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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
25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b

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