Ever wondered why ancient Egyptians mummified their animals, or what’s under all those layers they are wrapped in? Now is the chance to find out by visiting Animal Mummies of Ancient Egypt, a new exhibition opening at the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, on Monday 14 February.
A unique range of animal mummies are on display for the first time in the UK, including cats, a baboon, a crocodile and birds of prey. Visitors will get the chance to peer inside with the help of X-rays, and to find the fake.
There are also examples of natural mummification – when the body dries before it decomposes. Spectacular examples include a cat buried under the grounds of the Duke of Bedford’s house and a gazelle foetus.
The exhibition explores the many reasons why animal mummification was practised in ancient Egypt. Mummification protected the body for the ‘afterlife’. Mummies were also made as religious offerings and were even used to preserve treasured pets. Cats, monkeys and even gazelles have been found buried alongside their owners. Pet cats sometimes received their own elaborate burials, complete with cat-shaped coffins.
Through studying animal mummies, scientists and archaeologists have been able to learn more about the importance of animals in ancient Egyptian society. Animal statues and amulets have been found, made from faience or bronze, indicating the high esteem these creatures were held in. Several examples of these are on show, which include scarabs, faience hippos, and bronze animals.
The identification of some animals can clarify the relationship between certain gods and the mummies offered to them. Often more than one animal may represent a god. For example Thoth, the god of the moon and writing, has been represented as an ibis and also a baboon. It is not currently known for certain whether a jackal, a dog or a wolf was the votive offering to Anubis, god of the dead.
The Natural History Museum’s collection of ancient Egyptian animal mummies has been used to investigate the processes of domestication, primarily in cats and cattle. For example, research into the morphology of the Apis bull has shown that selective breeding took place in order to develop the moon-shaped horns that were considered a sacred characteristic by the ancient Egyptians.
‘The mummified specimens are so well preserved that we’ve been able to study the skeletons to make close comparisons with the modern wild and domestic animal specimens held in our research collections,’ said Richard Sabin, Curator of Mammals at the Natural History Museum. ‘We’ve also discovered some bizarre things about ancient Egyptian culture. Through x-ray examination of some of our wrapped cat mummies we’ve discovered that many appear to have had their necks deliberately broken. This suggests that cats may have been killed to meet the demand for them as high-status ritual tomb deposits’.
A full programme of workshops and events has been organised in conjunction with the exhibition: from mummifying toys to talks by scientists. More information about the events programme can be found on the Museum’s website: www.nhm.ac.uk/tring.
Notes for editors
Location: Temporary exhibition gallery
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 10.00–17.00,
Access: Step-free access is limited to Gallery 1, the temporary exhibition gallery, the shop and Zebra Café at present
Visitor enquiries: 020 7942 6171
If you would like to interview the exhibition officer or Richard Sabin, or would like to request images or further exhibition information, please contact:
Natural History Museum Press Office
Tel: 020 7942 5106/5654
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (not for publication)
Issued January 2005