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 CT scanning of ancient mummies has revealed that wrapping took place in stages, with the initial fine layer superseded by a course layer, and then finished off with a fine layer before the outermost decorative layer was applied.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.