The relationship between the ancient Egyptians and animals is well known but not fully understood, as this new exhibition at Liverpool’s World Museum reveals.
As the opening wall text proclaims, ‘Animal Mummies Revealed’ examines animal mummies given as gifts to the gods in ancient Egypt and features over 50 different specimens some of which have never been on display before including mummified jackals, crocodiles, cats and birds.
The trip back in time begins with one of the exhibition’s standout pieces – a bronze coffin of an ibis, a long-beaked bird now extinct in Egypt which was a symbol of ‘Thoth’ – the Egyptian god of writing. One of only two in the UK, the statuette was a incredibly elegant example of the craftsmanship involved in the creation of these ancient pieces.
Moving through to the main hall, a large installation on the back wall tells the fascinating if rather macabre story of Liverpool’s unique connection with mummified animals when in 1890, an estimated 180,000 unwrapped cat mummies arrived at city’s docks from Beni Hasan, Egypt.
At the time, these were not seen as valued artefacts and were used as ballast to balance the ship’s cargo during the voyage. After landing, the mummies were auctioned off to the highest bidder, grounded up and used as fertiliser on nearby fields – the auctioneer rather alarmingly using a cat’s head as a makeshift gavel to confirm the sale!
Fortunately one of the World Museums’ first curators was present at the auction and, recognising the historical importance of the preserved felines, managed to purchase a dozen or so which have now been put on display for the first time.
As the owner of two cats myself, I have to admit seeing the aforementioned selection of unwrapped mummified cat heads in the next case was a slightly unnerving (although interesting) experience.
The startling discoveries continued as I passed through the vast room with cases of ornate mummified cats, birds, dogs and even baby crocodiles on display. Finding out that the ancient Egyptians didn’t worships these animals themselves but rather the gods they represented debunked a theory which I and I’m sure many readers will have held.
The exhibition also explained how the study of mummies using X-ray and CT scanning technology has led to greater knowledge about the subject, with a number of detailed 3D images of mummified animals on display.
Despite the somewhat unusual and at times downright strange subject matter, Animal Mummies Revealed manages to remain a family-friendly exhibition with a number of interactive games for kids to get involved with including my personal favourite where visitors get the chance to have a sniff of the three main items used during the mummification process.
Developed in partnership with Manchester Museum, the University of Manchester and Glasgow Museums; Animal Mummies Revealed is a fascinating exhibition packed full of remarkable pieces accompanied by startling facts – go see it.
Animal Mummies Revealed runs from 13 October till 26 February 2017 at the World Museum. Entry is free.