“Let the dead speak for themselves – mummies rule!” Fellows’ seminar by Salima Ikram

23 May 2017

“For some scholars, a culture is largely created as a reaction to the natural world,” said Salima Ikram. “Certainly this holds true to a large extent for the Ancient Egyptians. Their language, religion and the raw materials that were the building blocks of their physical existence were all derived from or in reaction to the environment they inhabited.”

Ikram - 1
STIAS Fellow Salima Ikram during her seminar presentation on 18 May 2017

Prof. Ikram was presenting a seminar to STIAS fellows which looked at the Ancient Egyptians’ relationship with the animal world as well as their attempts to control the landscape and living things. Prof. Ikram specifically discussed animal mummification and what it tells us about the Egyptians’ relationship with animals in a religious and social context, from the seventh century BC until the third century AD, when the advent of Christianity put an end to a three thousand year belief system.

Prof. Ikram is Professor in the Department of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo and Extraordinary Professor at Stellenbosch University, as well as a STIAS fellow.

“Looking at animal mummies tells us about religious beliefs, technology, trade routes, diseases, parasites, medicine, butchery methods, natural history, climate, among other things” she said. “It allows us to identify geographic groups and production centres.”

“There is no doubt that animals played a key role in the ancient world. They had a profound symbolic and religious role,” she added. “There was a belief that animals had special relationships with the Gods and certain animals were linked to certain Gods. Animals were seen as the intermediaries between the two worlds. In some cases it was believed that part of the soul of the God entered the animal so the animal carried the spirit of that God.”

Ikram outlined some of the different roles that mummified animals would have played.

“The easiest animal mummy to understand is that of a pet, accompanying its owner for eternity.”

“They would have been seen as providing sustenance in the afterlife,” she continued. “The way in which some mummies are presented makes it clear that they were there as food for the deceased. Where parts of animals were mummified for food it’s possible to get an idea of the social status of the person – better meat cuts were reserved for higher classes.”

“Recent discoveries of Ibis mummies containing shells are interesting,” said Ikram. “Egypt was plagued with Schistosomiasis and Ibises ate snails, so were possibly seen to have protective powers against disease.”

Animals were also clearly used as votive offerings or sacrifices.

“At one site (Saqqara) there are as many as 7.8 million dog mummies representing a period of about 200 years so it seems likely that there was some kind of ‘puppy farming’ to produce animals for sacrificial purposes. This may also have been for economic reasons – literally keeping the temple economy going.”

There is also evidence of exotic animal trade with species found that were not endemic to certain areas, as well as of the trapping and breeding of migratory birds. And literally all animals were mummified including dogs and cats, birds, snakes, crocodiles, monkeys, baboons and large cattle —even scarab beetles were given as mummified offerings.

The technology to study mummies improves all the time providing more information. “They are studied visually, by radiography, CT scans and DNA,” said Ikram. “We are also increasingly able to do Carbon-14 dating of mummies which gives the possibility of much more specificity.”

This can give a lot of information about the physical environment and about environmental and climatic change. “For example, mummies of shrews show that there were many more than the current varieties indicating changes in environment and therefore extinction of some species.”

Many of the catacombs also have texts explaining in part the relationship of different priests to the cult. There are also inscriptions on caskets. “This has allowed the possibility of dating, based on palaeography or even, sometimes, because actual regnal dates were included” continued Ikram. “It is obviously possible to do much more scientifically controlled work in tombs and catacombs, which has added to our understanding. Earlier excavators of the 19th century tended to keep poor records in terms of details that are of interest to scholars today.”

Addressing the question of why there was a rise in the mummification of animals from c. 650 BC to AD 300, Ikram said: “It could be an attempt to create a national identity separate from other groups, in particular, invaders. It could also be about a need to forge a closer relationship with the Gods.”

“The Ancient Peruvians also mummified animals,” she added, “but it was done very differently which gives us a lot of information about these different societies.”

When asked about current views on the meaning of Egyptology for modern Egyptians. Ikram said: “A lot of Egyptians don’t pay much attention to the past. However, post 2011 there has been an upsurge of interest in the past and the potential it has for the present and future. It is seen as a way to bind people in a non-religious way – as a unifier. In the sense of ‘We are Egyptians, let’s forget our differences’. Some government buildings, for example, regularly use Egyptian iconography to stress the shared culture of the many diverse religious groups that live in Egypt. Also the economy has been affected with a massive decline in tourism so the past is being pushed as a key to revitalisation, both in Egypt and abroad. There is more awareness on social media and television, and more academics are writing books in Arabic.”

Art and environment

During her time at STIAS, Ikram will collaborate with colleagues in both the humanities and sciences from the Universities of Stellenbosch and Cape Town to look at the positioning and chronology of Egyptian rock art in the Eastern Sahara to establish whether the animal or human images shown reflect changes in the environment and how it was manipulated.

“Rock art was a way of appropriating the landscape,” she said. “It reflected how people interacted with and reacted to the world around them. Living with and within nature was key. Order against chaos – chaos as a creative force but reigned in and modulated – much rock art is about this.”

“The results of the study will form part of the publication of the North Kharga Oasis Darb Ain Amur Survey,” she added.

“I’m also interested in the examining the process of collecting Ancient Egyptian mummies with a view to understanding why such objects were collected and how they are displayed,” she continued. “This allows us to explore issues of the ownership of cultural property, particularly human remains, and its manipulation for personal or national purposes.”

With Stellenbosch colleagues, she is currently trying to work out the history of a mummy head in the National Cultural History Museum in Pretoria. The head was scanned by the group in December 2015.

“We are asking questions like ‘Why is it there? How did it come to be there?’,” she said.

“The life history of objects tells us a lot about the socio-cultural history of the period,” she said, “about how people think about things. It gives insight into the changing world of museums. Also how objects, especially human remains, are shown can tell us about changing social morés.”

In answer to a question, Prof. Ikram concluded with some reflections on how working with remains of the dead affects one’s view of life and death. “Well, there are an awful lot of mummies,” she said. “It does make you think about death but not as a scary thing. It’s about passing into a different sphere. In a way it’s joy affirming, emphasising passion and lust for life.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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