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.

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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

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