Yesterday, we made two more experimental bird mummies with an important research question in mind. The birds used had died naturally and were found locally – one at the local train station on the commute to work and the other in a friend’s back garden. Importantly, we don’t know what species they are which is important for this batch of experiments, designed to help improve our knowledge of species identification from radiographs. Identifying species, particularly in birds where dimorphism is slight, is notoriously difficult using radiography. This is even more difficult in animal mummies where we often have complete animals and often the most significant diagnostic elements are not present.
In our other experimental mummies, we have had clear identifications of the birds before we began the process. These experiments were designed to test the efficiency of the mummification method that we have observed radiographically in the ancient mummies and , so far, have proved to be successful in achieving bodily preservation. With these latest mummies, we are less concerned with preservation, rather on improving our identification of skeletal contents. We decided to use the same mummification technique – a simple pine resin:beeswax emulsion poured over the cadaver, followed by wrapping in layers of linen – but the ultimate goal of these mummies is to radiograph them shortly to gather morphometric data which we will present to avian specialists with the hope that they can offer positive identifications. In the coming weeks we plan to unwrap the mummies and remove the bones to enable identifications of the bones themselves which is generally easier through comparison with skeletal reference collections.
The two mummies we made yesterday contained complete bird cadavers, both of which had been outdoors for some time prior to being collected and had suffered some taphonomic changes as a result. Interestingly, the body positions of both these two birds have been witnessed in the mummy record, indicating that these animals could have been found naturally deceased within sacred spaces in temple complexes and offered for votive mummification. We are awaiting delivery of a number of ‘bundles’ of unidentified avian material constructed from random body parts of mixed species which will be treated in the same way. These bundles will be representative of the variety of animal remains we find mummified in the archaeological record from ancient Egypt. All these experiments are hoping to increase our understanding of avian morphometrics – a valuable component of our current Leverhulme Trust award.
We hope to add a podcast of this mummification experiment to the blog soon (once we’ve edited it!).