A tiny mystery mummy

Yesterday we x-rayed mummies of 2 extremes: a full-sized human mummy (Nespekashuti), and a tiny mystery mummy:

mystery mummy

This tiny mummy is about 2″ wide and 5″ long, and easily fits into one of my hands.

We already had the x-ray tube warmed up for capturing images of Nespekashuti, so we figured we’d zap this little mummy while we were at it, to find out what is underneath those wrappings. We had lots of guesses, but ultimately, none of us guessed correctly.

Here is one of the x-ray images:

An x-ray image of our tiny mystery mummy

An x-ray image of our tiny mystery mummy

We had 3 conservators in the room when this image popped up on the computer screen, and we were immediately puzzled. Bird? Definitely not. Crocodile? No. Mouse? Nope. Cat? Again, a no. Could it be a…dog? We knew that the 3 of us non-experts couldn’t say anything with any certainly, so we called in the big guns…in the form of zooarchaeologist Dr. Kate Moore, who has helped us with some of our other animal mummies in the past.

Dr. Moore spent some time looking at the images, and then looking at some x-ray images of immature dogs (puppies!). She was troubled by a few things, including the fact that we can’t see any teeth and that the animal appears to have only 1 leg, also the length of the spine and front paws/feet, but ultimately concluded, based on the x-ray images that we captured, that this is indeed a puppy, who died right around the time it was born.

Based on its size, I don’t think any of us expected this tiny mummy to contain a dog, but it’s not surprising that we would have a dog mummy in our collection, since millions have been found in Egypt, notably in the Dog Catacombs of Saqqara. And this isn’t the only puppy mummy in our collection – if you visit the museum, you can see Hapi-puppy on exhibit, displayed at the feet of his owner, Hapi-men, both of which have been CT-scanned. A CT-scan of our newly-discovered puppy mummy would provide greater detail and a better understanding of this tiny animal, and would help make a more certain identification. We’ll be sure to update the blog with any new findings if we are able to do some more imaging.

 

Conservation at the Penn Museum: the next generation

Our department temporarily gained a member last week, when aspiring conservator Jessica Schwartz returned to spend an afternoon with us.

Conservator Tessa de Alarcon shows Jessica an RTI (reflectance transformation imaging) file of a seal impression from Ur.

Conservator Tessa de Alarcon shows Jessica an RTI (reflectance transformation imaging) file of a fragment of a jar stopper from Ur. The seal impression is so worn, and RTI revealed that it actually has 2 different impressions on it.

Jessie, a 6th-grader from Atlanta, has been interested in archaeology for as long as she can remember, but after seeing us working In the Artifact Lab two summers ago, she redirected her energy to pursuing archaeological conservation. There aren’t many opportunities for 12-year olds to gain experience in conservation, so we thought that if she spent some time with us, she’d get a taste of what we do on a day-to-day basis.

The first time she worked with us, last summer, we spent some time looking at our Predynastic mummy Bruce, using our microscopes to identify materials, and making scarab amulet impressions, and she wrote about all of this on the blog, which you can find by following this link.

Last week she came for a return visit (her family was here for the opening of our new exhibition, Beneath the Surface: Life, Death, & Gold in Ancient Panama) and she kept pace with all of the activities of the afternoon, including discussing my ongoing treatment of Pinahsi, a New Kingdom mummy (she had a good eye for picking out where I had repaired the textile shroud!) and reviewing radiographs of some of our animal mummies.

Jar of dirty cotton swab tips

Jar of dirty cotton swab tips

One of the first questions Jessica asked me when she came into the lab was, “what is that container full of little bits of cotton for?”. I’m so glad she asked (it’s a cotton swab disposal jar), because it gave me the idea to teach her one of the most important skills for a conservator to have – rolling your own cotton swab! We make our own swabs for cleaning objects because it allows us to have more control over the size and shape of the swab and the amount of cotton, and it’s also a lot cheaper. Jessica was so pleased with learning this new technique – I told her it would take her far!

 

Jessie with a successfully-rolled swab

Jessie with a successfully-rolled swab

After working in the Artifact Lab for a bit, we went downstairs to our new digital x-ray lab* to review some animal mummy x-radiographs. I x-rayed the animal mummies just before Jessie’s visit, so this was an opportunity for us to learn from the radiographs together. (*We are super excited about our new digital x-radiography equipment and we are just starting to use it to examine objects in our collection. I have been meaning to write a post just about the equipment and some of the things it has already allowed us to do, so look for this in the near future.)

One of the mummies we x-rayed was this ibis mummy, which our graduate intern
Alexis North treated over the summer. As far as we know, this mummy had never been x-rayed before, so we really had no idea what the radiograph would reveal. Here are the 2 views we captured:

X-ray image taken from the top down. Exposure information: 30kV, 1mA, 6 seconds

X-radiograph taken from the top down. Exposure information: 30kV, 1mA, 6 seconds. Image enhanced with flash! filter.

 

X-ray image taken from the side. Exposure information: 35 kV, 1mA, 6 seconds

X-radiograph taken from the side. Exposure information: 35 kV, 1mA, 6 seconds. Image enhanced with flash! filter.

Both views clearly show that there are bird remains inside, and the side view shows the characteristic long, curved beak of the ibis really well. The radiographs also show the textile wrappings and even the materials in the storage support! But focusing on the bird remains, they seemed a little…sparse. So we consulted with the museum’s zooarchaeologist and teaching specialist Dr. Kate Moore. She brought us into her lab and showed us a complete heron skeleton (she doesn’t have an ibis skeleton, but a heron is very comparable in terms of size and the shape of the bones).

TessaJessieKate

Dr. Kate Moore (far right) shows Tessa and Jessica a heron skeleton

Here is the complete skeleton, which Kate piled up on the table so that we could get a sense of how much volume those bones take up. After seeing these bones, we took another look at the x-radiograph, and realized that our ibis mummy only contained about half the bones of a complete skeleton (for starters, the pelvis is missing completely).

Heron bones

Heron bones with sharpie marker used for scale.

As you can see, we had a full afternoon, and we learned a lot together. Jessie had to fly back to Atlanta today to turn her attention back to her current full-time job, being a sixth grader, but we look forward to her next visit. While college, and conservation graduate school, are a bit far off in the future, we can already see that if Jessie ultimately decides to pursue conservation, she’s going to excel!

 

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.