Mysterious bits from Nespekashuti

I’ve written before about mysterious things we’ve found during conservation treatment of our mummies (see this blogpost about the stuff we found at the bottom of Wilfreda’s crate). As I’ve been working on Nespekashuti, I’ve found some puzzling little bits at the bottom of his coffin and caught in his linen wrappings.

Here are a couple piles of detached and in most cases completely deteriorated linen, which needed to be removed as I’ve worked on Nespekashuti:

Piles of deteriorated linen wrappings and other materials removed from Nespekashuti during conservation treatment.

Piles of deteriorated linen wrappings and other materials removed from Nespekashuti and his coffin during conservation treatment.

In these piles, I found the mysterious bits. Some of these things I can recognize, but figuring out exactly what they are and how and why they got there is another story.

Here are some photomicrographs:

Feathers found with  Nespekashuti, 7.5X magnification

Feathers found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

This first one is easy – these are feathers, of course – little grey plumaceous body feathers from who knows what kind of bird. There are some good resources out there for identifying feathers (see more info at the very bottom of our Learn More! page) but for little feathers like this, and non-experts like me, we need to resort to microscopic analysis by an expert from another institution in order to attempt identification. I did take some photomicrographs of the barbules from one of these feathers, which may be their most diagnostic feature, but again, I lack the experience necessary to make sense of what I’m seeing through the microscope. Just for fun, this is what the barbules look like:

Barbules of one feather found with Nespekashuti, 200x magnification.

Barbules of one feather found with Nespekashuti, 200x magnification.

We also found these:

Bird bones found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

Bird bones found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

and this:

Two fused bird vertebrae found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

Two fused bird vertebrae found with Nespekashuti, 7.5x magnification

These two images above show some tiny bones that were found in Nespekashuti’s coffin. I consulted Dr. Kate Moore, zooarchaeologist and Teaching Specialist in the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM). She confirmed that these are bird bones, and the second image shows two articulated bird vertebrae. Dr. Moore told me that upon her initial inspection, she thinks that they may have gone through a digestive tract (think:owl pellets, and that dissection you may have done in grade school!).

And then I found a bunch of this stuff:

Found with Nespekashuti - these look like mouse or rat droppings, 7.5X magnification

Found with Nespekashuti – these look like mouse or rat droppings, 7.5X magnification

These things look a lot like mouse or rat droppings, and there’s little bits of hair caught in some of them. No one said that working on mummies is for the faint of heart!

I also found some bits of cotton, tiny pieces of wood and plant materials, and even some broken glass. We can think of lots of good stories to explain why this stuff would be found with Nespekashuti, but in the end we’re not really sure. Like I said, we are reaching out to some experts about the feathers, so I’ll keep you posted if we learn more – identifying the feathers would be exciting, and could help explain how they got there!

A closer look at one of our feathered friends

We have an ibis mummy in the lab, which is revealing itself to us in an unusual way.

Unlike most animal mummies in our collection, we can actually see the ibis’ remains – in this case, its feathers! It is unfortunate that the linen wrappings were damaged in the past, but this damage does provide a unique look under the bandages.


Ibis mummy, 97-121-19, from Thebes, Late Period (ca. 664-332 BCE).

While x-ray radiography revealed that there is indeed an ibis inside (the beak is a dead giveaway), the feathers provide further clues about this bird that was mummified approximately 2500 years ago.

Radiograph taken from the top down. Exposure information: 35kV, 5mA, 6 seconds. Image enhanced with flash! filter.

Radiograph taken from the top down. Exposure information: 35kV, 5mA, 6 seconds. Image enhanced with flash! filter.

When researching ibis mummies, I read again and again about the African Sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) being mummified, but there were other types of ibis in Egypt, including the Glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) and the Northern Bald ibis (Geronticus eremita). I don’t know if evidence has been found that these other types of ibis were mummified, but I do know that I shouldn’t immediately assume that this particular ibis mummy contains the remains of an African Sacred ibis.

So, let’s look at the feathers, and what we can learn from them. The feathers that are exposed appear to be contour feathers that may be part of one of the wings. There are a few completely detached feather fragments in this area, so I was able to take a closer look at one small fragment under the microscope.


Left: ibis feather 7.5X magnification. Right: ibis feather 50X magnification.

The most obvious feature to note, even without a microscope, is the coloration. This feather is white and black. The African Sacred ibis has a very beautiful, distinctive, black and white plumage, so in this case the color alone may be enough to identify species.

If we can’t rely on color, what else can we learn from this feather fragment? Well, we can see that it is part of a pennaceous (rather than plumulaceous, or downy) feather, the parts of which I’ve labeled in the above images. To take an even closer look at these elements, I used our polarizing light microscope and was able to see the tiny hooklets on the barbules, which “zip” the barbules, and therefore the barbs, together.

Ibis feather 100X magnification.

Ibis feather 100X magnification.

The barbules of feathers can be used for identification of species, but usually barbules from plumulaceous feathers are used, as they have a very different and distinct appearance. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to any plumulaceous feathers from this ibis mummy, so this may be as far as I can go at the moment. There are other researchers, both within the field of Egyptology, but mostly in ornithology, who have spent much more time looking at ibis feather structure than I have, and of course there is DNA research, so we may learn more in the future about this ibis mummy and its feathers.

I have a special place in my heart for birds and feathers, since before coming to the Penn Museum, I worked on an extensive project on feather coloration as part of a collaborative research effort between UCLA and the Getty Conservation Institute. Click on the links below to find out more about this work:

A Collaborative Study of California Featherwork

California Featherwork: Considerations for Examination and Preservation

And to learn more about feather structure, start by following this link: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds: Feather Structure

Out with the old, in with the new

There are some new objects to see in the lab!

Just this week, we began returning some of our recently-treated objects to storage and exchanging them for some new stuff, including a painted wooden coffin (this is a photo of the coffin box without the lid – note the elaborate painted decoration on the interior):

coffina falcon coffin and “mummy” (I’m putting “mummy” in quotes here because this mummy looks like it’s a corn mummy, made by wrapping up a mixture of sand, grains, and plant fibers):

falconmummythese pieces of a painted wooden coffin board with two Wedjat eyes:

coffinboardand this ibis mummy, with exposed feathers!

ibismummyThere are some other things too, including some cartonnage and another animal mummy, which we’ll post photos of soon.

As always, these photos really don’t do these objects justice. You’ll have to come check them out in person! And we’re only just starting to examine them, so we’ll definitely post information as we learn more. If you have specific questions about any of these objects, please let us know!