Cat Imposter: Guess what x-rays reveal about our feline mummy ‘fake-out’

In Cairo, I’m out of touch with what’s shown on TV, but I always know when something about Egypt has been broadcast. On slow news days, Facebook, Twitter, and my work email all light up with inquiries.

In May, there was a mini-boom in Egyptian interest following a BBC programme  on animal mummies. The headlines promised to reveal an ancient ‘scandal’ – who wouldn’t be intrigued by this?

Mummified animals – most typically cats and small birds with beautifully patterned and decorated wrappings sometimes buried in wooden or metal containers – are some of the most recognizably ‘ancient Egyptian’ objects in museums. They encapsulate two of the biggest modern clichés of ancient Egyptian culture: the Egyptians’ love of death, and their weird animal-headed gods. Add to this the fact that a lot of them are small enough to transport easily. No wonder most museums have them on display. And we’re no exception at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Cat mummy3

Animal mummies, statues, and containers, Hall of Ancient Egypt, HMNS.

The ‘scandal’ the BBC referred to was that only a third of the animal mummies studied and scanned by a research project contained the ‘right’ remains at all, with exterior wrapping and interior contents matching up. Another third contained partial remains – body fragments rather than a single intact body – and the last third contained nothing at all inside.

While the study cited is the most recent, and one of the most thorough, investigations into animal mummies, its results are no great surprise. Researchers have long known that the insides of animal mummies can be surprising. Prof. Salima Ikram, touched on this at a recent lecture at HMNS, and an updated edition of her book on the topic is coming out later this summer.

There are some other things that one could say about the ‘scandal’ of the empty mummies, but now I’ve got a question to ask: what’s inside our funny mummy?

Cat mummy 1

Photo Courtesy Michael C. Carlos Museum

We received this cat mummy on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. On the ouside, it’s a fair example of the medium size of cat mummies – which tend to come in small, medium, and large – and has an unusual piece of blue-bordered linen among its wrappings (and a rather disappointed look painted on its face). So far, so good.

When the mummy was x-rayed, however, it became clear that the tidy outside wasn’t matched by a tidy inside. Rather than a cat skeleton, you can see that there’s a large broken bone at the bottom end, and a mass of something at the ‘top’ end.

cat x ray

© Emory University Hospital, courtesy of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University

We’ve got our own ideas about what made up the ‘cat’, but before we reveal them we’d like to open it up and crowd source some identifications. What’s your best guess? Let us know what you think the cat mummy was actually made of and enter it into the comments below.

Editor’s note: Tweet your guess to HMNS or post below, and we’ll mention the winner in Tom’s next blog.

HMNS changed the way I think about Earth, time, humanity, and natural history

After 90 days working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, here’s the verdict:

I love it here!

Through research required to compose and edit posts for this blog, I have learned about voracious snails, shark extinction, dinosaur match-ups, efforts to clean up ocean plastic pollution, Houston’s flooding cycle, a mysterious society in south China, and the inspiration for the design of costumes for Star Wars.

IMG_3721

Look at the size of that T. rex! My love for the Houston Museum of Natural Science began with an affinity for dinosaurs.

I’ve learned about many, many other things, as well, and I could feasibly list them all here (this is a blog, after all, and electrons aren’t lazy; they’ll happily burden themselves with whatever information you require of them), but the point of this blog is to excite our readers into visiting the museum, not bore them with lists.

Coming to the museum is a grand adventure, and it’s my privilege to be here every day, poking through our collection and peering into the the crevices of history, finding the holes in what humanity knows about itself and speculating about the answer. That’s what science is all about, after all. Learning more about what you already know. Discovering that you’ve got much more left to discover.

IMG_3751

As a writer, I identify with the oldest forms of written language, like this tablet of heiroglyphs. You can even find a replica of the Rosetta Stone in our collection!

When I took this job, I was a fan of dinosaurs and Earth science. I could explain the basic process of how a star is born and how the different classes of rock are formed. Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Now, I can tell you which dinosaurs lived in what era and the methods paleontologists use to unearth a fossilized skeleton. I know that a deep-space telescope owes its clarity to a mirror rather than a lens, and I can identify rhodochrosite (a beautiful word as well as a fascinating mineral) in its many forms. And there are quite a few.

IMG_3702

Rhodochrosite. My favorite mineral. Look at that deep ruby that appears to glow from within, and it takes many other shapes.

I have pitted the age of the Earth against the age of meteorites that have fallen through its atmosphere and have been humbled. The oldest things in our collection existed before our planet! How incredible to be that close to something that was flying around in space, on its own adventure across the cosmos, while Earth was still a ball of magma congealing in the vacuum of space.

Time is as infinite as the universe, and being in this museum every day reminds me of the utter ephemeralness of human life. It advises not to waste a moment, and to learn from the wisdom of rock about the things we will never touch. Time and space reduce humanity to a tiny thing, but not insignificant. Our species is small and weak, but we are intelligent and industrious. We have learned about things we don’t understand from the things we do. The answers are out there if you know where to look for them.

IMG_3733

Everything turns to stone eventually, even this gorgeous fossilized coral.

I was a print journalist for three years, and I am studying to become a professional writer of fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Don’t worry. It’s a low-residency program. I’m not going anywhere.) I am a creator of records of the human experience, according to those two occupations, and in some ways I still feel that as the editor of this blog, but there is a difference.

IMG_3744

This epic battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid recalls scenes out of Herman Melville.

Here, rather than individual histories — the story of one person or of a family or of a hero and a villain — I’m recording our collective experience, our history as a significant species that participates, for better or worse, in forming the shape of this world. We were born, we taught ourselves to use tools, we erected great civilizations, we fought against one another, we died, those civilizations fell. We have traced our past through fossils and layers of rock and ice, we have tested the world around us, and we have made up our minds about where we fit into the mix.

We are a fascinating and beautiful people, and through science, we can discover our stories buried in the ground, often just beneath our feet. To me, this is the real mission of our museum. To tell the story of Earth, yes, but to tell it in terms of humanity. In the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, we wonder what makes certain minerals precious to us when they’re all spectacular. In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, we trace the fossil record back in time and wonder how things were and could have been had dinosaurs not gone extinct. In the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we connect with the little lives of insects, compare them to our own, and fall in love with our ecosystem all over again. In the Weiss Energy Hall, we learn how life and death create the fossil fuels that now power our society. We find both ingenuity and folly in the values of old civilizations in the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas.

IMG_3760

These chrysalises, a powerful symbol of personal growth and change, teach a lesson in natural cycles and big beauty in tiny places.

I have often wondered how we justify placing a collection of anthropological and archaeological artifacts under the heading “natural science.” Why don’t we consider our institution more representative of “natural history?” In my first 90 days, I think I’ve found the answer. It’s not just about the story of humanity; it’s about the story of the science we have used to learn what we know.

IMG_3754

The Houston Museum of Natural Science, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is truly one of a kind.

Our goal at HMNS is to inform and educate. To challenge your assumptions with evidence and bring the worlds and minds of scientists to students and the general public. It’s a grand endeavor, one that can enrich our society and improve it if we pay attention.

A ticket to the museum isn’t just a tour through marvels, it’s a glance in pieces at the story of becoming human. After 90 days here, by sifting through the past, I feel more involved in the creation of our future than I have ever been.

And that feels pretty great.

Egyptian Nefertiti replica ends in a bust: ‘Ugly’ statue brews social media storm

A mini controversy has just broken out in social media about a rather ugly new rendering of the famous Nefertiti bust. The original bust, currently on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin, is one of the most iconic pieces of Egyptian art, recognized as easily as King Tut’s gold mask. It was not a surprise, therefore, that Egyptian authorities recently decided to erect a larger-than-life replica of the same bust at the entrance to the city of Samalut, to honor her memory.

This effort ended in – pardon the pun – a bust in its own right. The image, which only bears a very superficial resemblance to the original, has caused a storm in Egyptian social media, attracting worldwide attention. While the original bust is very well known, the story of its discovery is perhaps less well known. Nefertiti’s bust was discovered in the ruined workshop of the sculptor Thutmose on December 6, 1912 by a German archaeological team.

Bust being handed over to German archaeologist

Presentation of the Nefertiti bust shortly after discovery in 1912. (Left to right: Hermann Ranke, Paul Hollander and Mohammed es-Senussi)

Although the bust is uninscribed, Ludwig Borchardt, the dig director, immediately realized who was represented: the tall blue crown with uraeus serpent must belong to the queen. “No use describing it, you have to see it” he wrote.

Writing

Handwritten note by Ludwig Borchardt on the discovery of the bust. Aside from a quick sketch, it contains the remark “No use describing it, you have to see it.”

The Egyptian government gave the bust, and other finds, to the German expedition at the end of the season, according to a custom of the time, known as “partage.” It was not until ten years later, after World War I, that the bust was put on display in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The reaction was immediate: Nefertiti became an icon and the Egyptian government demanded her return, claiming that she had been allowed to leave the country by subterfuge. The matter remains unresolved to this day, and Nefertiti has survived two world wars in Berlin.

Nefertiti was the principal wife of the New Kingdom pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1350 – 1335 BC). Akhenaten tried to revolutionize Egypt, outlawing the worship of a host of gods, headed by Amun, the king of the gods. In their place he proposed the worship of the Aten, the sun-disc that gave life to the world. He moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a virgin site 250 miles to the north. This new capital he called Akhetaten (“horizon of the sun disc”), the modern site of Tell el-Amarna. Akhenaten’s changes did not find favor, and after his death the site was abandoned by his successor – the more familiar Tutankhamun – as the capital moved back to Thebes. Amun had restored the status quo.

A new religion required a new artistic style to express itself. Set against earlier Egyptian objects, Amarna art can appear more naturalistic, softer and more intimate. Images of Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and their six daughters were the icons of this new creed, and Amarna was filled with sculptor’s workshops producing decoration for the city. The bust of Nefertiti, with its unusual shape, was probably a model used to define and standardize images of the queen.

The latest update on the “controversy” tells us that the Samalut bust is to be replaced with a statue of a peace dove. So all is well that ends well.

The original bust continues to attract huge throngs of tourists in Berlin. A museum quality replica of the same bust, manufactured by highly talented artists at the Neues Museum, has been on display in the Hall of Ancient Egypt at the Houston Museum of Natural Science since 2013. She looks forward to seeing you there.

DSC05484

Her Majesty awaits your visit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Discover new secrets of ancient Egypt with guest lecturers

This week, more than 400 folks interested in all things ancient Egyptian are making their way to Houston for the 66th Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt. Running from April 24 to 26, this is the first year the conference is being held in Houston, and perhaps it has something to do with the beautiful new Hall of Ancient Egypt at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

HMNS is excited to host a public three-part lecture featuring leading Egyptologists Dr. Salima Ikram, Dr. Josef Wegner, and Dr. Kara Cooney, who are in town for the ARCE conference. At the museum, each expert will give an update on his or her latest research project.-o6cwMJsxKVXL0Xx6UZa2Dl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVvK0kTmF0xjctABnaLJIm9

You don’t have to be an academic to attend the lecture, or to register for the meeting. ARCE welcomes all fans of ancient Egypt, novice to authority. The lecture will be held Wednesday, April 22 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 to the public and $12 for HMNS members.

Online registration for the ARCE meeting is now closed, but on-site registration at the DoubleTree Hilton Downtown Hotel will remain open from April 24 through the end of the conference.

Read on for more details about HMNS’s guest Egyptologists.

 

Divine Creatures, Animal Mummies Providing Clues to Culture, Economy and Science f3638a_3053bb27e037f77cbc56ea0f4b110a8c.jpeg_srz_305_260_85_22_0.50_1.20_0
by Salima Ikram, Ph.D., American University in Cairo

Animal mummies were amongst the least studied of Egypt’s treasures. Now scholars are using them to learn about ancient Egyptian religion, economy, veterinary science and environmental change. The world’s leading expert on animal mummies and founder of the Animal Mummy project at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Dr. Salima Ikram, will present the different kinds of animal mummies and explain what we can learn from them.

 

 

 

Secrets of the Mountain-of-Anubis, A Royal Necropolis Joe_Egypt
by Josef Wegner, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

The ongoing Penn Museum excavations has recently identified a royal necropolis at Abydos. A series of royal tombs located beneath a sacred desert peak, the Mountain-of-Anubis, belong to over a dozen pharaohs include Senwosret III and the recently identified king Senebkay. Dr. Josef Wegner will review the latest findings from the necropolis that spans Egypt’s late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1850-1550 BCE).

 

 

 

21st Dynasty Coffins Project, Recycled Coffins Offer the Socioeconomic InsightKara_Cooney_examines_Egyptian_coffin_
by Kathlyn (Kara) Cooney, Ph.D., UCLA

Dr. Kara Cooney will give an overview of the 21st Dynasty Coffins Project which studies the amount of “borrowing,” or reuse, a given coffin displays during this period of turmoil and material scarcity and seeks to contribute to the understanding of socioeconomics in ancient Egypt. Equipped with high definition cameras and working in cooperation with museums and institutions in Europe and the United States, Cooney takes her research team to investigate, document and study coffin reuse in the Third Intermediate Period. The data acquired will be compiled into a comprehensive database available to Egyptologists everywhere.