S.A. Art Museum's animal mummies are no dummies
Published 5:23 pm, Tuesday, April 11, 2017
It was believed the small, brown bundles contained the preserved remains of baby Nile crocodiles, perhaps once left as an offering to the god Sobek. But that's the trouble with mummies — short of unraveling them, there's no telling exactly what's under the crumbling strips of linen, at least not without the help of modern technology.
Recently, museum staff got a chance to peek behind the wrappings with the help of staff at the UT Health San Antonio Medical Arts & Research Center. Ten animal mummies from the museum's collection were transported from museum storage to the facility on a cloudy Sunday morning to undergo X-rays and CT scans.
Of the group, only one — an ibis — has been exhibited at the museum before.
"I never put any of them out after I came precisely because we hadn't done this research," said Jessica Powers, who joined the museum staff as curator of art of the ancient Mediterranean world in 2006. "So I was really kind of waiting for the opportunity and the right specialist on staff to be able to do this."
That opportunity arose last year when the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the museum a grant that allowed the institution to hire Sarah Schellinger as a post-doctoral curatorial fellow. Schellinger, who has focused her work on the architectural development in the ancient Mediterranean and Red Sea areas, is developing exhibitions and programs built around the museum's Egyptian and Near Eastern art collection. A small show of the animal mummies is planned for next year.
"Everybody knows the Egyptians mummified humans, but not everyone knows there was this enormous practice of mummifying animals as well," Powers said. "So I think it's something that has the potential to have huge interest for our visitors."
Ancient Egyptians mummified animals for various reasons. A beloved pet might be mummified so it could accompany its owner to the afterlife. "Victual mummies" — frequently birds — were buried as food for the dead.
The animal mummies in the museum's collection are classified as votive mummies. The animals were raised by temple priests who then made them into mummies using techniques similar to those used to prepare bodies for burial.
The the museum's mummies have not been dated, but the popularity of votive mummies reached its height between 712 BC and AD 364, Schellinger said.
Pilgrims bought the votive mummies and used them as offerings so their prayers would be addressed by a specific god or goddess. Divinities were associated with a certain animal or animals. Among them, Sobek, the god of fertility and rebirth, was represented by a crocodile; Bastet, the goddess of warfare, was represented by a cat; Thoth, the god of knowledge, was represented by an ibis or baboon; and Horus, the god of protection, was represented by a falcon.
The practice was so popular that some of the animals became scarce, Schellinger said. That lead to the proliferation of fakes or "dummy mummies." Some wrappings might be empty. Others might contain odds and ends from one or more animals.
"Instead of wrapping one ibis completely, (the priests) would take maybe the beak and wrap that and then put in clumps of straw or feathers or something like that, and wrap it in a more intricate fashion to show that it was an ibis that was supposed to be inside," she said. "What you'll find is that a lot of times the simpler wrapped animals generally do contain the complete mummies whereas, when you see more elaborate wrapping, the chance is there will not be a complete animal inside."
When priests sold incomplete mummies, they were not necessarily pulling a fast one, Schellinger explained. "As long there were some bits in there, it was enough to represent that animal and therefore, it still served its function as a votive offering," she said.
An avid collector, Denman's first passion was Greek and Roman art, said Gerry Scott, director of the American Research Center in Egypt, but he was also interested in ancient Egyptian art. Scott was recruited for a curating position at SAMA by Denman, a museum trustee, and worked there from 1990 to 2003.
Before donating his collections to the museum, Denman kept them in an apartment on the River Walk where he sometimes crashed after working late and where he entertained friends.
"He was always very careful of them, but they were on display. People could see them," Scott said. "To him, I think, the animal mummies were a minor aspect of his collection. He really was an art collector, so it was his Egyptian sculpture that he valued the most."
After donating the Egyptian material to the museum, Denman missed having a collection, Scott said. With the then-curator's help, he put together a smaller collection.
Among the pieces Denman acquired were a pair of ibis mummies that previously had been in the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art. He placed them on loan to SAMA and one of them was displayed in the Egyptian galleries for several years. They were part of Denman's bequest to the museum when he died in 2004.
In addition to the animal mummies from Denman, the museum was given three falcon mummies by Houston collector Beryl McCleary in 2003. Museum staff was pretty certain those were complete "because some of the wrapping has torn away, and so you can see some of the talons or the beak or things like that," Schellinger said.
The others, however, were something of a mystery. In addition to four crocodile mummies, Denman's gift to the museum in 1991 included what was believed to be a cat mummy. Roughly the size of a loaf of bread, it was bent in a "U" shape as if it had been broken.
"They know mummies. They know art. They know natural sciences," Coke said. "As a veterinarian, I know animals, and specifically being a zoo veterinarian, I know birds and reptiles — all the extra animal weird things of the world. So they thought my expertise in the animal side of things would help them figure out what's actually inside these wrappings."
Wrapped in crepeline — a sheer fabric — and nestled in multiple layers of foam inside a specially made case, the mummies were transported to the UT center inside boxes covered with clear plastic bags to protect them from the threat of rain. At the center, a handful of UT Health and museum staff clustered around the medical equipment, eager to see what technology could reveal.
X-rays were done first to get a quick overall picture of what was inside each mummy and to determine if any foreign bodies — for example pieces of metal — were present. To the untrained eye, the first image to appear on the lead radiology technologist Yvette Garza's computer screen looked like, well, a ghostly gray blob. But Coke could see something else: the centuries-old remains of a hatchling Nile crocodile.
"Knowing the species helps," he said. "If you were not giving me any species, that would probably be a little challenging."
An extension of X-ray technology, CT scans provide a better view and can be used to create a 3-D image. A CT scan of what had been thought to be a cat mummy revealed the biggest surprise of the morning: an elongated lower jaw more likely to belong to a member of the canid, or dog, family such as a jackal.
"The most significant preliminary findings from the X-rays and (CT) scans are that all of the mummies did contain animals," Schellinger said, via email.
In other words, the museum's animal mummies are no dummies.
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