BY CARRIE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
This month’s ugly object is a double feature! (Or creature feature, depending on how you look at it.) Here we have two not-so-lovely, but oh-so fascinating, Egyptian hawk mummies. While neither of these mummies is beautiful per se, they are perfect examples of the ancient Egyptian practice of animal worship. Certain animals were sacred to the Egyptians, and hawks and falcons were closely tied to the sun god Horus. Animal mummies such as these were often left at temples as an offering to the deity residing there. I like this intriguing pair because while they each appear to be mummified birds, one of these mummies is not necessarily like the other.
To meet the demand for mummy offerings, stalls were set up outside the temple where worshipers could buy animal mummies. Sometimes the supply of animal remains couldn’t keep up with the demand, leading to somewhat “shady” practices. It was not uncommon for mummies purported to represent one animal to be composed of … well, other things. Some of you might remember the dog mummy featured in the recent Kelsey Museum exhibition Death Dogs: The Jackal Gods of Ancient Egypt. Looking closely at an X-ray of the mummy, KMA Associate Research Scientist Richard Redding was able to identify a number of bones — none of which belonged to a dog.
Our two hawk mummies are similar in shape and color. They are similarly prepared—each wrapped in linen and treated with resin. But only one reveals what’s going on inside. The beak and eyes of hawk mummy number one peek through its wrappings, as if to say — see? Genuine article, folks! No ibis bones here!
Hawk mummy number two has no such pretentions; there is no visible beak to show the customer they are getting the real deal. Back then, buyers would have had to depend on the word of the vendor and shape of the wrappings. Today, ethical considerations prevent us from physically peeling back the wrappings to discover what animal lies beneath. Only an x-ray, or CT scan, can shed light on the true identity of mummy number two.
What do you think? Hawk … or faux hawk?
Come see the hawk mummies for yourselves! They are currently on display in the exhibition Passionate Curiosities: Collecting in Egypt and the Near East, 1880s–1950s, until November 29 at the Kelsey.