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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A (Very Early) Visit to Oxford | Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank

A (Very Early) Visit to Oxford

Last week, the Bio Bank Team visited the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, which turned out to be different to previous museum visits in many ways!

Entrance to the Ashmolean

Firstly, we were informed, prior to our visit, by Assistant Keeper of Egypt and Sudan, Dr Liam McNamara, that the collections database was in the process of being digitised. This meant that in order to get an understanding of the scale of the animal mummies in the collection, we had to rifle through object cards. Now, this may sound like every researchers worst nightmare, but in actual fact it was well organised and easy to navigate, after a tutorial by Liam. It was essentially like searching a museum database, without a computer. The object cards were a mixture of type-written and hand-written, and were organised by object category (coffins, statues and mummies, for instance) and simultaneously by chronological period, site and find-spot.

One of the object cards for a 'Mummy of baby crocodile'


Interestingly, this collection categorised animal remains and mummies together, and, as such, we located some bronze statuettes recorded 'with contents'. Our research for the Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed exhibition has demonstrated that some votive bronzes, deposited in the same way as votive animal mummies, contained animal remains at some point. We have been unable to find many bronzes matching this description in our research, but the Ashmolean seems to have quite a few! Recent experiments using clinical imaging on similar objects show that determining the contents of bronzes can be difficult because of the metallic nature of the container. However, with a little expertise and the right software, we are able to ascertain if the bronzes are really empty or not.

Another great, and novel, occurrence during this visit was the secure find-spot and collector histories for many of the objects we were interested in. It is usual to have a high proportion, sometimes even entire collections, with no history about where in Egypt the objects came from, or even how they got into the collection where they now reside. We estimate that around 80% of the animal mummies in the Bio Bank fall into this category. The Ashmolean has a very well provenanced collection – 57% of the material associated with animal remains has a provenance over and above, 'Egypt, Ptolemaic-Roman Period'.

The Ashmolean was a great museum to include in the Bio Bank and a few star pieces arose, filling in some gaps in our research themes. The relatively recent renovated Egyptian displays are a great use of their collection and it was nice to see animals feature throughout history from the Predynastic to the Roman Period. It was well worth the 5am get up!

Animal Mummies (and bronzes) on display in the Ashmolean Museum 

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