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.

IMG_6234    IMG_6235    IMG_6238

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

Posted in Uncategorized

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.

IMG_5684              IMG_5685IMG_5690             IMG_5706

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!

Posted in Uncategorized

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!

IMG_5648                                   IMG_5653

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!

Posted in Uncategorized

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.

IMG_5389           IMG_5518

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.

IMG_5546             IMG_5554

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.

Posted in Uncategorized

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.

FullSizeRender-1          FullSizeRender-3 FullSizeRender-4                             FullSizeRender

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!

Posted in Uncategorized

That’s all for this year!

2014 has been a very busy and exciting year for the Bio Bank team and we are looking forward with anticipation to the New Year. Plans for our exhibition are moving apace, with much still to do in the nine months until it opens at the Manchester Museum. The exhibition is our chance to show people what our project is about and to share with visitors some of the results of our research. We have had a lot of fun working on this project so far, working with new museums (and their mummies) along the way. We particularly thank the curatorial and conservation staff at the three host museums (Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool) for sharing their wisdom, ideas and offering support to exhibition newbies! We have now appointed a designer to work with us on realising our ‘vision’ and we look forward to getting started on the design in January!

The book to accompany the exhibition is still a work in progress although the deadline looms ever closer! It’s been a long hard slog to get to this point, but we hope that it reflects our research and will encourage others to look with fresh eyes at animal mummies in museum collections.

There can be no doubt that 2015 will present research challenges and that there is a year of hard work yet to come. We thank you all for following our progress, commenting on the work and making suggestions on how we can improve going forward. See you next year!

Posted in Uncategorized

It’s a wrap!

Earlier this year, I was put into contact with a BBC researcher researching potential themes for a new series of documentaries for Horizon. Over the six months or so since this introduction, discussions steered the focus of the programme towards animal mummies (let’s face it, why wouldn’t they want to concentrate on animal mummies, when so much has been done recently on scanning human mummies!?). Tonight, we finished our fourth night of filming for the programme which will air early in 2015.

The programme will cover all aspects of animal mummification, from the sacred animal cemeteries in Egypt where the sheer scale of the practice of votive animal mummification will be portrayed. Filming in the Cairo Museum will showcase some of the better known animal mummies, including cult individuals, pets and victual mummies. Filming also covers demotic papyri in the British Museum, experimental mummification at the University of York and 3d printing in Cardiff.

Research at Manchester will be highlighted in the way we know best – the scientific study of ancient artefacts using modern imaging techniques. At Manchester Museum, the Ancient Worlds gallery played host to a remarkable sight with around 20 animal mummies from the display cases and the stores displayed on rotating platforms and amplified with powerful spot lights. Never before have these mummies been seen in this light and everyone commented on how spectacular the sight was.

IMG_4286 IMG_4297

The plan had been to film two subsequent sessions at the radiology department of the Manchester Royal Children’s Hospital, however, as is often the way when using a clinical facility, the plan soon went out of the window and the schedule got further and further behind. Obviously, living patients in need of CT scans take precedence over mummified animals, but luck certainly didn’t seem to be on our side! After the two sessions, we still hadn’t filmed any of the ‘back room’ discussions of our scanning, so a further session was scheduled. That final session took place earlier this evening and we are pleased to say that all the shots required by the producer were acquired, despite human trauma patients, computer issues and a misbehaving lift. I don’t envy the job of Jon, the producer, of trying to edit what must amount to hours of footage taken over several weeks and in several countries, into an hour- long documentary. What I am pleased about is that the animal mummies from Manchester Museum will finally get the moment in the spotlight they deserve!

_MG_7391 _MG_7415 _MG_7418 _MG_7421

Posted in Uncategorized