X-ray excursion

If you stopped by the Artifact Lab this week, you might have noticed that our falcon mummy is no longer on display, and this sign in its place:

falcon signAs indicated on the sign, the falcon has been removed for x-radiography. This mummy has never been x-rayed before, and we’re interested in using this imaging technology to learn how it was made and if there are any falcon remains inside!

Along with the falcon, we’re also going to be x-raying/CT-scanning our (possibly headless) cat mummy, the wooden statue heads, and several other pieces.

We do not have the ability to x-ray and CT-scan objects here in the museum, so we will be taking these selected pieces for a little trip tomorrow. In preparation for their travels, they are securely packed, and ready for this exciting excursion!

The falcon mummy is secured inside its storage support and packed into a larger box for travel.

The falcon mummy is secured inside its storage support and packed into a larger box for travel.

We will update the blog with our findings soon after we return.

 

Wrapping up the cat mummy

Speaking of Abydos, let’s get back to our cat mummy, which was excavated from a cemetery there back in 1901-02. Our summer intern Anna O’Neill will describe how she carried out the conservation treatment on this very fragile object:

Hello again.  You may remember that last time I wrote about this cat mummy, I got a little distracted.  But this time I’d like to focus on the treatment process.  Many of our mummies are in remarkably good condition, with wrappings that are stable and that can withstand handling (albeit with care).  Not so with this cat.

cat mummy 1When plant-based fibers age, the cellulose that gives them structure decays and the fibers become brittle.  Badly aged linen can fall apart at the lightest touch, leaving loose fragments and powder on the surface of the object.  The linen on top of this cat mummy was torn and obscured by dust, but the real problem was underneath.  Prior to treatment, Molly and I carefully turned the mummy a little so we could see below—and quickly (but gently) put it back!  As you can see in the image below, the layers of linen were falling apart and the threads that had criss-crossed the layers were broken and hanging off.

cat mummy 2We decided to wrap the mummy in nylon netting, which would hold everything in place while keeping the surface visible.  This would be a non-invasive, completely reversible process that would allow the mummy to be safely handled and studied.

Before wrapping, I gave the mummy a light surface cleaning with a variable-speed HEPA-filtered vacuum.  Using a nozzle attachment fitted with a screen, I carefully removed the powder on the top of the mummy.  The linen—though torn—was still soft and flexible, like modern fabric.

cat mummy 3Then, I toned the netting to match the color of the mummy using acrylic paint.  Once the paint was dry, I positioned the netting across the top of the mummy and pinned it in place.  The flip was simple but nerve-wracking—we knew from our quick peek earlier that the underside was in bad shape, but we didn’t know to what extent.  With Molly’s help, I turned the mummy over so that all of the powder, torn linen and broken threads were now on top.

cat mummy 4Since the thick layer of compressed linen powder completely obscured the wrappings below, I again vacuumed the mummy, using a screen to filter out the powder while keeping everything else in place.  A vacuum may seem like an odd conservation tool (I got some weird looks as I hoovered the cat), but with the filter over the nozzle and variable suction control, there’s no danger of sucking up the entire object.

cat mummy 5

The underside of the mummy after cleaning. It may not look like much, but it’s better!

With the underside of the cat finally visible, I sewed the netting up the middle using a flat-felled seam.  As the name implies, this created a neat seam with a flat profile.

cat mummy 6

Overall view of the underside of the cat mummy (after treatment)

Overall view of the top of the cat mummy (after treatment)

Overall view of the top of the cat mummy (after treatment)

Now that the linen wrappings are encapsulated, the little cat mummy can be handled and studied, and it can (hopefully) be x-radiographed this fall.  It still may not have its head, but at least it won’t be losing any more of itself any time soon.

 

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.