Reattaching a mangled “ear”

If you read our blogposts back in February and March about x-raying our animal mummies (see Animal Mummies: contents revealed part I and part II) you will see that the cat mummy we x-rayed actually has no cat remains inside the wrappings. Here is the image of the cat mummy and radiograph:

50-17-1: mummy paired with radiograph

50-17-1: mummy paired with radiograph

Just because there is no cat inside, it doesn’t mean that we don’t treat it just like any of our other animal mummies. (And it doesn’t mean that these empty mummies were any less significant in ancient times either – check out this article which we’ve linked to in previous posts about the Manchester Museum and University of Manchester project which found that 1/3 of the 800 mummies they imaged have no remains inside.)

In the case of this cat mummy, it was in the lab for treatment so that it could be reinstalled in our Secrets and Science gallery. One of its major problems was that its right ear was mangled and partially detached.

Two views of the cat mummy's head, with red arrows pointing to the mangled ear

Two views of the cat mummy’s head, with red arrows pointing to the mangled ear

Repairing this area was slightly complicated because so much original material had been lost. I ended up flipping the cat mummy over and working on it from the back, and secured the ear using Japanese tissue paper toned with acrylic paint, adhered with 5% methylcellulose in deionized water.

Our little kitty patient wrapped in tissue paper and being supported on its belly for treatment

Our little kitty patient wrapped in tissue paper and being supported on its belly during treatment

This treatment worked well and will prevent further damage in that area in the future.

Two views of the cat mummy's head after treatment

Two views of the cat mummy’s head after treatment

Besides the ear, there were unraveling and torn areas of linen wrappings that needed to be secured. These areas were stabilized with strips of nylon bobbinet, toned with acrylic paint. The bobbinet was secured with hair silk toned with acrylic paint.

Overall view of the cat mummy before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

Overall view of the cat mummy before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment

It doesn’t show up so well in some of these images, so here is a detail of the cat’s face, just because it’s so cute!

Detail of 50-17-1

Detail of 50-17-1

This cat mummy is now happily reinstalled in the Secrets and Science gallery, so you can see it anytime you visit the museum.

Animal mummies: contents revealed part II

This is a follow-up to my last blogpost, where I posted some side-by-side images of animal mummies and their x-rays. In this post I’m going to explain what we think we’re seeing in the radiographs.

Let’s start with one of the easiest ones:

50-17-1: mummy paired with radiograph

50-17-1: mummy paired with radiograph

This one is really easy. While the mummy is made to look like a cat, we can clearly see that there are no cat remains, or any remains, inside. All we see inside are very small straight pins, which were pushed into the linen wrappings in 1980 to keep them from unraveling. We know this happened in 1980 because it is noted in an old conservation report. A good example of an ancient “fake”!

The next one is also fairly easy to interpret.


E12438: mummy from the side, paired with radiograph

We thought this was an ibis mummy, and sure enough, we see an entire ibis inside the wrappings. The GIF above highlights the distinctive skull and beak of the ibis in red.

You could say that the next one, which appears to be a crocodile mummy, has a couple extra special surprises inside:


E17631: mummy from above, paired with radiograph

There are 3 baby crocodiles under the wrappings! The GIF above highlights the 3 skulls in red.

Next we have what appears to be a falcon mummy, but what we see inside is harder to interpret:


E12441: mummy paired with radiograph

Upon close inspection, we can see 2 separate, and very small birds inside. In the GIF above, the red outlines the skulls and beaks and the blue outlines the bodies. We don’t think that these birds are falcons, or even birds of prey at all. They look much more like doves or pigeons (based on examination of comparative specimens with zooarchaeologist Dr. Kate Moore). It’s possible that this mummy was never meant to represent a falcon at all – the jury is still out on this one.

Lastly, we have the tiniest mummy of the bunch:


E12435: mummy from the side, paired with radiograph

There is an animal inside, and it looks like its body is upside-down. It is very difficult to make out, but we can see its front teeth and its long tail. This one definitely called for the expertise of Dr. Moore, who brought up some comparative specimens from her collection. Ultimately, it was the teeth that convinced her that what we see inside this little mummy is a shrew.

Dr. Moore holding a tiny shrew skull

Dr. Moore holding a tiny shrew skull

To the ancient Egyptians, the shrew represented the nocturnal side of Horus. Here is a link to an image of a similar shrew mummy in the collection at the Brooklyn Museum.

Our fun with animal mummies never ends! For more information about where these mummies came from, check our their catalog records in our Collections Database:

50-17-1: Cat mummy

E17631: Crocodile mummy

E12441: Falcon mummy

E12438: Ibis mummy

E12435: Shrew mummy

Losing it and faking it: investigations into our animal mummies

Hello! I’m Anna O’Neill, a summer intern working in the Conservation Department at the Penn Museum. I’m currently studying to get my MSc in Conservation Practice from Cardiff University in Wales. This summer, I’ve been helping Molly in the Artifact Lab a few days a week and she asked me to write a little bit about one of my projects.

The Egyptians often made votive animal mummies—small, mass-produced animal mummies that pilgrims could offer to the gods. Cats were especially popular as they represented Bastet, the cat-headed goddess of protection, fertility and motherhood. The Penn Museum has several cat mummies in their collection. A few are below:

cat mummiesWe recently started working on E16205, a cat mummy from Abydos (seen below in the image on the left). It was excavated in 1901-02 through the Egypt Exploration Fund through financial support of the Penn Museum, and dates to ca. 381-343 BCE. The linen wrappings are in bad shape—loose, torn and powdery—but that is the least of its problems. After a light cleaning, it became clear that something was missing.

overhead and vertebraAs you can see in the image on the upper right, the linen is damaged and there is a bone exposed at one end of the cat mummy. Zooarchaeologist and Penn professor Dr. Kate Moore confirmed that it’s a cervical vertebra visible at the narrower end of the wrappings.

Dr. Kate Moore examines the exposed cat mummy bone

Dr. Kate Moore examines the exposed cat mummy bone

Animal mummies occasionally lose their heads, as the neck is the weakest point of attachment to the body. Back in March, Molly wrote about our falcon mummy’s floppy head.

In the hope that maybe the head had simply been misplaced, we sent an email to Egyptian Section curator Jen Wegner. A few hours later, Jen turned up in the Artifact lab, smiling and toting a small, tissue-wrapped package. Inside was this little beauty:

Cat head 3quarterIt is evident that this head does not match our cat mummy’s body. The colors and weaves of the linen are different, and the head has carefully articulated features while the body is rather haphazardly wrapped. But the main difference is that there doesn’t appear to be any cat parts within the sculpted wrappings! Inside, the mask contains bundles of linen and resin, but no bones that we could see. A quick look at the records for the head showed that it was X-radiographed in the 1980s and contains “no bony skull”. It is a fake—but an ancient one!

Cat head above below

Additional views of the cat mummy head from above (left) and below (right)

Faking mummies, particularly animal mummies, was not uncommon in ancient Egypt. The materials to make a mummy, like myrrh and natron, were costly. Instead of embalming, the expense could go towards elaborate wrapping and detailing. Once the linen was in place, a religious pilgrim wouldn’t know whether or not there was an actual mummy inside. Several other Penn Museum animal mummies were X-radiographed along with the false head, and it turned out that the middle cat mummy in the image at the very top of this post doesn’t contain any skeletal matter, either. A clue is in the shape of its body—it is wide at the top and narrow at the feet, upside-down in comparison to the real cats.

So, were the mummy-makers pulling the, ahem, linen, over devotees’ eyes?  It is unclear whether the pilgrims knew that the votive mummies they offered to the gods were impostors, and nor do we know if it mattered. The qualities represented by the animal sacrificed may have been more important than its physical body. This way, a fake mummy representing the “idea” of a cat was an equally valid gift as the mummy of a real cat.

We’re disappointed that we can’t reunite our cat mummy body with its head, but Molly and I are going to work to stabilize the wrappings so that it can be CT-scanned and studied. In the meantime, it’s been interesting to see which of the Penn Museum’s votive mummies are real and which are (ancient) fakes.