A belated update from animal mummies HQ

Phew! I am currently experiencing frantic times at animal mummy HQ and I want to apologise to all of the blog followers for being so quiet on here for so long. I thought I’d write a quick post to update you on where the project is up to and on future plans, so here goes……

Work on the Bio Bank is continuing, largely concerning the project database which is available online at https://www.mummies.manchester.ac.uk/. At the moment, there are a small number of entries available to view online, however, I have been fortunate to begin working with a volunteer who is working hard to upload more of the data. The online database will enable visitors to view photos and radiographic images of the mummies, alongside information on their histories from the point of excavation until the present day. This is vitally important for the future of the animal mummy project, enabling valuable information to be shared digitally with an online audience.

Media interest in the Bio Bank project and in mummy studies at Manchester in a more general sense has continued to gather momentum. Just last night, the story of two human mummies from the collection at Derby City Museum aired on BBC1’s Inside Out NW. The story covers the journey undertaken by the two mummies in may this year to Manchester for investigation at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital and some of the results of the analysis. You can view the clip using this link: – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-manchester-49690656/manchester-ct-scans-reveal-secrets-of-egyptian-mummies?fbclid=IwAR1MV9-6VmNbWohycG0Ej79uvaobQq2pT8jDoVnMs32SCcdexTU6oeI1RhY

AP Skull (X-ray)

The mummy of Arafekh undergoes radiograhic analysis at the RMCH in May 2019.

I am working hard on publishing the results of the AHRC project so far. At present, I have 11 papers in progress, all at varying stages of the writing process! It’s no wonder I’ve been quiet!

Alongside my friend and colleague, Iwona Kozieradzka-Ogunmakin, I was lucky enough to be invited back to coordinate a course for the Bloomsbury Summer School at the start of July. It was an honour to welcome colleagues from around the world to collaborate on this course, making it truly interdisciplinary. This year marked the third course that I have been involved with BSS and I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoy my time in London teaching like-minded groups of students. Roll on next year!

As for the award-winning Gifts for the Gods exhibition, I am pleased to announce that the show will be on display at the Natural History Museum in Tring during 2020 (exact dates are yet to be confirmed). I have worked alongside the staff and collection at Tring for 20 years and I am pleased that the exhibition will be modified to include more of their own collection of bird mummies.

Further success came in the form of promotion from Research Associate to Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. It was certainly nice to be recognized and rewarded for my efforts so far.

Right, back to the writing…….

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Mummy Photogrammetry

This week I was fortunate to welcome Lee and Pip from Monument Men to Manchester to conduct our first ever animal mummy photogrammetry session! We were taking advantage of a brief respite between the exhibition closing at Wigan before it moves on to Lyme Park in just a few weeks.

Working with the conservation team at Manchester Museum, we were able to scan five of the mummies, including a wooden coffin containing a cat mummy, a tiny mummified shrew and a decorative falcon mummy with a gilded face. The day went really smoothly, with Lee’s equipment set-up working well for the small mummies. Two specimens which we had hoped to study proved to be slightly too large to image safely inside the light box, so we plan to scan those ‘freestyle’ in a second session next week.

We hope to be able to overlay the photogrammetry scans on top of the clinical CT scan data to enabled virtual fly-throughs of the mummies.

Whilst we wait for the results of the day’s activities, here are a few first impression images to whet your appetite!


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The Bio Bank reaches 1000 mummies!

Well, here we are at the start of a new year. The AHRC grant is now entering the second half of its first year so I thought it would be good to update you on what’s been going on since July. I am working through the existing Bio Bank data to identify artefacts which fit my research questions – all those which don’t contain complete animal remains of one individual (approximately half of my data set). As is often the way when dealing with museum collections, information regarding the artefacts can be incomplete, so there is an element of research required simply to get the records up-to-date. From this point, begins a process of statistical analysis to establish whether there are any noticeable trends within the data which might shed light on the ancient practice of animal mummification. Early indications suggest that there might well be, but more of that when the analysis is complete.

This week the Bio Bank reached an momentous milestone – the total number of animal mummies in the database crossed the 1000-mummy mark, now standing at an impressive 1063 specimens! This was a moment that I began to doubt would ever happen as the numbers had stuck at around 960 for many months whilst research was undertaken. However, the recent additions of Maidstone Museum (UK), the San Antonio Museum of Art (Texas, USA), and Brooklyn Museum (NY, USA) has pushed the total up by nearly 100 mummies. Most importantly from my point of view is that all three of these impressive collections have been radiographed so I am able to incorporate them immediately into my working dataset. I would like to thank the museum staff for allowing access to the data and for their support of my project.

The particular mummy which won the accolade of being mummy number 1000 in the Bio Bank was, purely by chance, the spectacular ibis from Abydos which featured as the cover model for Soulful Creatures. Clearly, a very special mummy indeed!


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Good things come to those who wait

In March 2016, after a failed application to the Leverhulme Trust, I applied for a research grant through the Arts and Humanities Research Council, with my Principal Investigator, Prof. Andrew Chamberlain. The competition for research council funding is extremely harsh – with less than 10% of applications being successful, so I always knew that the chances of my efforts ‘paying off’ were slim to non-existent, but in a niche field like animal mummies, there are very few funding bodies who could potentially fund the research so I had to give it a shot. The AHRC has an application turnaround time of 30 weeks, so I waited patiently to find out whether I had been successful. The 30 week deadline came and went, Christmas happened, and I managed to serve out three short-term contracts at the University whilst I waited to hear the result. Finally, in late May, 14 months after the application was submitted, I found out that I had been successful and that the AHRC will fund my research for three years. The grant formally began on July 16th.

Having spent around six months writing and tweaking the application, I had ‘mentally filed’ the project at the back of my mind, whilst constantly wondering what the hell I was going to do as a job if this really was the end of my research career. I had filed the project so far away that I have had to read through the case for support document countless times to refresh my memory on what exactly I had asked for funding for! I even printed a copy and I keep it in my bag at all times to remind myself that it is actually happening.

In essence, the project is building upon the research I have done over the past four years on the Leverhulme Trust grant. That project raised some important questions about votive mummies which are found to contain incomplete animal remains or no animal remains at all. Traditionally recorded as ‘fakes’, produced to dupe unsuspecting pilgrims, their sheer number and the fact that a great deal of time and effort was invested by the ancient embalmers in their manufacture, led me to believe that there must be more to it. I am sure some embalmers were unscrupulous in their intentions, but can we say with certainty that these offerings are all the result of fraudulent practices? Documentary sources, archaeological evidence and non-invasive imaging methods will be used to investigate the mummies and attempt to shed more light on this group of artefacts.

A major part of the project will be to use enhanced imaging methods such as micro-CT scanning and 3D visualisation and replication techniques to help to identify bundle contents. Identifying bones using clinical radiography alone is notoriously complex, especially in the case of animals where the range of taxa which were mummified is so large. Initial research suggests that the use of 3D techniques can improve identifications, thereby enabling the interpretation of this votive practice.

I am very much looking forward to this conducting this research with colleagues in the NHS, the University, Loughborough Design School and the many museums who collaborate by allowing access to their collections. More than anything, this post is about not giving up when all the odds are against you, about not letting listening to all the negative things about funding and about having faith in yourself. Sometimes, just sometimes, that faith pays off.



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A world first for the Animal Mummies team

Today has been a special day. It marked the last scheduled engagement event for ‘Gifts for the Gods’ and the start of the final four weeks of the exhibition’s time at World Museum Liverpool. Communicating science can be a tricky business. Attracting a crowd can be difficult. Pleasing the crowd can be even harder. We couldn’t really have hoped for a better outcome.

Never ones  to shy away from a challenge, Steph, Campbell and I didn’t make life easy for ourselves. So far we’ve re-rewrapped two ibis-shaped mummies with some success. For our second event at Liverpool, we decided to raise the bar and try something new – a world first – a cat mummy. With experimental archaeology, you’re never really sure what could happen and that’s kind of the point! In our research we are faced with mummified animals which have, quite literally, withstood the test of time. Many look as good today as they would have done 2,500 years ago when they left the embalmer’s workshop. There’s considerable pressure for us to recreate something which looks both good and accurate.

We chose to recreate a cat mummy with a herringbone design created from linen strips. During the two previous re-rollings, we had begun to get to grips with this technique so we felt reasonably confident that we could replicate the same design on a different mummy form – a ‘skittle-shaped’ cat. For the purposes of ‘theatrical license’ we opted to wrap a toy cat, mainly to allow for ease of interpretation of our crowd. We felt that a block of plastizote cut into a conical shape, although accurate to us, was not immediately recognisable for or audience, many of whom didn’t know what an ibis looked like. So, armed with our toy cat, we began to re-roll our mummy.

Research has shown that the Egyptians chose to place fine grade linen fabric close to the body. This was most likely because they considered the finer grade fabrics most appropriate to be laid close to the body, whether this was human or animal. CT scanning of ancient mummies has revealed that wrapping took place in stages, with the initial fine layer superseded by a course layer, and then finished off with a fine layer before the outermost decorative layer was applied. With this in mind, our toy cat was first wrapped in fine linen, one layer of which had been inscribed with messages from visitors. It is thought likely that the linen used to wrap animal mummies was reused from other purposes, possibly as household items or clothing. It is also possible that linens used in the process were inscribed with messages to be conveyed to the gods. Our linen strip had been inscribed by visitors on a previous engagement event at World Museum and some of our guests for today’s event were present to witness their messages being used in the cat mummy recreation.

We decided to use a wooden stick in our experiment to provide support to our toy cat. This was not only a practical decision, it has been witnessed in scans of mummified cats from the Liverpool  collection. Either the stick was used outside of the body, or it was used to join the head and the body, perhaps in cases where the head had become detached for whatever reason. Our toy cat was much smaller than our stick, so we opted to create a false head from jumbled linen pieces, covered with a shroud. This gave the mummy the impression of being larger and more impressive than the animal body within – a phenomenon which we frequently note in the ancient mummies. Rolls of linen were used to pad out the neck region, the thinnest and most fragile part of the skittle-shaped bundle.

Once our false head was attached to the stick, the creation of the herringbone design could  begin. Creating this has design has been a steep learning curve. Developed from our research on damaged mummies, we believe that the embalmers used individual strips of linen to create the design, overlapping the cut edges at the front of the bundle. The bias binding we used for this purpose was not quite wide enough, so in places our design began to separate, but with the help of a liberal application of glue, simulating our resin and beeswax solution, it held fast. In future experiments we plan to use a wider fabric to prevent this from happening. A shroud was used over the base of the bundle to give us a solid foundation, upon which our design could be formed .

As with many ancient cat mummies, we opted to give our mummy a false head and facial features. Although there was no ‘skull’ in the head of our mummy, linen offcuts created a realistic shape. A shroud gave a clean canvas upon which we could create our face. Folded squares of linen were fixed to the side of the head to form the false ears. These were then hidden by strips of linen which went from front to back and side to side as we see in the ancient mummies. Lastly, the facial features of our cat were drawn on in black and red pen, much in the same way as the ancient embalmers would have done.

Interestingly, my children who were at the event today made some interesting observations about the process.  My 8-year old exclaimed that she wanted the toy cat back all because it is now hidden from view. My son, aged 10, made a coffin for a cat mummy from clay at the museum today and carried it safely home in a plastic bag, getting visibly aggrieved when the ‘coffin’ was endangered on the two train rides it took us to get home. Although we don’t hold animals in the same regard as the Egyptians did, maybe their beliefs and sentiments are not as far removed from ours as might at first appear. Image is everything, and appearances can be deceptive.



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New year, new job!

Well, here we are at the start of a new year! The time seems to fly by, especially in the world of museums when the continual cycle of exhibitions seems relentless. This is particularly evident this year as I have started a three-month secondment at Manchester Museum, during which I will be working as Project Curator alongside Campbell Price, the Curator of Egypt and Sudan. I have worked with the Museum for many years now, both as a researcher on the collections and on the recent ‘Gifts for the Gods’ exhibition, so it feels strangely comforting to now have a desk there! Knowing all the staff (just about!) has made it much easier to fit in and everyone has been really welcoming.

‘Gifts for the Gods’ has been really successful at World Museum Liverpool, with lots of good feedback on the design, content and themes. On Saturday 28th January, Campbell, Steph and I will attempt our first experimental re-rolling of a cat mummy in front of a crowd, before the exhibition closes on Sunday the 26th February. The closure marks the start of the deinstallation phase, but it  is by no means the end of the project! There is a lot to do, not least returning around 80 loaned items to 17 museums around the UK – no easy feat! I will be getting involved with the logistics and the crucial evaluation phase during which we have to determine the visitor figures across the three venues, and how many people engaged with the exhibition in it’s broadest sense, either through events or the media. This would be difficult enough with one venue, but times it by three and that’s what we are dealing with!

Of course, just because I am seconded to the Museum, doesn’t meant that the day-to-day workings of research have come to an end. I don’t think research ever comes to an end. There are papers that need writing and editing, conferences that require attending, and media enquiries left, right and centre. So, here’s to a successful new year for us all, filled with exciting discoveries and new opportunities! And, if you haven’t been to see the exhibition yet, get yourselves over to Liverpool asap!

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The Bio Bank ventures to darkest Peru

Phew, it’s been a busy summer for animal mummies! For that reason, this is the first of several blog posts. Just a few weeks ago, the 9th World Mummy Congress was held in Lima, Peru, and many mummy studies experts, including myself and two colleagues from Manchester, made the long journey to attend the conference. Considering that funding is such as it is (sparse!), and travel being expensive, numbers were surprisingly healthy, with 170 podium presentations and many more posters. As the Congress was held in Peru, there were dedicated sessions on South American mummies, alongside symposia on themes such as mummy conservation and textiles, with a strong emphasis on scientific research techniques such as radiography and genomics. The KNH Centre was well-represented with five podium presentations. All in all, the four day conference was a great success with many new collaborations formed and established ones rekindled.

The conference organisers had arranged an evening visit to the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History in Lima city centre. The museum was hosting a small exhibition of naturally mummified bodies – the perfect exhibition for a hoard of excited mummy experts! It was amazing to see the mummies which look very different to the Egyptian mummies we are used to dealing with in our research. These bodies were naturally mummified in a seated position, which makes them look very lifelike indeed.

As with all of the Mummy Congresses, all the participants are keen to know where the next meeting will be held. This year, the organisers revealed the exciting news, that, in autumn next year in Tenerife, there will be an extraordinary meeting to mark the 25th anniversary of the first congress. This announcement was particularly poignant given that many of the original organising committee have now passed away. Then, in 2020, the 10th Congress will be hosted in Bolzano, Italy, home to Otzi, the iceman.

Watch out for more blog posts about our time in Peru.


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