Mummies, whether human or animal, were never intended to be unwrapped. The ancient embalmers were wise to the fact that, especially for elite burials, tomb robbers might try to rip the mummies apart in search of valuables. But I doubt the ancients could ever have envisaged the extent of modern scientific curiosity. Yet we are, undeniably, curious. We see a closed, sealed package and it seems like a deliberate challenge: we almost instinctively want to know what’s inside. Modern technology allows us to look under the wrappings without damaging the mummies themselves. But why do we want to look, and why did the Egyptians wrap things in the first place?
Animal mummies and bronze statuettes of deities shared a common votive purpose: they were both appropriate gifts to give to the gods to further one’s prayers. Some bronzes have been found still wrapped in linen, as deposited by temple staff. Some more sizeable bronzes are hollow, with some even containing remains of mummified material; thus the boundary between ‘statues’ and ‘coffins’ is more blurred for animals than for humans. Regardless of what animal mummy bundles might contain, they were – like the bronzes – images of the gods. Such images were sacred and very powerful, and had to be carefully buried – either in a cache deposit or in a catacomb – after they had been donated by visitors to a temple.
It is important to acknowledge the role of wrapping in ancient Egyptian ritual practice. My predecessor as Curator of Egyptology at Manchester Museum, Christina Riggs, has written a provocative book on this topic, examining aspects of how wrapping and unwrapping have influenced the interpretation of ancient Egypt. Museums almost never acknowledge this. For example, in the tomb of Tutankhamun almost all the images of gods or the king were shrouded in linen coverings but none of these wrappings made it to displays in the Cairo Museum.
Recent controversy surrounding the display of mummies – and the seemingly endless analysis of it – highlights how sensitive we can still be about the subject of wrapping and unwrapping.
Shrouding or veiling draws attention to the fact that a secret is being kept, and adds power and prestige to the item being covered. Wrapping also protects, maintaining and enhancing the sacredness of an object. Modern museum display has tended to favour the removal and quiet disposal of these original wrappings. That is why – for the first time ever, to my knowledge – we have included a rewrapped bronze statuette of Isis nursing Horus in our ‘Gifts for the Gods’ exhibition. We hope this will provoke visitors to think of the bronzes and mummies as two different aspects of the same votive concept.
Many visitors to the ‘Gifts for the Gods’ exhibition will expect that animal mummies were all pets, and that the Egyptians were very strange for mummifying animals. What we have tried to show is that gifting was – and still is – a very important means of seeking divine attention in many cultures. Ours is the first exhibition that explicitly looks at animal mummies as votives, rather than simply as animals or mummies.
Animals were a category of beings between humans and gods, and were the perfect intermediaries between them. Millions of animal mummies were produced as eternal gifts, tokens of prayers of people who died over 2000 years ago, given in the hope that only the gods would know what was inside.
Secrecy breeds curiosity. There are no texts explaining what the Egyptians aimed to achieve by mummifying animals in such large numbers, so their purpose is something of a mystery that science is helping to. Faced with so many wrapped packages, we are like excited (Western) children on Christmas morning – we simply cannot contain our curiosity to see what’s inside.