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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All creatures great and small in Lyon

Campbell and I were very pleased to attend the inaugural Internal Symposium on Animals in Ancient Egypt held at the Musee des Confluences in Lyon from the 1-4th June. The organising committee had worked really hard to compile an interesting three days, filled with excellent presentations from international researchers on a  wide variety of animal-related topics. I delivered a lecture on the Manchester method; how we study animal mummies for the Bio Bank, and I shared some of the success stories from the exhibition. Campbell presented a poster on a group of ibis mummies from a specific tomb shaft (3508) at Saqqara which have been reunited by the Bio Bank and through some extensive archival research by Steph. As is common with animal mummies, once they were excavated, many lost their original provenance and much ‘digging’ is required to place individual artefacts back into context.

Lidija and Campbell-1

Lyon’s Musée des Confluences is home to 2500 mummified animals collected by Lortet and Gaillard, many of which were deserted to uncover the skeletal remains which were then mounted as anatomical specimens. The mummies were recorded in their 1905 and 1909 works under the title ‘La faune momifiée de l’ancienne Égypte’. One of the main advantages of the Bio Bank project is working to unite material in far-flung and disparate collections around the world. With this in mind, I am quite envious of the Lyon team having 2500 mummies under one roof! I look forward to hearing more about their research and results over the coming months.

Despite the continuing issues posed by a transport strike in France, Campbell and I ventured across the border into Switzerland to visit the Egyptology collection at the Musées d’art et d’histoire in Geneva. Thankfully we queued up to buy a ticket and learned that the last train home was very early (3:30pm), otherwise we might still be there now trying to get back to French soil! Nonetheless, the journey was worth it and we saw some absolute gems, including a wonderful Sekhmet statuette, a couple of animal mummies and a fragment of a statue of Senenmut, a personal favourite of Campbell.

As is often the way with conferences, it proved to be a great environment in which to meet new contacts and rekindle existing friendships with those working in a niche field within Egyptology and zooarchaeology. It’s great to hear about research being carried out at other institutions all helping to further our knowledge of the relationship between the Egyptians and the animals around them, whether that be as artistic representations, in writing or in their intentional preservation of animals as mummies. I am looking forward to seeing this meeting continue to grow coming years.

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Gifts for the Gods opens in Glasgow!

The Bio Bank team were thrilled to venture northwards to the Kelvingrove Art gallery and Museum, Glasgow, to see Gifts for the Gods open in spectacular style in its new temporary home. The workshop staff, conservation team and curator from Manchester Museum had been working  tirelessly (many behind the scenes) for a number of weeks to dismantle the exhibition at Manchester and transport it, lock, stock and barrel, to Scotland. Thankfully, everything seemed to go well and the exhibition looks really great in the Kelvingrove’s temporary gallery. Having initially posed design problems because the space is so much bigger than Manchester’s, the design works brilliantly and allows for more free space around the cases without looking ‘lost’. The Glasgow team have added an interactive area for school groups to explore some of the themes of the exhibition and to get their hands dirty (literally!) conducting their own excavations!

The exhibition will be open at the Kelvingrove until September 5th 2016.


The Manchester team outside the Kelvingrove

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The Bio Bank team win a Making a Difference Award!

Last night, Steph and I were very pleased to attend The University of Manchester’s Making a Difference Award Ceremony where endeavours and initiatives in social responsibility within the institution are rewarded for the positive change they bring. The exhibition team were really pleased to be shortlisted for the award for Outstanding Public Engagement Initiative for ‘Gifts for the Gods: animal mummies revealed’ in recognition of the impact that the exhibition has had on its visitors. In total, it is estimated that 400,000 visitors will engage with the exhibition over the three venues; however, visitor numbers at Manchester were higher than anticipated so this figure is likely to rise. Over 10,000 people of all ages and backgrounds took part in public engagement events linked to the exhibition and many more will benefit through events held at our partner venues.

The event last night was a very glitzy affair with 250 guests, presided over by the Chancellor, Lemn Sissay, and the President and Vice-Chancellor, Dame Professor Nancy Rothwell. We were up against some strong competition in what was the largest category, but we are very pleased to say that we won! It was nice to be rewarded for what has been a long, hard slog over 18 months.

The award is really a testament to how successful researchers can work with the University’s cultural institutions to drive forward cutting-edge public engagement with science and arts disciplines.

Sadly, Campbell was unable to be with us on the night as he was busy installing the exhibition at the Kelvingrove. We missed his support in person, but he was keeping track of events on the live streaming! We had a table full of museum staff to keep us company, many of whom were successful in their award categories too!

Steph and I would like to thank all the members of the animal mummies team without whom the exhibition, and this award, would not have been possible. Particularly Anna and Vicky from the museum who spearheaded the public programmes. The learning team, including Menaka, Cat, Emily and Debbie, all deserve a special mention, along with all those who help to deliver these events to the public. Neil and Dan who designed the educational resource pack deserve a massive pat on the back for the excellent work they produced which has gone on to be used by many visitors to the exhibition.


Tomorrow we travel to Glasgow for the opening of the exhibition at the Kelvingrove. Two parties in three days!

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Gifts for the Gods travels north of the border

We always knew that the six months during which Gifts for the Gods was open at Manchester Museum would be a very different time for us. Having a successful exhibition based on our current research open on campus, meant that we had many demands on our time – including public engagement events, learning programmes and community outreach initiatives. All of these events are vital in helping to publicise the research which underpins the exhibition, raise the profile of what we do and enthuse the public about the mummies themselves. Now the numbers have been counted, we know that 1011 school children have taken part in guided learning sessions and organised workshops around animal mummies (and many more school groups who used the exhibition space for self-guided learning activities). To date, an amazing 9655 visitors engaged with events linked to the themes of the exhibition.

It was lovely (and quite emotional!) to be the last ones to leave the exhibition space on Sunday 17th April. The last day gave us the opportunity to debrief the Manchester-leg with our designer, Andrew Gibbs, and to discuss what needed to be done in preparation for the move to the Kelvingrove. Twenty-four hours later, the exhibition space had been emptied of artefacts and the workshop were preparing to take down the panels, case, modules and interactives.

We had four weeks between the exhibition closing and the opening day in Glasgow which provided a window of opportunity for some targeted research to be conducted on some of our mummies. There were a number which had not been radiographed, for logistic reasons, prior to going on display, so we were able to plan imaging sessions for when the mummies came off display. In total, ten mummies from World Museum Liverpool were taken to the Royal Manchester Children’s Hopsital after hours for clinical radiography and CT scanning. A bronze statuette from Plymouth Museum, previously scanned using clinical imaging, was scanned using industrial CT tecnology at the Henry Moseley X-Ray Imaging Facility, University of Manchester, with the hope of determining the contents of the hollow ‘seat’ section, upon which the lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet, or Wadjet, can be seen. We are hoping that the industrial methods will allow greater visibility and increased interpretation of this fascinating object.

IMG_3332The statuette was fastened to the revolving scanning plate using conservation-grade tissue, held down with masking tape. This ensured that the statuette was perfectly safe during the slow rotation of the plate.

Last week we were very lucky to welcome the curator of ancient worlds from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Adam Jaffer, along with his collection of ten animal mummies. Organising the logistics of the visit ran into difficulty when we couldn’t find a crate suitable to take their prized crocodile which measures in at 2.1m! With a crate finally sourced with the help of the courier company, the mummies were on the move north, and after a slight hiccup when the M6 was closed due to a traffic accident, we were able to start scanning, around an hour later than intended.

Aside from the ‘monster’ crocodile, the Birmingham collection also contains six mummies from the Sacred Animal Necropolis distributed after Emery’s excavations between 1969 and 1971. Due to the varied and diverse distribution of the mummified remains from the site to museums around the globe, this presents a unique group for studying the ancient practices at the site. When we combine the data for these mummies with others known from the distribution lists of the site which we have studied for the Bio Bank, we hope to be able to build a more complete view of how the mummies were being produced.

We are very much looking forward to seeing the exhibition in its new temporary home at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum where it will be open to the public from Saturday 14th May until Sunday 4th September. Early indications from our ‘man on the ground’, Manchester Museum curator Campbell Price, indicate that it is looking great so far!


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Because that’s how we (wrap and) roll!

On Thursday 25th February, a momentous event took place at Manchester Museum. Crowds gathered to witness a theatrical spectacle; this time it wasn’t a mummy ‘unwrapping’, but a mummy ‘re-wrapping’. Over 400 people attended the event and a further 1000 engaged via the internet with the help of the live-streaming app, Periscope. The event was a bold move; there was no guarantee that the re-wrapping would be a success. After all, our practice efforts had been less than encouraging! Nonetheless, we decided to take the bold move to forge onwards and take our research at the University of Manchester out of the laboratory and into the public spotlight.

Fig 100 copy

Time had not been on our side in the run up to the event, with many other commitments meaning that we had just one afternoon to practice what we hoped to achieve on the night. We have studied many mummies over the years and we know, perhaps more than anyone else, the variety of patterns and the complexities witnessed in the ancient mummies. We set ourselves an ambitious target – to recreate the elaborate herringbone wrappings visible on one of the ibis mummies from Manchester Museum. Originally from the animal catacombs at Saqqara, the ibis now takes pride of place in the Gifts for the Gods exhibition next to a bronze statuette of Imhotep, emphasising the importance and enduring intrigue of the site. The mummy in question belongs to a group of mummies referred to as conical applique mummies due to their uniform shape and the addition of appliqué decoration, often depicting either the animal or the god to whom they were dedicated. We could have chosen a much more basic style, but where would the fun be in that!?

Our ‘mummy’ was formed from a block of plastizote – an inert, dense foam-like substance commonly used in museums. We shaped a core for our bundle based on dimensions taken from the CT scan of the ancient ibis mummy – we wanted to try and recreate the mummy’s size and shape as best we could, so it was important to start off with the sam basic shape mirroring that of the ibis bird within. Carving plastizote is much more difficult than it looked as it is so dense that it blunts scalpels quickly. Eventually, we got to a shape we felt was consistent with the ancient bird.

Our next job was to select modern fabrics with which to wrap our mummy. The ancient Egyptians most likely used any linen they could get their hands on, including reused and salvaged textiles used around the household. This is evidenced by the variety of weaves, threads, selve-edges and fringing frequently recorded on ancient human and animal mummies. After all, linen was an expensive commodity and it would be considered wasteful to discard fabrics once their functional days were over. Utilising them as mummy wrappings was recycling on a massive scale. We chose a selection of natural linens, cottons and calicos of varying weaves to mimic the ancient variety and to provide the necessary contrast for our design. A natural calico was dyed using onion skins, coffee grounds and gravy browning to achieve a darker hue. An afternoon was spent laying out, pre-cutting and labelling our various layers to make it easier on the night.

We wanted to make sure that our visitors felt involved in the process, so we worked with textile artist, Sally Gifford, who screen-printed poems written by poet, Antony Parker. Theatrical performers, iOrganic, were based in the Gifts for the Gods exhibition space for the evening, conducting their innovative ‘take’ on a mummy auction – a cross between the dockside auctions where the thousands of cat mummies arrived into Liverpool in 1890 mixed with the more familiar modern sight of auction TV channels. Ceramicist, Pascal Nichols, was commissioned to do a live pottery demonstration throughout the evening to construct a coiled pot, similar to those used to hold completed ibis mummies in the Saqqara catacombs. Visitors were invited to write their own messages  on a long strip of linen which was then included as an inner layer on the mummy.

The ‘bird’ itself was covered with a layer of fine linen as is witnessed in the ancient mummies. This is likely to be because the Egyptians considered that the animal (or bronze) used as an offering, was sufficiently important that it should be in direct contact with a high quality fabric. After this, layers of poorer quality linen were applied to pad out the bundle and create the conical form required for the finished article. The two ends of the bundle were covered with squares of linen forming shrouds. It proved difficult to get these as neat as the Egyptians managed, but with practice which would come. The herringbone was perhaps the most awkward element – we used individual strips of linen, folded lengthways to create a clean edge which formed the visible area. The rougher edges were then hidden beneath the following layers. Because we have no real idea how these designs were constructed in practice, we used a glue-gun (to mimic the resinous substances which would have been applied whilst molten, acting as an adhesive) and sewing pins which keep the strips in place until a couple more had been added on top.

The re-wrapping took around two hours to achieve the herringbone covered bundle. Steph had created a fantastic appliqué design based on the Manchester ibis which shows Thoth seated on a throne wearing a crown (now damaged). This element alone took several days to make from scratch, but the finished product was a really close representation of our original – the ‘crowning glory’ for our modern replica. Our modern mummy will be put on display in The Study at Manchester Museum shortly!

The finished product! It was a long night and we were really pleased with the finished product. The experience proved to us all that the Egyptians involved in the wholesale production of votive mummies were effectively highly skilled artists, creating elaborate patterns from strips of recycled linen. We undoubtedly need more practice, but this first attempt wasn’t bad at all and we were really pleased by the interest that the event inspired, both through the museum visitors and online. Now, which design should we try next?!


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Who’s coming to a mummy ‘re-rolling’?

Mummy unwrapping ‘spectacles’ were a popular pastime in the nineteenth century with mummies brought back from Egypt as souvenirs by travellers providing the majority of the candidates. These events were as much a spectacle, a Victorian socialite pastime, but as time wore on, the studies became increasingly linked to the people behind the mummies and the science behind the embalming process.

On June 10th, 1850, Lord Londesborough issued a now infamous invitation to witness the ‘unrolling’ of a human mummy from Thebes ‘at half past two’. A spectacle which was to take place at his home, in the comfort of his drawing room, no doubt with a glass of claret in hand. This invitation epitomises an ‘un-rolling’ event. Delving into the bandages, cutting through the layers of linen, to reveal the person within. Yet the vast majority of Lord Londesborough’s invitees were members of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, a prestigious gathering of learned gentlemen, relatively well-versed in the ways of human anatomy. By all accounts, not your normal socialites!

Lord Londesborough

Manchester has it’s own history when it comes to mummy un-rollings. In 1908, Margaret Murray unwrapped the mummified bodies of Nekht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht – known as the Two Brothers – at Manchester Museum. In 1975, Rosalie David, Director of the Manchester Mummy Project unwrapped the mummy known affectionately by her accession number, Mummy 1770. Both unwrappings involved an interdisciplinary team of specialists tasked with investigating the life and death of these ancient people.

mum mummies2

Fast forward to 2016 and museums ethics have changed massively. Unwrapping is not considered ethical viable and thankfully we have many methods at our disposal to deploy when investigating mummified remains, whether they be human or animal. Science has given us the ability to see what lies beneath the wrappings of a mummy without needing  to physically remove any wrappings.

Recently, we’ve been asked to design an event for an After Hours event for adults at Manchester Museum. We decided it would be good to ‘reverse’ some of the negative connotations surrounding unwrapping mummies and the best way we could think of to do that was to ‘re-wrap’ one. Obviously, we cannot rewrap the Two Brothers or 1770, but what we can wrap is one of our own Bio Bank animal mummies produced through our recent phase of experimental mummification. Quite often, when we’ve been up to our arm-pits in resin and bandages, we have wondered just how the embalmers worked; how did they wrap a mummy and create the elaborate decorate patterns we see on he mummies today. The mummification process itself was relatively crude for the majority of these animals, mummified as votive offerings, but many questions remain as to how the resulting mummies came into being. We had our suspicions that it wouldn’t be easy!

So, on Thursday 25th February, join us at Manchester Museum betweeen 6 and 9 pm to witness a new piece of history being made – the re-rolling of a mummy. See just how easy (or difficult!) it is to create some of the designs we see commonly in the mummy record. A ceramicist will be working on the night to produce a coiled pot to act as the final resting place of our mummy, in much the same way as bird mummies were interred thousands of years ago at sites such as Saqqara. We really cannot wait to get started on this project, hopefully answering many of our own questions in the process. After all, the saying goes, you don’t know how it is until you try it for yourself. Bring it on…….

Join us for the Manchester Museum After Hours event on Thursday 25th February. For further details please visit the Manchester Museum website.

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