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.
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?!