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.

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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!

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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.

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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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A (Very Early) Visit to Oxford

Last week, the Bio Bank Team visited the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, which turned out to be different to previous museum visits in many ways!

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Entrance to the Ashmolean

Firstly, we were informed, prior to our visit, by Assistant Keeper of Egypt and Sudan, Dr Liam McNamara, that the collections database was in the process of being digitised. This meant that in order to get an understanding of the scale of the animal mummies in the collection, we had to rifle through object cards. Now, this may sound like every researchers worst nightmare, but in actual fact it was well organised and easy to navigate, after a tutorial by Liam. It was essentially like searching a museum database, without a computer. The object cards were a mixture of type-written and hand-written, and were organised by object category (coffins, statues and mummies, for instance) and simultaneously by chronological period, site and find-spot.

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One of the object cards for a ‘Mummy of baby crocodile’

 

Interestingly, this collection categorised animal remains and mummies together, and, as such, we located some bronze statuettes recorded ‘with contents’. Our research for the Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed exhibition has demonstrated that some votive bronzes, deposited in the same way as votive animal mummies, contained animal remains at some point. We have been unable to find many bronzes matching this description in our research, but the Ashmolean seems to have quite a few! Recent experiments using clinical imaging on similar objects show that determining the contents of bronzes can be difficult because of the metallic nature of the container. However, with a little expertise and the right software, we are able to ascertain if the bronzes are really empty or not.

Another great, and novel, occurrence during this visit was the secure find-spot and collector histories for many of the objects we were interested in. It is usual to have a high proportion, sometimes even entire collections, with no history about where in Egypt the objects came from, or even how they got into the collection where they now reside. We estimate that around 80% of the animal mummies in the Bio Bank fall into this category. The Ashmolean has a very well provenanced collection – 57% of the material associated with animal remains has a provenance over and above, ‘Egypt, Ptolemaic-Roman Period’.

The Ashmolean was a great museum to include in the Bio Bank and a few star pieces arose, filling in some gaps in our research themes. The relatively recent renovated Egyptian displays are a great use of their collection and it was nice to see animals feature throughout history from the Predynastic to the Roman Period. It was well worth the 5am get up!

Animal Mummies on display

Animal Mummies (and bronzes) on display in the Ashmolean Museum 

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We Won!

Campbell, Steph and I found out just before Christmas that Gifts for the Gods had been nominated for a CityLife Award for Best Exhibition of 2015. This in itself was a big deal for us. This was the first exhibition to focus solely on animal mummies (from excavation to scientific study) to take place in the UK; the first exhibition to feature home-grown Manchester research; the first touring exhibition designed at Manchester Museum in over 30 years and, well, quite frankly the best exhibition ever to be held there (apologies to all our museum colleagues who might beg to differ!). It was also the first exhibition that we had been involved in the design and curation of, so aside from being an amazing experience, it has been a steep learning curve!

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The exhibition has been terrifically well-attended by visitors from around the world. The comments book shows a range of responses, in a variety of languages, all overwhelmingly positive, ranging from parents with toddlers to school teachers, academics, students and complete newbies to the field (‘I never knew the Egyptians mummified animals!’). We have been astounded by the level of feedback and how visitors have embraced the subject by leaving their own votive messages to their chosen god using our votive interactive. The office is now swimming in plastic bags full of the response cards and we are looking forward to sifting through to see what it is that our visitors asked the gods for. It seems that pleas for help or offers of thanks given to an unseen being are just as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.

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Last week we heard that we had actually won the award for Best Exhibition with an amazing 38% of the votes! You can read the official article here – http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/animal-mummies-wins-citylife-awards-10697033#ICID=sharebar_twitter. Thanks to everyone who voted and who has visited the exhibition and left us feedback. Those of you who haven’t managed to come along yet, don’t worry, there is still plenty of time as it is on at Manchester Museum until mid April. After that it will open in Glasgow mid May and Liverpool in the autumn.

Now all we need is a new sticker to put on the door……..

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Something for everyone – Come along and get involved on a ‘Gifts for the Gods’ event.

Science Week went down a storm last week at Manchester Museum with a whole range of activities for visitors of all ages. From specialist talks and demonstrations to hands on children’s activities like mummifying an orange, there was lots to see and do! As always, the school holidays are guaranteed to see an influx of younger visitors and their families, eager to take part in the activities on offer and see the galleries for themselves. Of course, this means that the museum is often much busier during these times, but it is such a lovely sight to see youngsters enjoying their visit.  One way of measuring this is with the guest book in the temporary gallery, where visitors can leave message about what they liked or didn’t like about the exhibition. We loved the messages from families about how the exhibition had sparked an interest in ancient Egypt, helped children with their school work, or inspired them so much that they came back more than once! The votive interactive area of the exhibition has proved to be very popular with hundreds of visitors leaving messages and pleas for their selected god.

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Science Week may be over for another year, but that does not mean that the fun has ended! Gifts for the Gods has provided many opportunities for us to engage with the public over our research. It’s a subject that gets people talking every time. Steph’s Science Week talk looked closely at the post-excavation stories behind six key objects in the exhibition, helping to give them back some of their context and show how science can be used to tell us more. On Thursday this week, I will present a talk on how animal mummies came to be in Britain and introduce some of the key characters who have played their part in their stories.
On Thursday 26th November, the museum is hosting an after hours event where people can come and enjoy an evening in the galleries. The November event will be focused on animal mummies and will give visitors the chance to talk to myself and Campbell, curator of Egypt and Sudan, about the exhibition and the collections in more detail. We do hope that many of you will be able to join us for this unique event.

In connection with the Wellcome Trust, on Saturday 14th November the museum will host a special study day on animal mummies. We are looking forward to welcome some very special guests, including Chris Naunton (Director of the Egypt Exploration Society), Paul Nicholson (Professor of Archaeology at Cardiff University and Director of the current excavations at Saqqara) and Ashley Cooke (Curator of World Cultures at World Museum Liverpool) to come along and share their expertise with visitors. Campbell, Steph and I will also be there to talk about the role of animals in Egypt and how science can be used to learn more about animal mummies. The study day is being offered as a free event, but booking is essential. Please visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/discovering-animal-mummies-day-school-tickets-19075729019 to book on to the event.
The learning and engagement team at the museum are constantly working on events to support the delivery of the exhibition, so please do keep checking the museum website for updates and be sure to contact us if you have any ideas or suggestions.

We look forward to seeing you at an animal mummies event soon!

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Come along and join us at Manchester Museum with a range of ‘Gifts for the Gods’ events!

Well, it’s been a week since Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed opened to the public and plenty of visitors have already come along to see what all the fuss is about! To mark the occasion, the Museum have compiled a series of public engagement events to entice visitors to come along and learn more about the fascinating topic of votive animal mummification.

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Science Week will kick off with a talk by Steph on some of the stories behind key objects in the exhibition on Friday 23rd October at 1pm. During the following week there will be a range of activities for children based around the topic of animal mummification – including trying your hand at mummifying an orange and building junk animals.

On Saturday 14th November, the team will be hosting a dedicated study day where we will explore the subject further. We are very pleased to be able to welcome some distinguished guest speakers to the event – Dr. Chris Naunton on the early days of work at Saqqara, Prof. Paul Nicholson who will speak about the current excavations at the site, and Dr. Ashley Cooke, curator of the Egyptology collection at World Museum Liverpool. Campbell, Steph and I will be talking more about the exhibition itself and the research which underpins it, including lots on the science of animal mummification. The best piece of news is that the study day will be entirely free to attend! Registration is essential via this link – https://www.eventbrite.com/e/discovering-animal-mummies-day-school-tickets-19075729019 and the event is limited to 80 participants. Come along and join us!

On Thursday 5th November, 2-3pm, I will give a talk as part of the Collection Bites series at the Museum, looking into the role of British explorers and travellers who journeyed to Egypt and purchased animal mummies.

We look forward to welcoming you to an event in the near future! Check out the Manchester Museum website (http://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk) for up to date information and don’t forget to book on to avoid missing out!

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The future is looking very ‘green’ at Manchester Museum!

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In eight days, Gifts for the Gods will open to the public! I can’t quite believe that we are just a week away, but it’s a very exciting time at exhibition HQ with lots going on. Seeing everyone coming to fruition has been amazing and we are all looking forward to seeing what the visitors think.

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Our designer Andrew has been here this week working alongside the workshop team and graphics producers to supervise the installation of the wall panels and the specially made plinths which will hold the objects. Special lighting and sound effects are being installed to aid the immersive atmosphere of our catacomb recreation. Luke has been a trooper finalising and installing the AV content which will display all the amazing scan images for the chosen mummies. We even had a visit from Paul Wells who has designed and manufactured our three interactive areas. It’s amazing just how quickly things start to come together.

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Aside from the last minute preparations for the exhibition, we have been working on the finishing touches for our education resource pack which will be available to teachers and families on the Museum website. Publicity and marketing are in full swing to ensure as many people as possible know about the exhibition and the research behind it. There’s no rest for the wicked!

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