What In The World Are They Doing?: Egyptian Sacrifice Revealed

Women in procession, with offerings to a deceased person. From our Hall of Ancient Egypt.

When people walk through our permanent exhibit halls, sometimes they come upon an object that makes them think “what in the world are they doing?”. It can be two fossilized skeletons posed in an unusual arrangement, or an artifact with a strange ritual depicted on it. This article will be the first in a weekly series entitled What In The World Are They Doing? to be published on our blog. This week we will focus on objects related to sacrifice in Ancient Egypt. This is a topic that we receive TONS of questions about.

When people think of sacrifice, they think of blood, guts, fire and altars. But that isn’t always the case. Although in some cultures sacrifice involves the ritual killing of animals or even people on holy spots, for many other cultures a sacrifice meant simply giving up something to a holy institution. The gods of Ancient Egypt didn’t like messy displays. They didn’t want gory spectacles—what they wanted was pretty things and good food. 

This makes a lot of sense, considering the emphasis on “purity” in the temples of Egypt. For example, before entering a temple, priests were expected to remove all the hair from their bodies, shave their heads and dissolving the rest with a scary mixture of lime or other harsh chemical. Ancient texts also mention cutting the fingernails, washing ones body and applying oils. Priests also had to abstain from intercourse for several days before entering the temple. Outside the temple they could freely do whatever they wanted since being a priest in ancient Egypt was only a part-time job. Priests had a rotational system of temple servitude, serving one month and then going back to their normal business for the next three. In total, an Egyptian priest only served three months out of the year.

And speaking of priests, not everyone who worked for the temple would have performed religious ceremonies. In fact, the vast majority would never have even seen the actual temple deity statue. This is because the temples of Ancient Egypt were the center of their local economies and employed thousands of people. Most of which were not educated in religious practices, they were simply bureaucrats, farmers or butchers. The temple complexes controlled hundreds of miles of farmland, herds of cattle and trade for luxury goods. These were complex institutions that helped to run the country and the rituals of thanking the gods were as cosmopolitan as their busy, port-side trading centers.



In the bottom register of the stela above we see one man force feeding a goose to fatten it up. Above that we see two other men getting ready to slaughter an ox. These animals are offerings intended to be given to the gods, but they are not being killed in the temple on an altar—they are instead butchered by professionals. For the Ancient Egyptians the leg of an ox was the most choice cut of meat and it is depicted in numerous offering stelae in our Hall of Ancient Egypt. The gods would be “fed” all of the most delicious food both prepared and preserved. Afterwards, the food would be redistributed back to the priests as payment for their services or sometimes even sold on the market.

Something else that you will see in the Hall is mummified animals. Literally millions of mummified animals have been discovered in Egypt. Animals were considered to have a closer relationship to the gods than people do, some were even considered to be the living personification of a god. Being institutions of wealth and trade, many temples had farms which specialized in raising animals for the sole purpose of slaughtering them , mummifying them and selling them to the pious in the market. Once again though, the killing would not be done before the statues of the gods. Animals would be offered wrapped up like mummies: decorated, clean and presentable.


Our collection of animal mummies in the Hall of Ancient Egypt


In our Hall, there are some interesting offering tables with channels carved around the edges of them. In the center there are images of legs of oxen, bread, fruits and vegetables. These are meant to be offerings for the dead. The Ancient Egyptians believed that one should leave offerings not only for the gods, but also for deceased ancestors, who were often deified. Instead leaving physical food for the deceased-which could be expensive or difficult- one could simply pour water over the images. The water, through the contact with the mystical encantations carved on the offering table, would ensure the the deceased were fed in the afterlife. 


Ceramic offering table with ox, and vegetable food items. Note the channels meant to capture an drain the water that would be poured over the images.


“Deluxe” carved limestone offering table, including hieroglyphic encantations.


So Ancient Egyptian sacrifice isn’t all about pretty ladies tied to altars, in fact it has nothing to do with that. Sacrifice in Ancient Egypt meant doing whatever you could to show your devotion to the gods. Whether that be through hygiene, delicious foods or simply a trip to an altar with some water.

All of the items pictured in this article are from our Hall of Ancient Egypt, here at HMNS. Come check them out! There’s tons more to learn!

How We Date Artifacts (And I Don’t Mean Taking Them Out For Dinner)



One of the most common questions we’ve received here at HMNS is how we know how old our artifacts and fossils are. There are a number of different ways to go about aging an object. Relative dating techniques can provide a general age range, which can be to within decades or sometimes within millions of years depending on the technique you are using.  Absolute dating provides more precise and accurate dates, however there is still a range. Not every technique can be applied to a given situation, so researchers will work with what is available. Usually more than one of the methods that will be described in this blog are used to determine the age of objects like the ones in our Hall of Paleontology or Hall of Ancient Egypt. Here is a sampling of the ways we deduce that age:

Relative Dating


Nowadays most of us know that things that are buried deep underground tend to be older than things lying on the surface, but there was a time when this wasn’t a universally accepted fact. It wasn’t until 1669 when Nicholas Steno (known today as the Father of Stratigraphy) published his Prodromus that the idea started to enter popular scientific thought.

Nicholas Steno, photot courtesy if Wikipedia

Imagine the Grand Canyon. Its walls seem to be painted with horizontal stripes of red, yellow, orange and beige. The colors represent distinct layers, or strata, of earth that were laid down under specific conditions in a specific time period. The different colors of the layers are due to the fact that over time climate changes, rivers and oceans rise and recede, washing minerals like iron or sulfur into an area, and this all effects the chemical composition, and thus the color, of the soil. For a geologist, those horizontal stripes are like multicolored pages of a book, each page having, instead of a number, an age. As a bookmark found between pages 157 and 158 tells us that the reader left off there, so does a fossil deposited between rock layers 200 and 300 million years old tell us that the creature lived and died within those time periods.

Grand Canyon National Park


HMNS has an active Paleontology dig in the Permian Basin of West Texas. The Permian Basin gets its name from the geological period the area’s rock dates to. If we find fossils within that rock, we know that those fossils must have been deposited during the Permian Period, roughly 2.9 to 2.5 million years ago. But how do we know how old the rock is? Well, logically if one rock layer is beneath the another, it must be older. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the ages assigned were theoretical. Basically, it was assumed that so many millions of years would have had to pass before a layer of sediment could be laid down and then formed into rock. Modern geologists, however, are able to use radiometric dating of some igneous rocks to get a more precise number. We’ll talk more about this later in the article.

Stylistic Dating

Stratigraphic dating can be used to determine the age of human artifacts, but since human have been around for such a short period of time, obtaining dates that range thousands, or even millions of years, is not always useful. But there is another relative dating technique that can be used: Stylistic Dating. Humans are a hip bunch of dudes, with a keen sense of what’s in fashion and what’s not. Ever since culture developed among human populations, we have been moving from one fad to another. Styles of art can be used to determine an object’s general age, sometimes to within a couple decades. 

Image of King Tutankhamun ( Akhenaten’s son) from his tomb.


For example, in our Hall of Ancient Egypt we have a few objects from the reign of the Pharoh Akhenaten. A revolutionary ruler, Akhenaten decided that he wanted everyone to only worship one god, the Aten, and also that he didn’t like the way Egyptian art looked, so he built temples dedicated to a previously unimportant deity, and he changed the way the he and his family were depicted within those structures. Both of these moves were very unpopular with Egyptians and after Akhenaten died, later rulers restored the traditional styles of worship and art. Because we know when Akentaten ruled and because he was the only Pharaoh to worship the Aten, and commission his unique style of art, archaeologists usually don’t have a problem identifying objects made during his reign. Other pharaohs had other quirks, and these too can often be used to determine the age of an Ancient Egyptian Artifact.

Absolute Dating

Relative dating methods allow geologists and paleontologists to determine a range of time in which a fossil or artifacts lived or were created. But sometimes researchers need a more precise date to work with. For example, there are some Ancient Egyptian rulers whose date of reign is not known for sure, perhaps because they left few artifacts or monuments behind, or perhaps because their citizens didn’t like them and deliberately erased evidence of their existence after their death. Putting them into the context of Egyptian history can be difficult without knowing a precise date. Similarly, sometimes more precise dates are desired for fossil samples.

Alpha particles being shed from a nucleus. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia


For more precise dating of fossils, radiometric dating can be used. Radiometric dating uses the process of radioactive decay to determine an object’s age (You can find a more in-depth description here.) Basically, radioactive decay is the process by which an unstable atom loses energy. This can be done in a number of ways, the most common being alpha decay, where a nucleus is so large that it sheds alpha particles (two protons and two neutrons)  in order to maintain a balance between the forces holding it together and those trying to tear it apart. Imagine a large ship that has beached itself on a sand bank during a storm. It’s loaded down with cargo and the weight of that cargo is keeping the waves from pushing the ship off of the bank. That may sound like a good thing, but actually it’s terrible! Instead of pushing the ship, the waves are now tearing it apart, breaking through its beams. So the sailors have to throw all the cargo overboard to lighten the ship so it can sail to safety.


Image courtesy of Wikipedia


 As it sheds these alpha particles, the atomic weight the the element decreases and the element undergoes a process called transmutation, where it turns into another “daughter element”. The decaying process occurs at a constant rate. The half-life of an element is the amount of time it takes for half of any amount of that element to transmutate into its daughter particle. By measuring the amount of its daughter particle contained within an element, geologists can get an idea of that element’s age.  It’s like how the captain should be able to predict how long his well-disciplined crew can move so much cargo, only our metaphorical crew is extremely well-disciplined.

Different elements have different half lives, some much longer than others, so geologists use different rocks depending on the amount of time they wish to measure. When dealing with human sites, archaeologists often use carbon 14 dating, which works similarly to any other radiometric dating method, but instead of having a half life of tens of thousands of years like potassium, carbon 14 has a half life of about 5,730 years, so archaeologist can better measure the short period of human existence on earth.

In conclusion, a lot of work goes into understanding our collection’s place in history. Our Hall of Paleontology presents the cutting edge of Paleontological theory, and our Hall of Ancient Egypt does the same in its respective field, both being composed of specimens that are not only one of a kind, but that have been used to further our understanding of the past.

Adventures In Atl Atl Throwing!


Everyone knows about the bow and arrow, the sling shot, and the spear, but most people have never heard of an atl atl. For thousands of years, going all the way back to the Pleistocene, this was our ancestors’ weapon of choice when hunting large game. So let’s see how easy these things are to use, and if I could be an effective hunter in a post-apocalyptic wold where human kind must survive with Stone Age technology.

By the way, if you are interested in learning more about these and other paleo-weapons, check out our Hall of Paleontology, where we have an epic hunting scene featuring human skeletons surrounding and shooting spears at a giant mastodon skeleton!




Moments frozen in time.



Archaeologists study past human behavior. We do so using material evidence left behind that tells us of that behavior. Artifacts and architecture retrieved from the past may be esthetically pleasing, but ultimately archaeologists are most interested in the people who made or built these things to answer questions such as who, what, when, where, and why?

Occasionally, we encounter artifact assemblages or architectural features that are incredibly well preserved. They appear to be almost pristine, as if their owner, or maker, just briefly stepped away and is about to return any minute now. I would call these discoveries and the sentiment they evoke “moments frozen in time.” Here are a few examples.

What do a Roman ointment jar, Roman legionnaires’ letters written on thin wooden tablets, a Maya priest’s lunar calculations made on a whitewashed wall and a Maya altar discovered in a cave have to do with each other? Simple: they all represent moments frozen in time.

Some two millennia ago, a well-off Roman closed the lid on a jar containing a skin cream. It was not until July 28, 2003 that archaeologists opened it. Humble in its appearance, this small tin container had been unearthed during excavations at a Roman temple complex in Southwark, London. It showed very little wear and tear, making it a very remarkable find. Better yet, inside the container the scientists found what appeared to be cream, complete with fingerprints. We will never know how the jar got discarded, nor what happened to its owner, but it represents a moment frozen in time.

A few hundred miles to the North of Londinium, as London was known in Roman times, soldiers manning Hadrian’s Wall did what most soldiers do during peacetime: they wrote letters about very mundane things. The Wall, which had been built on the orders of Emperor Hadrian after a visit to the region in 122 AD, consisted of a 73-mile long stretch of mile castles and observation turrets, marked the northernmost borders of the Roman Empire.


Location of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall. (By Hadrians_Wall_map.png: Created by NormanEinstein, September 20, 2005. Derivative work: Talifero (talk) – Hadrians_Wall_map.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15121382)

While for a brief period of 20 years, this distinction went to the Antonine Wall in Scotland, Hadrian’s Wall marked the northern border of the Roman Empire until 410 AD.
Starting in 1973, archaeologists working at Vindolanda, a major military garrison associated with the wall, have been unearthing thin, postcard-sized wooden tablets carrying messages written in ink. These messages were penned by soldiers, their families, and even slaves. Among these were an invitation to a birthday party held in about 100 AD, (perhaps the oldest surviving document written in Latin by a woman)


(Vindolanda tablet 291. Letter from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina.).


Another missive deals with socks, shoes and underwear, all important creature comfort items in the chilly climes of northern Britain.

moments3Vindolanda tablet 346, containing a message about “socks, sandals and underpants.”

These brief messages give us a glimpse into daily life of regular human beings. Scholars who have looked at the hundreds of Vindolanda tablets recognize the quirks of individual handwriting. It takes us one a step closer to the person who one day sat down and wrote a birthday invite, or alerted a friend about a shipment of warm socks and underwear. Fleeting moments, to be sure, but also moments frozen in time.

Roughly at the same time as British archaeologists were discovering the first wooden tablets at Vindolanda, looters were busy pilfering the Maya site of Xultun, in northern Guatemala. Sadly, they did extensive damage to the site, including to a small corbel-vaulted structure, known as Structure 10K-2. It was not until 2008 that professional archaeologists got an inkling of what was hidden inside this structure: three of the structure’s interior walls (west, north, and east), as well as its vaulted ceiling, were once covered by paintings.

On one of the walls, it appears that a layer of whitewash had been applied, covering an existing painting. The wall had been resurfaced to allow jotting down lunar cycle calculations. Archaeologists now think that Structure 10K-2 may very well represent a workspace of a Maya scribe whose job it was to be official record keeper of a Maya community. Imagine the day this individual walked in, covered the wall with an extra coating of white paint, and started making calendrical calculations. Once these were done, the individual walked away, and the wall remained unchanged for more than a millennium. The spontaneity with which the wall was repurposed contrasts with what must have been the initial function of that room. This impulsive act was preserved for posterity; it represents another moment frozen in time.

Recently, archaeologists working in the cave systems of northern Yucatan discovered an extraordinarily well preserved Maya altar. On December 2, 2016, the Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Historia announced the discoveries made by the Proyecto Gran Acuífero Maya. In one of the caves, located in the state of Quintana Roo, archaeologists found walls and pathways. They also encountered a “Maya altar in an unusual state of preservation.”

momenst4Altar discovered in a cave in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Notice the stalagmite fragment on top. (Image courtesy of Gran Acuífero Maya. Photo: Leyla Ortega)

The altar has been dated to the early Postclassic period (900 – 1200 AD). It is still covered with stucco, decorated with human, animal and abstract shapes. Associated with the altar was a large fragment of a stalagmite (said to have been linked to fertility by the ancient Maya).

The ointment jar, the wooden tablets, the calculations made on a wall and the altar found in a cave are all fleeting reminders of what people once did in the past. Their delicate nature makes the survival of these items all the more remarkable.

I often wonder what future archaeologists might discover about our own society that would fall in the same category of a “moment frozen in time.” Any ideas?