The Australian white ibis has recently earned the nickname ‘bin chicken’ but ibis were considered sacred in Ancient Egypt. The African sacred ibis (now extinct in Egypt) was emblematic of the moon god Thoth: god of wisdom, magic and writing. Thoth appears most often in Egyptian art with the head of an Ibis, explaining why millions of the birds were mummified and dedicated in his name.
The two mummified Ibises have been in the University’s Nicholson Museum collection for more than a century. They were discovered during the 1913 excavations at the cemeteries at Abydos in an area dedicated to animal mummies. Over 2500 specimens were uncovered during just the first two years of excavations.
“People might be surprised to know that Egyptologists have uncovered more mummified animals than humans,” says Nicholson Museum Assistant Curator Candace Richards. “Cats, bulls, crocodiles, dogs and even snakes were all mummified. The ibis was most often mummified as a votive offering left by worshippers at temples as dedications to Thoth.
“The demand in ancient Egypt for these votives was huge. Some mummified packages were actually ancient fakes, with only fragments of a bird, or no bird at all inside. Knowing this, we wanted to find out more about our decorated linen packets using modern imaging techniques like neutron tomography and CT scanning.”
Until recently little was known about what was inside the two mummies. A reference to an x-ray from the 1980s found one might have two ibises and the other a thigh bone. Richards and Egyptologist Dr Conni Lord started testing these assumptions late last year.
The merged data set will...let us begin to understand more about the lives of these birds.
Using neutron tomography at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), with instrument scientist Dr Filomena Salvemini, they found each package contained an Ibis. Unexpectedly this imagining technique, never used before to scan mummified remains, revealed feathers on the exterior of one of the birds.
“This is incredibly exciting,” says Richards. “We know from other studies, where damaged exterior wrappings exposed the remains inside, that feathers can be preserved. However, CT scans don’t allow for the visualisation of feathers, and we are thrilled that our initial analysis of the neutron scans has enabled us to see them from.”
This month the research team approached Helen Laurendet, Radiographer at the University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, for the next step – gathering CT scans of the Ibises.
“CT scanning alongside neutron scanning is essential to get the clarity of the bone structure of the mummified remains,” said Richards. “From this set of scans, we were able to identify two juveniles wrapped inside one of the mummified packages.”
Data from the CT-scans will be merged with, and amplify, results from the nuclear tomography and will help Richards learn more about these artefacts.
“The merged data set will give a much more robust image of our now three preserved ibises and let us begin to understand more about the lives of these birds.
“Were they sacrificed? What techniques did the ancient Egyptians use to create these votives? What was their last meal? We can now try and address these questions.”