Ancient Egyptians slaughtered animals on "industrial scale", according to new exhibition

By Angelika Rusbridge | 12 August 2015

Votive offerings were so popular, ancient Egypt's rearing and slaughter of animals may have represented an entire industry

Mummified animals of Manchester Museum, from the exhibition Gift for the Gods, with help from the University of Manchester and the Ancient Egyptian Bio Bank Project.
A group of animal mummies from the Manchester Museum© Alan Seabright
The systematic slaughter and mummification of animals on an “industrial scale” by the ancient Egyptians will be explored for the first time in a new exhibition this October.

According to the Curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, Dr Campbell Price, the exhibition, called Gift for the Gods, will be “myth-busting”.

Most people still believe the stereotypes of Egyptians worshipping cats and embalming their pets. In reality, says Doctor Price, evidence of this is very rare.

“Our exhibition challenges, really for the first time, preconceptions about animal mummification, and tells the story of behind this process,” he adds.

“It reveals something of the ancient beliefs motivating the practice, throwing light on modern romantic notions and the desire to collect objects, and the methods modern scientists use to examine these precious artefacts.”

Mummified crocodile from Manchester Museum, from the exhibition Gift for the Gods, with help from the University of Manchester and the Ancient Egyptian Bio Bank Project.
An entire preserved crocodile© Alan Seabright
It is believed millions of mummified creatures were offered to the gods - not as pets accompanying the dead to the afterlife, but as sacrifices.

There is even evidence that young cats had their necks snapped prior to the embalming process, leading specialists to believe the rearing and slaughter of animals, specifically for mummification, was a thriving business in Ancient Egypt.

The Ancient Egyptian Bio Bank Project, based at the University of Manchester, is working with the museum to shed light on this aspect of everyday Ancient Egyptian life thanks to the analysis and cataloguing of more than 800 specimens.

Technology will feature in the display with the use of photography, x-rays, CT scans and light microscopy of the mummies, helping visitors understand the embalming process and why the ritual was important.

“All mummies which are able to come to Manchester are brought to the hospital for digital radiography (2d) and CT scans (3d),” says Dr Lidija McKnight, Research Associate for the Ancient Egyptian Bio Bank Project.

Mummified crocodile skulls, seen with a CT scan, belonging to Manchester Museum, from the exhibition Gift for the Gods, with help from the University of Manchester and the Ancient Egyptian Bio Bank Project.
CT scan of crocodile skulls© Alan Seabright
Dr McKnight has worked with mummified animals for 16 years and started the Project in 2010 with colleague Stephanie Atherton-Woolham.

“We always do both techniques as this gives us the most comprehensive insight into the mummies without damaging the exterior,” she says.

“Some mummies are too badly damaged to travel in which case we visit them at the museum, record details on their appearance and condition and sometimes we take small samples for future biomedical analysis.”

The mummification process of these ‘votives’, or religious offerings, are considered basic, according to findings.

Instead of natron (a common embalming substance used in human mummies), pine resin and beeswax was applied as a molten liquid to stick down the linen and create an antibacterial and impermeable coating, which was key to preserving organic matter; an essential factor in being considered a ‘mummy’.

Mummified animals of Manchester Museum, from the exhibition Gift for the Gods, with help from the University of Manchester and the Ancient Egyptian Bio Bank Project.
Side view of a cat sarcophogus© Alan Seabright
Thanks to radiography, it has also been discovered that few incidences of evisceration of mummified animals occurred - likely due to the time and effort it would have required and the nature of the “high-throughput” industry.

Egyptians mummified practically every animal they came across in their everyday lives; cats, birds, and crocodiles are most prominently featured in museum collections, but there are also mummified fish, snakes, baboons, dogs, kestrels, eagles, and even rodents.

Many of these specimens were considered lesser findings during the 18th and 19th century boom of British archaeology in Egypt, and were sold as trinkets or souvenirs which eventually found their way out of Egypt.

These artefacts comprise the majority of specimens examined by the Bio Project.

The boom generated ongoing fascination with ancient Egyptian culture, represented by a display of 19th century artistic renditions by early Victorian English enthusiasts.

X-ray of mummified cat from Manchester Museum, from the exhibition Gift for the Gods, with help from the University of Manchester and the Ancient Egyptian Bio Bank Project.
Mummified remains, seen thanks to an x-ray© Alan Seabright
“This exhibition will showcase the role played by the British in the discovery, excavation, collection, curation and scientific research of this understudied subject,” says Dr McKnight.

“The University of Manchester, with its long history in Egyptian mummy research, is leading the field; helping to shed light on the material remains of this ancient practice and, hopefully, to reveal more about how and why these animal mummies were produced.”

A representation of Egypt as it was, not a barren landscape but a lush and fertile environment on the edges of the Nile, will welcome those entering the exhibition.

There will also be an atmospheric rendition of a subterranean animal catacomb, with dark and narrow paths and votive offerings, to offer visitors a more authentic experience of worship.

“Votive animal mummies are found in large underground catacombs on land associated with religious sites so their deposition is closely connected to the gods to which they were deemed sacred,” adds Dr McKnight.

“This is in contrast to the deposition environment of cult animals, pets and victual (food) mummies which are quite different.

“They are recognisable based on the species represented, the location of their deposition and the relationship between the animals and the gods.”

Mummified animals of Manchester Museum, from the exhibition Gift for the Gods, with help from the University of Manchester and the Ancient Egyptian Bio Bank Project.
Close-up of the sarcophagus© Alan Seabright
However, there is still much to be discovered about the details of this practice. As the first exhibition of its kind, Gift for the Gods seeks to generate interest in an under-studied subject with much left to explore and understand.

“It offers the chance to reunite mummified material from different archaeological sites for the first time in over a century,” says Dr Price.

“It will feature more than 60 mummies, including many never before seen on public display.”

  • The exhibition will open at Manchester Museum (October 8 2015 - April 17 2016) before being displayed at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow (May-September 2016) and World Museum, Liverpool (October 2016-March 2017).
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