‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’ – Press Release

The Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank:

Read all about the upcoming exhibition ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal mummies revealed’ which opens at Manchester Museum in October.

Originally posted on Egypt at the Manchester Museum:

Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed

8 October 2015-17 April 2016, Manchester Museum

Free Entry

This myth-busting exhibition will present and explore ancient Egyptian animal mummies, prepared in their millions as votive offerings to the gods. Gifts for the Gods will explain the background behind this religious practice in the context of life in ancient Egypt and the environment in which the animals lived. It will explore the British fascination with Egypt, the discovery of animal mummies by British excavators, and how the mummies ended up in the UK, as well as taking a look at the history and future of their scientific study in Manchester. The display will combine mummified specimens such as jackals, crocodiles, cats and birds with cultural artefacts such as stone sculpture and bronze statuettes, alongside 19th Century works of art and never-seen-before archives.

The exhibition will open with a reconstruction of the ancient…

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Eight weeks until Gifts for the Gods opens at Manchester!

This has been my first week back after my summer holiday and it’s been quite a week! On Tuesday we had a visit from our designer, Andrew Gibbs, where lots of elements of the design, colour scheme and object layout were approved. The panel text and object labels are just about complete now, having been sent around to all our partners for their comments. The fantastic workshop team have been making headway on the extensive list of cases, plinths and structural supports that we need to bring Andrew’s designs to reality. It seems that wherever you turn in the Museum at the moment, there’s something for Gifts for the Gods!

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Our museum registrar, Jamilla, has been extremely busy corresponding with all of the lenders to finalise arrangements for collection – in fact, quite a menagerie of animal mummies has already arrived at the museum! A few of our visitors require a little bit of TLC before they can go on public display, especially because they will be need to be stable for travel between the three venues and look their best at all times in-between!

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On Wednesday we met with our graphic designer who is busy working on the design for our posters, leaflets and invitations featuring some of the key objects from the exhibition. We are even going to have pennants on the lamp posts along Oxford Road so there really is no excuse for not knowing about the show! 

On Wednesday afternoon we met with Neil who has been employed to design our education resource pack which will be offered to schools and families visiting the exhibition. This is an important element of the show as it enables our younger visitors to engage further with the topic of votive animal mummies and will act as a means through which school groups and families of all ages can learn together. Designing this resource to satisfy all three venues and their visitors is no mean feat, but Neil has come up with some brilliant initial ideas and we can’t wait to see what the finished product looks like!

Thursday afternoon was spent either at the Museum assigning panel text to specific locations on the design, or, in my case, at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital downloading the last batch of scan data from the server. This task never seems to run as smoothly as I hope, but I got there in the end and was rewarded with some lovely images!

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Sacred Spaces at the Sackler

On Friday I was lucky enough to attend the Sackler lecture at the British Museum with the topic being the sacred site of Abydos. Of particular note was the keynote lecture by Janet Richards from the University of Michigan who spoke eloquently about her fieldwork at Abydos and the ‘sacredness’ of the deposits being unearthed at the site. She introduced the concept of sacredness in terms of modern-day saints such as sports stars, who’s graves become sites of pilgrim activity in much the same way as their ancient counterparts.

The concepts of sacredness and cult activity are something we have been discussing (grappling with!) at Manchester in preparation for both the book and the exhibition. Explaining what a votive is to the general public is not easy, but by introducing modern examples of similar practices, we can ‘ground’ these complex concepts in a context that most people can understand. We often use the idea of votive candles. Most people know that they are called votive candles, but many do not appreciate that the connection runs deeper. Christians, upon entering a place of worship, light votive candles, either in memory of a loved one, in anticipation of divine assistance, or in thanks for something they believe god has already addressed.

Another example are tributes deposited at the site of a tragedy in memory of a loved one or celebrity. This is a commonplace act in modern society, not only in Britain, but across the world. In this case, the offerings are not left to a deity, but to the deceased – as a token of mourning or in memoriam for a life cut short.

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No trip to the British Museum is complete without a little jaunt upstairs to see the animal mummies! 

Modern day votive giving is based, not on a fixed price system, but on a sense of perceived worth and affordability. One gives what one can afford to give. I guess this is a little like buying a poppy for Remembrance Day. There may be a suggested donation per poppy, but in reality the giver offers an amount they are comfortable to give.

In the case of animal mummies, the votive of choice for many ancient Egyptians, we have often assumed that mummies carried a certain price tag and that the most beautifully decorated examples cost more than those that appeared ‘plain’. This is perhaps more of a modern construct where there is an expectation that quality costs money. I guess this could be likened to today’s liking for designer clothes – they are often made in the same places as the budget brands, yet their worth is perceived to be greater because of a certain appearance or ‘brand’. It is possible that mummies were the same and that certain embalmers or workshops had such a status. It is equally as possible that mummies were gifted based on notional value, rather than a financial price tag.

One thing is for sure, the Sackler Colloquium raised some interesting theories and questions that apply in animal mummy research. We may not have the answers yet, but attending such events causes us to think ‘outside the box’ and apply the same inquiring mind to our own research. The fact that Abydos was the resting place for many of our mummies is an added connection!


Modern day representations of Bastet in the BM shop

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Animal mummies hit the media and T minus 14 weeks for Gifts for the Gods!

Apologies for letting the blog go a little recently, but there’s been so much media attention on animal mummies, that some things have got a bit behind. The much awaited Horizon episode ’70 million animal mummies: Egypt’s dark secret’ aired on May 11th and since then, the world hasn’t been able to get enough of the subject (not that we are complaining!). The barrage of media hit on the 11th with newspapers, websites, TV and radio stations around the world asking for information, interviews and images at what felt like the same time!

I spent an incredibly stressful day at Media City in Manchester where I did 7 live radio interviews and appeared live on Newsround and the BBC News Channel (thank god I had the foresight not to turn up in my jeans!). It was certainly a day that I won’t forget in a hurry, but all the stress aside, that day really did launch animal mummies and Manchester research into the spotlight for the first time. We’ve even filmed experimental mummification for Canadian TV and filmed part of a documentary on cats in the ancient world for a German channel since then.

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Two and a half years have passed since the initial idea of an animal mummies exhibition was broached the subject  with staff at Manchester Museum. I don’t think anyone expected  those early mumblings, however good they might have seemed at the time, to come to fruition, let alone become what they are now. ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’ is due to open in early October and the whole project team is getting very excited (and increasingly nervous!) of the task that faces us.

A few weeks ago, and bang on schedule, we entered ‘detail phase’ in the design of the exhibition. The colour scheme, wall finishes, lighting effects and audio visual technology is being finalised. Drafting of the text for the wall boards and object labels is well underway. Our fantastic workshop team have even built the first of 29 modules which form the backbone of the design, specially created to be easy-to-tour to our other two venues.


There don’t seem to be enough hours in the day or enough days in the week at the moment for all the work, but it’s so enjoyable that no one seems to mind too much. I just hope we can say the same thing in a few more weeks when the opening night is looming ever closer! At least the third (and hopefully final) draft of the book has gone back to the publishers for final amendments now. Phew!

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Excavation day books, exhibition designs and a broadcast date for Horizon!

Yesterday we were privileged to be able to access the excavation day books of Flinders Petrie from his 1900 season at Abydos. As is often the case with archive work, it is rare to find what you are looking for, but you always find interesting information nonetheless. Petrie was a man of his time, excavating sites in Egypt and sending artefacts to museums in Britain. Petrie’s archives tell the tale of a man who was meticulous about recording – from architectural details to the position of graves; yet his attention to detail appears to have fallen short when it comes to the animal remains he must have encountered. Interspersed with records of artefacts and their archaeological context are his shopping lists, payments made to his excavating staff, and details of which worker was allowed to go to the market on which day! He records many artefacts he discovered and their archaeological context, but no mention could be found for the particular group of remains we were searching for – bird remains from the tomb of Merneith, a regent of Egypt during the 1st Dynasty. This in itself is not disastrous as we know their specific find spot from a museum accession label; but we had hoped to find some information to add weight to the  their story and that of their owner. Sadly, this was not to be, so it’s back to the drawing board with the analysis of the faunal material. Watch this space!

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Whilst in London we met with our exhibition designer, Andrew Gibbs, to discuss the latest plans. Now that the object list is completed (well, almost!), Andrew has the rather unenviable task of trying to fit all the artefacts we want to display into the cases that we have. We have chosen quite a lot of mummies, archive material, paintings and associated artefacts, all of which help to tell the story of the mummies’ discovery, export and subsequent scientific study. This is certainly not going to be a case of ‘less is more’! We can’t wait to see how he gets on.

The Horizon documentary we filmed in October will be broadcast on Monday 11th May at 9pm on BBC2. Apparently, it was selected from a number of broadcasts to fill a free slot – it’s nice to know that the mummies have such great appeal! I have spoken with the BBC series producer this morning and he said the broadcast will be welcome relief from election fatigue! Let’s hope he’s right!

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Scanning mummies: the old and the new

Two enjoyable evenings have been spent this week scanning animal mummies at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital for the Bio Bank project. Tuesday was the turn of the experimental mummies. Our first attempts at experimental mummification are now over 2 years old and appear to be mummifying really well. They have lost muscle mass and have reached a stable weight, indicating that the moisture within the body has dissipated. What’s more, they don’t smell (which is more than can be said of the more recent additions to our mummy family!).

In March, we thawed six bags of disarticulated bird remains donated to us by the Natural History Museum for the purposes of testing how well we are able to identify birds using radiographs. These ‘bags’ were mummified using a pine resin and beeswax mix and wrapped in linen. Our ultimate aim will be to use the scan data to attempt to identify the remains, as we do with the ancient mummies. Using disarticulated and mixed bird species is designed to echo what we see in the ancient mummies. Our friends at the NHM have kept a list of what birds were in each bag so we can check our educated guesses and see just how accurate our identification skills are! Unfortunately, due to the mangled nature of the remains prior to mummification, they have what we call ‘malodour’ i.e. they do smell quite bad.

Walking into a hospital with a massive polystyrene freezer box attracted a few odd stares from members of the public (but that’s nothing new). The radiographers were slightly put off by the malodour of the new mummies, but we managed to get all 16 scanned and radiographed in record time and the mummies were taken back to the fume cupboard.

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The mummies we scanned on Thursday were somewhat easier on the eye and the nose. 7 mummies from World Museum Liverpool and 8 (including 3 coffin masks) from West Park Museum, Macclesfield, came to Manchester for the full imaging treatment. They revealed some interesting contents which will be featured in the exhibition later this year.

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Over the coming weeks, the data obtained during the two imaging sessions will be analysed and reported back to the museums. We would like to thank Central Manchester Foundation Trust for access to the radiography suite and to the radiographers who give their time and expertise to help with this research.

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Full Steam Ahead!

The start of 2015 has been a very exciting time for the Bio Bank project. With the book safely in the hands of the publishers, our attention has turned to planning the exhibition. Just before Christmas, we were fortunate to be able to employ our designer – Andrew Gibbs from Public Works Office, London – to work with us on turning our doodles in a notepad, into a full-blown touring exhibit. We always knew that this was not going to be an easy task, as our three exhibition venues – Manchester Museum, the Kelvingrove and World Museum Liverpool – vary greatly in size, shape and access routes, so designing one exhibit to fit all three was something of a tall order.

After our initial meeting with Andrew where we discussed the themes of the exhibition and the types of objects that are going to be on display, he went away and drew up some ideas of how the finished ‘show’ might look in the Manchester space. Having a creative mind on the case was instantly refreshing and turned our doodles of how we had envisaged the space looking, into a very different layout and one which Manchester has not adopted before. Conversations via Skype (not easy with three people at one end of the line holding up sheets of A3 paper in front of a webcam!) honed the ideas further and we now believe we have developed a great way of using the limited space at Manchester to its maximum potential.

Yesterday, the whole project team met with Andrew at the Kelvingrove to present the initial plans and to suggest how the design might work in the two larger galleries. Being able to ‘walk the course’ round the Kelvingrove space rather than from drawn plans, enabled Andrew to better visualise how things might look and has led to some quite drastic amendments. This is largely based on the gallery having a separate entrance and exit (which is not the case at Manchester where visitors enter and exit through the same doorway allowing for a cyclical exhibition) and a variety of fire exits which have to be kept clear. One bonus about visiting yesterday was that the temporary gallery is closed presently which allowed us free rein to wander, measure areas, check lighting and exits without getting under visitor’s feet! By the end of the day a clearer plan was forming which maximised Kelvingrove’s assets.

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Our next meeting is going to take place at the World Museum Liverpool, our third and final exhibition venue. Although the Liverpool leg of the tour is still 18 months away, it is vital that the exhibit created for Manchester can be moved lock, stock and barrel to Liverpool and be re-installed in their space without it looking dramatically different. In some ways, the fact that Liverpool’s gallery is essentially a large, regular shape, makes this easier as stud walls can be used to partition the gallery into a more management area. Watch this space!

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