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Chris Higgins

11 Scenes from "Mummies of the World" in Portland

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Chris Higgins

A group of mummies is on display now at OMSI in Portland, Oregon. Mummies of the World bills itself as "the largest exhibition of mummies and related artifacts ever assembled," and it is suitably epic -- an exhibit hall with soothing music hosts this massive collection of mummies and relics spanning the globe. It's important to note that many of the mummies are not Egyptian -- indeed, many of the most spectacular mummies are from South America. They day before the exhibit opened, I got a preview of the exhibit, and have these photos to share.

1. Cats

Here are two cat mummies from Egypt. The cat on the left is labeled "Wooden Sarcophagus with Cat Mummy," and the exhibit notes that in rare cases, mummified cats were placed inside cat-shaped sarcophagi. This is one of those sarcophagi. On the right, the tag alongside "Mummy of a Cat" notes that this cat mummy was likely a kitten raised specifically to become a mummy. The face painting was added on top of the wrappings.

2. Nes-pa-qa-shuti

One of the most visually stunning parts of the exhibit is the sarcophagus of the Egyptian Nes-pa-qa-shuti. The sarcophagus is divided into three segments placed on separate layers, with the ornate top shell placed on top, the middle segment with the mummy himself in the middle, and the base at the bottom (not pictured). According to the accompanying display, Nes-pa-qa-shuti dates to about 650 B.C., and he was a singer at the Temple of Min (a fertility goddess).

3. Canopic Jar

Part of the exhibit explains the embalming process in ancient Egypt. After the corpse's organs were removed, they were placed into four canopic jars. This particular jar was the vessel for the stomach and upper intestine, guarded by "jackal-headed god Duamutef." (The display also notes that in later dynasties, the organs were removed, embalmed, and then placed back into the body.)

4. Necrotome

Another part of the embalmer's toolkit was the necrotome, a knife used to open the body. This knife "probably dates to the time of the New Kingdom, about 1540 to 1075 B.C." Although the scale isn't obvious from this photo, the necrotome is about the size of a dinner knife.

5. Myrrh

I've been hearing about myrrh for my entire life, but I've never seen it before. Here's a contemporary sample of myrrh, a tree resin used in coating some mummies' bodies.

6. Howler Monkey

This is one of the first things you see upon entering the exhibit, and it's a doozy. This monkey hails from Gran Chaco in Argentina. The monkey is dressed in an elaborate feather skirt (not pictured) and has separate feathers wrapped around its head and neck. The exhibit notes that this monkey was likely preserved naturally due to its warm, dry environment, rather than through an embalming process.

7. Head of an Ancient Egyptian Mummy

The exhibit includes various full-body mummies, but there are a few that are just heads. Notes explain that in the 18th and 19th centuries, "Egyptian mummies were frequently cut into pieces and sold to tourists." (!) This is the head of a man who lived through the Roman occupation of Egypt, circa 15 B.C. After mummification, it appears that bandages were removed to display the preservation of the skin.

8. Ushabtis

"Ushabti" means "answerer," and these tiny figurines (just inches high) were included in mummy tombs. These date from 1550 to 1070 B.C.

9. Children's Toy Horse

Several mummies of children were on display (not pictured here). Alongside them were various toys buried with those mummies. This one is a toy dating to A.D. 500-700.

10. The Tattooed Woman

This mummy of a tattooed woman is from Chile; she died sometime before 1400 A.D. She has three tattoos (ovals with dots), the significance of which are unknown. Her hair is shockingly well-preserved.

11. Page from the Book of the Dead

What we call the Book of the Dead was "known by the ancient Egyptians as 'Spells of Going Forth by Day,'" and, for those who could afford it, would be placed inside the coffin with a mummy. The book (a papyrus scroll) included "spells, hymns, and instructions to reach the afterlife." This is a fragment of a page -- an interactive display to its side allows you to scroll through a reconstruction of the book.

Where to See More

This post just scratches the surface of what you'll see at the Mummies of the World exhibit. There are mummies of people, animals, and plenty of explanatory material putting them in context. I should also note that the exhibit's curators put a lot of thought into presenting the mummies in a context that respected the fact that they are, let's face it, actual dead people. When I asked about this aspect of the exhibit, I was pointed to a thorough ethics report from the California Science Center, discussing the specifics of why this exhibit was deemed worthy by that body. I came away from that reading satisfied, though I will say that as a visitor, it can be challenging to come face-to-face with the unwrapped head of a mummy.

Mummies of the World will remain at OMSI through September 8. There will be one more stop on the tour after OMSI, but I couldn't get officials to comment on where that might be. So if you're into mummies, and you're anywhere near Portland, this may be your last chance to see the collection.

All photographs © 2013 Chris Higgins.

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Animals
Australian Charity Releases Album of Cat-Themed Ballads to Promote Feline Welfare
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An Australian animal charity is helping save the nation’s kitties one torch song at a time, releasing a feline-focused musical album that educates pet owners about how to properly care for their cats.

Around 35,000 cats end up in pounds, shelters, and rescue programs every year in the Australian state of New South Wales, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Microchipping and fixing cats, along with keeping closer tabs on them, could help reduce this number. To get this message out, the RSPCA’s New South Wales chapter created Cat Ballads: Music To Improve The Lives Of Cats.

The five-track recording is campy and fur-filled, with titles like "Desex Me Before I Do Something Crazy" and "Meow Meow." But songs like “I Need You” might tug the heartstrings of ailurophiles with lyrics like “I guess that’s goodbye then/but you’ve done this before/the window's wide open/and so’s the back door/you might think I’m independent/but you’d be wrong.” There's also a special version of the song that's specifically designed for cats’ ears, featuring purring, bird tweets, and other feline-friendly noises.

Together, the tunes remind us how vulnerable our kitties really are, and provide a timely reminder for cat owners to be responsible parents to their furry friends.

“The Cat Ballads campaign coincides with kitten season, which is when our shelters receive a significantly higher number of unwanted kittens as the seasons change,” Dr. Jade Norris, a veterinary scientist with the RSPCA, tells Mental Floss. “Desexing cats is a critical strategy to reduce unwanted kittens.”

Listen to a song from Cat Ballads below, and visit the project’s website for the full rundown.

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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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Animals
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

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