Gifts for the Gods at Manchester Museum, preview: More than mummified cats

Steve Slack

Gifts for the Gods sets out to shake up our ideas about ancient Egypt – including using an x-ray to uncover an age-old scam.

Think of ancient Egypt and you’ll likely think of hot, dry place. Of huge stone buildings surrounded by dust and sand – and of a people obsessed with the afterlife, who’d do strange things to get there. A pantheon of odd-headed gods might also come to mind and, based on experiences of Egypt in museums, mummified people and animals. Gifts for the Gods (8 Oct – 17 April 2016), a new exhibition at Manchester Museum, sets to challenge some of these stereotypes.

We caught up with Campbell Price, Egyptologist and curator at Manchester Museum, to find out how this exhibition will be a myth-buster. Firstly, the land wasn’t dry or dusty – being a civilisation based around immediate access to the River Nile meant there was a thriving ecosystem. “Ancient Egypt was a plentiful, suitable habitat for wildlife,” explains Price, “from crocodiles and cats to mice and jackals. Ancient Egyptians lived cheek by jowl with animals. It would have been chock full of noise, sounds and smells.”

The museum wants to bring some of this environment to life in what they plan to be an immersive experience. In Gifts for the Gods, there will be things to touch, soundscapes of life in Egypt and even smells too – including beeswax, incense and pine resin. But it’s about more than just natural history. “Animals were very important to Ancient Egyptians and that’s what inspires some of their gods,” says Price. “Animals were seen as a go-between from our human world to the ‘other’ world. To our eyes today, Egyptian art is seen as a bit cartoony; animals, represented like they appear in children’s books. But for the ancient Egyptians, they were seen as gods. And how do you communicate with the gods? You give them a gift.”

“After putting the mummy into a CT scanner we were then able to use a 3D printer to recreate what we found”

This is stuff we all expect (and want) to see: mummified animals. But we know that as well as revering animal gods, people made offerings of dead birds, beasts and fish – or small bronze models of them – wrapped up in linen and placed in a temple. It’s unclear whether they would have been asking a question of the gods, or making a request. Whatever the significance, this was about communication with the other world.

To us today it seems strange to wrap animals in linen and give them up as offerings. We farm animals or keep them as pets, but we don’t revere them in the same way as the Egyptians did. One challenge facing museums with Egyptology collections is how to figure out what exactly is inside a mummy – without unwrapping it. Removing the layers of linen that have been there for thousands of years is, essentially, destroying the object.

So research teams have begun putting objects through an x-ray, and have uncovered new findings about how these offerings were made. They’ve found that, sometimes, what lies inside isn’t what we think it might be. Campbell remembers an object investigated recently: “looking at the outside of a mummy we assumed it was a jackal. But after putting it into a CT scanner and building up a three-dimensional digital model of what was inside we were then able to use a 3D printer to recreate what we found. The ‘printed’ bones were then given to an osteologist, who told the museum they were in fact human bones.”

Some animal mummies are empty, while others have the wrong animal inside. It’s likely that animal mummies used as offerings would have been expensive for Egyptians – so you can’t help but feel bad for the people who were conned into buying the wrong items. It’s this new level of thinking that makes this exhibition sound so interesting: we might finally be able to revamp our ideas about an ancient civilisation.

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