Behind the scenes of a myth-busting exhibition on ancient Egypt's animal mummies at Kelvingrove
DR Campbell Price can recount many a happy childhood afternoon spent at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.
He would skip through the doors with his grandparents and make a beeline for the same exhibit time and again: an Egyptian mummy. "I remember the smell of antiquity, going to the Egyptian section and seeing the mummy on display," he says. "I thought: 'Wow, this is what I want to do with my life ...'"
Spool forward to the present day and Price, 31, is the curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum – a passion he credits as being ignited by those visits as a youngster.
He has overseen a raft of fascinating and intriguing objects including bound crocodiles, entombed cats and mummified jackals that are part of a touring exhibition, Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed, which opens at Kelvingrove today.
Billed as a myth-busting display, it features more than 60 mummies and will explore how ancient Egyptians used and prepared animals in their millions as votive offerings to the gods.
This is the first exhibition of its kind in the UK. It opened in Manchester last year and after Glasgow will head for Liverpool.
Gifts for the Gods brings together highlights from Glasgow's archaeological collection alongside rarely seen pieces from Manchester Museum including stone sculpture, bronze statuettes and 19th-century artworks.
There is a gilded ibis mummy case from the Ptolemaic period on loan from the Burrell Collection and an ibis mummy from Perth Museum and Art Gallery that Price describes as having been somewhat "pimped" decoratively in more modern times.
Visitors begin their journey by stepping back in time to ancient Egypt, a scene with a backdrop of lush greenery as opposed to the dusty, sand-strewn landscape we typically associate it with.
The next gallery houses a catacomb: an atmospheric, narrow room lined with pots containing votive animal mummies and a shrine for worship where the spine-tingling chants of a priest ring out.
Although their role in religious rituals is not fully understood, experts believe these mummies would have been viewed as symbolic offerings that could take prayers to the gods – similar to the lighting of a candle in a church.
Among the exhibition's unique aspects is the use of imaging technology, such as CT scans and X-rays, to reveal the contents of the animal mummies.
Over the past decade, Dr Lidija McKnight and Dr Stephanie Atherton-Woolham from the Biomedical Egyptology department at the University of Manchester have examined more than 1,000 mummies using these techniques.
"They found that only one-third contain the animal you expect," says Price. "In another third it is only part of the animal – a bone, a feather or a bit of crushed eggshell – and in the final third there is nothing at all."
Early theories suggested that many were fakes. According to Price, however, the wealthy Egyptians who commissioned animal mummies may have known they were empty and what was more important was that the outside of the mummy looked recognisable to the god to which it was being offered.
Ibis birds, for example, were linked to Thoth, the god of writing and wisdom, while cats were sacred to Bastet, the goddess of warfare.
"I don't think it was hoodwinking pilgrims," he says. "It is perhaps more our cynical modern attitude that we think: 'Oh, people must have been being cheated.' In fact, it may have been that as long as you gathered together reeds or feathers from where the sacred ibis birds lived and made them into a bundle with an image of the ibis on the outside, then that was an appropriate gift to the gods."
The exhibition explores the huge demand for animal mummies and highlights some of the dedicated sites where millions of examples have been found. These include Saqqara, south-east of modern Cairo – an excavation site which Price visited as part of a Scottish-Egyptian mission under the late Edinburgh-born archaeologist Ian Mathieson – which is thought to have been a centre of production for such mummies between 700BC and 300AD.
The call for votive offerings was so great that it is believed to have created a trade in mass-produced animals, specially bred for the practice. It has been found that many embalmers did not always take the same care when preserving these creatures as they did when working on humans.
"The scientific research shows the mummies were being produced on an industrial production line," says Price. "It is not like human mummies where you removed the internal organs and brain – as every school kid knows with the metal hook up the nose – and are drying the body out.
"Instead you are taking your little baby croc and dipping it in a mixture of plant resin, beeswax and incense that will help preserve the body. It is an anti-bacterial, waterproof and will smell nice."
A series of "smell pots" allow visitors to get a whiff of what is a distinct and unforgettable aroma. "They have a strange, exotic and musky scent," reveals Price. "It is not an unpleasant smell. Well, most of them aren't – some of the fish mummies can be quite smelly. Human and most animal mummies smell spicy."
Among the more unusual discoveries was when a CT scan of a child-shaped coffin revealed not human remains but a large cat. "We are not sure whether that is a very rare case of a favoured family pet or whether it is one of the tens of millions of votive mummies that have been given a human coffin because they couldn't find anything else," says Price.
"It may be a 19th-century modern example where it has been contrived to sell it. You often find in Egyptian archaeology that if you have a mummy and an empty coffin, dealers will put them together to make them more saleable as a package."
Another of the mummies – a cute jackal which Price says looks like a "sock puppet" – was found to contain human bones. "Clearly demand for the mummies is outstripping supply of the animals, so that means they needed to use feathers and bones," he says. "Perhaps, in some settings, they are even taking human bones from cemetery sites and wrapping them up."
Price, who grew up in Milngavie and is a former head boy of Douglas Academy, says one of the key misconceptions tackled is our view of how the Egyptians looked upon animals."A lot of people will come into it thinking, 'Oh yeah, the ancient Egyptians worshipped animals and mummified their pets ...'" he says. "But they didn't worship animals per se, rather a huge pantheon of gods who could take animal form.
"They are not pets – they are gifts to the gods. People think of the Egyptians as animal lovers, but that's another myth-busting part of the exhibition. They respected animals and thought of their gods as taking animal forms, but that didn't mean they were averse to raising animals in their thousands and killing them, because that would help send their prayers to heaven."
Gifts for the Gods looks at prominent British archaeologists in Egypt. Photographs and journal excerpts explain how artefacts were discovered and excavated then brought back to the UK for display and research.
It also examines the less salubrious ways that objects came to end up in museums. "Egypt was part of the British Empire and that is a colonialist issue we acknowledge," says Price. "Why do we have so many objects from ancient Egypt? Because we took them. Egypt was complicit in that for a long time, but it was part of this colonial past of Britain.
"A lot of these things were brought back from Egypt by European travellers in the 1800s. They wanted to record their experiences and bring back a souvenir. A human mummy is big, the coffins are heavy and often quite smelly, but an animal mummy is recognisable, portable and a great souvenir you can put on your mantelpiece as a talking point."
One such interesting nugget is historical records which document how, during the late 19th century, steamships arrived into Liverpool with 180,000 cat mummies used as ballast that were later sold on the dockside as fertiliser.
The exhibition includes a cartoon from Punch magazine in 1890 that shows zombie cats coming back from the dead to haunt the farmers. "Hundreds of thousands of these animal mummies were lost because they were ground up and apparently made very good fertiliser," says Price.
A Discovery Zone will bring the subject to life for budding archaeologists and young Egyptologists who can dig for their own mummy, learn about the process of mummification and experience life as an explorer.
Interactive attractions include a micro CT scanner where visitors can press a button and watch it scan a recreation of an animal mummy. A programme of workshops and events for adults and children will accompany the exhibition.
"The final thing you can do is leave a gift for the gods," says Price. "We are not leaving out animal mummies but what we do have is hieroglyphic stamps.
"There is a cat, ibis and a crocodile hieroglyph. You take a piece of paper and write your wish for the gods, then stamp it to magically activate it."
Price admits to changing his mind on almost a daily basis regarding his favourite piece in the exhibition, but concedes he has a soft spot for the ibis from the Burrell Collection.
"It is stunning because it is so distinctive," he says. "An ibis has a very long beak and you can really see that on the Burrell statuette. It is also a coffin and the CT scan showed it was hollow inside. It was originally made to contain part of an animal mummy.
"We know the Egyptians revered the ibis as an image of Thoth, the god of writing and wisdom. It seems to be because they thought of the scribe writing and dipping his pen into an inkwell as being like the ibis dipping its beak into the river."
Why are we so fascinated with mummies? "That is the $64,000 question," says Price. "We say in the museum industry if it's either dinosaurs or Egyptian mummies, it will get the public in. If we could somehow have dinosaur mummies? That would be the ultimate. Egypt, science, animals, mummies – it is museum gold," he says.
The unveiling of the exhibition in his childhood stomping ground, meanwhile, has brought added personal meaning for Price. "It is special that it is at Kelvingrove because it was the place that inspired me," he says. "It feels like I have brought Egyptology home to Glasgow."
Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed will be at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow from today until September 4. Tickets cost £5 for adults (£3 concessions) with entry free for under-16s. Visit glasgowmuseums.com
Masters of the animal mummy
AS Kelvingrove welcomes Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed, part of the Glasgow Museums collection will undergo further analysis and research at the University of Manchester.
Ten mummies – two baby crocodiles, a fish, three cats, two falcons and two hawks – will be examined using X-rays and CT scans to learn more about their contents and origins.
Katie Webbe, organic objects conservator at Glasgow Museums, prepared the objects for transportation to the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology in Manchester last week. She said it would be interesting to discover the secrets of the animal mummies.
"Some of them have little bits sticking out so we know there is definitely that animal's body inside; one of the falcons we can see its beak and feet," she says. "Others are so well wrapped that you can't see any identifiable body parts. You never know, those might be full of straw or there might be a cat inside."
While ancient Egypt remains an enduringly popular era, the role of animal mummies as votive offerings to the gods isn't as widely known.
"What's interesting is that it wasn't something just for the pharaoh," says Webbe. "The common man, if he had enough money, could get someone to produce him [an animal mummy] to present to the gods. It adds another element to Egyptian life that lets you know more about the common man.
"It captures the imagination. There are other cultures that do mummification – we have a Peruvian mummy in our collection. Parts of aboriginal Australia have a history of mummification. But nobody did it as comprehensively as the Egyptians."