Egyptian Mummies Weren’t Given Enemas, Study Shows

mummies
Ancient Egyptian mummies have been an object of fascination. The Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century B.C., visited Egypt and wrote a description of the mummification process. Since no ancient Egyptian text survives, his account forms the basis of many descriptions in modern books and museum displays.

Now a new study by two Canadian scientists suggests Herodotus may have gotten it wrong.

Yahoo News reports that two of the key points in Herodotus’ account – that the internal organs were dissolved with cedar oil enemas and the heart was always left in place – don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Researchers have examined studies of 150 mummies and put seven through CT scans and found little evidence of cedar oil. Also, in three-quarters of the mummies the heart was missing.

Herodotus also said that the brains were removed with a hook pushed through the nose. The study shows brains in about a fifth of mummies.

So why did Herodotus get it wrong? The study’s coauthor Andrew Wade of the University of Western Ontario says mummification was a lucrative business and its secrets closely guarded. In other words, Herodotus was handed a line. Imagine a bunch of mummy makers drinking wine by the Nile after a busy day at the office and laughing about that clueless Greek who showed up asking questions. “Cedar oil enemas? Yeah, save that for the tourists!”

Another possibility is that the mummy makers cut corners. In many animal mummies, used as offerings to the gods, researchers found only partial skeletons or wrappings that contained nothing. Temples made lots of money selling animal mummies to the faithful, and they created fakes to increase profits.

The Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University has a longer account of Herodotus’ writings on mummification here. The study was published in the latest issue of HOMO: The Journal of Comparative Human Biology.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

New Ancient Egypt And Nubia Galleries At Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Ancient Egypt
The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has always been famous for its collection of art from Ancient Egypt and Nubia (Sudan). It recently revamped these galleries as part of a major remodel.

While the new galleries reopened in November, I didn’t want to write it up until I got to see it for myself. The old galleries were dark, cramped and had endless cases crammed with artifacts. In other words, they were arranged in the old style. Museums are changing, though. The trend these days are to have brighter, more open and inviting spaces that reduce museum fatigue. Most of the Ashmolean got this treatment back in 2009, and after a big fund raising effort the famous Egyptian and Nubian galleries have also been revamped.

As you can see from the above picture, the gloomy old galleries have been opened up. Signage has been improved with lots of detailed information about each piece. The Ashmolean has become the poster child of new museum design, and its impressive collection certainly helps make it a world-class destination.

Personally I walked through the galleries with mixed feelings. Creating more space means displaying fewer artifacts. The crowded cases filled with dozens of figurines or amulets are gone, replaced by displays showing single pieces or at most half a dozen. As one of my friends complained, this slants the displays towards the best objects, while the more day-to-day objects familiar to the common people aren’t represented. She also pointed out that you lose the chance to compare typology, how the appearance of artifacts change over space and time.

On the other hand, the new galleries are definitely a more user-friendly experience. All the objects for which the galleries were famous are still there, like the phallic statue of the god Min, the Shrine of Taharqa and a Roman-era female mummy complete with golden tits. While obsessive archaeology buffs will be a bit disappointed with the new look, most visitors will find it a pleasant change.

All photos courtesy copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

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Previously unknown Egyptian pharaoh discovered

Karnak, Egyptian pharaoh

Egyptologists have made a stunning discovery at the famous temple of Luxor: an inscription naming a previously unknown Egyptian pharaoh.

A French team restoring a temple of Amon Ra found hieroglyphs bearing the name “Nekht In Ra.” The inscription dates to the 17th dynasty, a relatively little-known dynasty from a murky period in Egyptian history.

The mysterious dynasty was the last of the Second Intermediate Period, a time when northern Egypt was ruled by Semitic invaders called the Hyksos and the rest of Egypt had fragmented into various factions. The 17th dynasty dated from around 1585 to 1550 BC and had their capital at Thebes, next to Luxor. Most of the dates of its rulers are not known for certain and in many cases it’s not even known how long they ruled or who was related to whom. Thus the discovery of a “new” pharaoh, while important, doesn’t come as a huge surprise.

It’s unclear just how Nekht In Ra fits into the king list of the ten previously known 17th dynasty pharaohs. The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities has called for further excavation at the discovery site to find more pieces to the puzzle.

While the 17th dynasty is obscure, it was hugely important to Egyptian history because the last two pharaohs waged war on the Hyksos and eventually defeated them, although both pharaohs appear to have died in battle. The 18th dynasty marked the beginning of the New Kingdom, a flowering of Egyptian culture and power that lasted five centuries.

Several interesting items survive from the 17th dynasty and are now on display. Check out the gallery for a sample.

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Photo of entrance into the Precinct of Amon-Re courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Genghis Khan exhibit in Chicago the biggest ever

Genghis KhanA new exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago spotlights the world’s greatest conqueror.

Genghis Khan brings together the largest collection of 13th century Mongol artifacts ever. The exhibition traces the career of Genghis Khan from his birth in 1162, to a noble but obscure family, through his conquest of an empire that was larger than the Roman Empire. In fact, it was the largest ever, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the gates of Vienna, and he built it in just 25 years.

More than 200 objects are on display including a Mongolian house, silk robes, weapons, and even the mummy of a Mongolian noblewoman.

The exhibition shows that while Genghis Khan was a bloodthirsty warrior, he was a clever statesman too. He established a complex and efficient form of government, a postal system, paper currency, diplomatic immunity, even wilderness preserves and laws against littering. His conquests had a profound impact on the development of Asia and Europe.

Genghis Khan runs until September 3.

Photo courtesy the Field Museum.

Animal mummies discovered in Egypt

animal mummiesA cache of animal mummies is among the finds from a recent excavation in Egypt.

The discovery was made by a University of Toronto team last summer at Abydos and was announced at a recent meeting. Abydos was the first burial ground for the pharaohs and remained a holy place throughout the history of ancient Egypt. The tomb of Osiris, king of underworld, was believed to be there.

Because of this, Egyptians wanted to be buried there too and numerous tombs have been found at the site. The Canadian team found a mysterious building that contained a pile of animal mummies. These animals could have served various purposes. Usually they were offerings to the gods, but they could also act as food for the afterlife or even post-mortem pets.

Many of the deities of Egypt had animal heads and aspects, and animals that were mummified as offerings were of the same species as the associated god. Hawks were dedicated to Horus, ibises to Thoth, cats to Sekhmet, etc.

Most of the 83 animal mummies found in Abydos in the latest field season were dogs, and may have been offerings to Wepwawet, a wolf-headed god associated with Osiris. Wepwawet was a war god and an “opener of the ways” who protected the dead on their journey into the underworld. The team also uncovered mummified sheep, goats, and two cats.

The function of the building where these mummies were found is unclear, although it may have been a temple. It’s not known exactly when it was built either. A few inscriptions at the site refer to Seti I, who ruled from 1290–1279 BC. The team also found a wooden statue that may represent Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh who ruled from 1479–1458 BC, and two tombs. One of them tombs has yet to be opened.

Animal mummies are common finds throughout Egypt. Everything from shrews to catfish to bulls were dipped in preservatives and wrapped in linen. Some were given elaborate sarcophagi, like the gilded one shown in the photo gallery. Others mummies were fakes. There was a big market for animal mummies as they were a popular sacrifice. Thus unscrupulous priests would often create mummies that contained only a few bones or feathers of the animal, or sometimes no animal parts at all.

Any museum with a good Egyptian collection will have at least some animal mummies. Museums that I’ve seen that have especially large collections include the British Museum (London), the National Museum (Cairo), the Louvre (Paris), the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto), the Ashmolean (Oxford), and the Met (New York). Have you seen a good collection of these pickled pets? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Photo of cat mummy in the Louvre, Paris, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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