decided to use the same mummification technique – a simple pine resin:beeswax emulsion poured over the cadaver, followed by wrapping in layers of linen – but the ultimate goal of these mummies is to radiograph them shortly to gather morphometric data which we will present to avian specialists with the hope that they can offer positive identifications. In the coming weeks we plan to unwrap the mummies and remove the bones to enable identifications of the bones themselves which is generally easier through comparison with skeletal reference collections.





The two mummies we made yesterday contained complete bird cadavers, both of which had been outdoors for some time prior to being collected and had suffered some taphonomic changes as a result. Interestingly, the body positions of both these two birds have been witnessed in the mummy record, indicating that these animals could have been found naturally deceased within sacred spaces in temple complexes and offered for votive mummification. We are awaiting delivery of a number of ‘bundles’ of unidentified avian material constructed from random body parts of mixed species which will be treated in the same way. These bundles will be representative of the variety of animal remains we find mummified in the archaeological record from ancient Egypt. All these experiments are hoping to increase our understanding of avian morphometrics – a valuable component of our current Leverhulme Trust award.

We hope to add a podcast of this mummification experiment to the blog soon (once we’ve edited it!).

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Perth Mummy Study Day

On Saturday, I travelled to Perth to present the results of the radiological investigation of the Perth Mummy, Ta-Kr-Hb, at a study day being held at the Museum to raise funds for her conservation. I was joined by Mark Hall, Sam Sportun, Caroline Wilkinson, Claire Gilmour and Gemma Kirkland to discuss the invstigation of the mummy and to put her mummy and coffin into its archaeological context. Visitors also got the chance to see Ta-Kr-Hb before she goes back into store pending her conservation treatment which will stabilise her for future display.


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I took the opportunity during my Scottish jaunt to have a look at the Egyptian galleries in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Sadly, there were no animal mummies on display!

It was a pleasant change to present the results of the study of a human mummy rather than the animals! Today, it’s back to the office to write more chapters for the book and to prepare further for the exhibition. No rest for the wicked!

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Carry on Scanning!

If we were to write a film, ‘Carry on Scanning’ would have to be the strapline. Never ones to shy away from a challenge, last night we embarked on a ‘scan-a-thon’ of 26 animal mummies from the collections at Manchester Museum and Norwich Castle Museum. 26 might not sound a lot, but factor in the logistics of unpacking and repacking the mummies, moving between the X-ray room and the CT scanner, and actually acquiring the images, each mummy needs a fair amount of time to ensure everything is done efficiently and safely. Working to a tight deadline meant that we had a window of two hours to achieve all this – no easy task!

The mummies scanned last night included birds, crocodiles, cats and dogs, many of which had been X-rayed in 2001, but none of which had been CT scanned. We also had the opportunity to scan our first ceramic bird pot which produced some interesting results. We scanned bones from Ernest, our baboon, which we need for comparative purposes. The more mummies we see, the more candidates we find for our object list for the exhibition!

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In addition to last night’s session, our experimental mummies were also studied yesterday. We are trying to repeat the imaging at regular intervals so we can assess the dehydration process and chart the preservation of the birds over time. All indications are that they are incredibly stable considering the basic mummification technique they received and the fact they have been produced in a cold, humid Manchester lab and not the arid deserts of Egypt!

As always, we are extremely grateful to Prof. Judith Adams, Consultant Radiologist at the Central Manchester NHS Trust, for her endless support of the study of mummy, both ancient and modern. The radiographers at the MRI and the Children’s Hospital where the scanning takes place are always keen to sign up to help. We discovered last night that they had a prize draw to find out who would be helping out and apparently there is a growing list of names of people who would like to help for upcoming sessions. It’s nice for us to know that the staff are willing to participate at the end of a long shift! We also couldn’t work without the endless support of the museums and their staff – particularly Campbell and Sam from Manchester Museum and Faye and Martha from Norwich Castle.

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