East Kent Egyptology Society
Wednesday 24th April 2019: John Wyatt, Birds of Egypt
Note: This report does not include illustrations.
It might not say so on his CV, but John is an ornithological history detective. The modern Champollion of Ancient Egyptian avian images, he deciphers tomb paintings and artefacts to identify the species of birds seen in pharaonic times. On this occasion he took time out from his work as the world’s only full-time Ancient Egypt ornithologist to give a remarkable talk to a meeting of Ankh.
The former deputy director of the British Trust for Ornithology, now scientific consultant for the Birds of the Nile Valley, John was trained as an anthropologist and ethnographer and is a specialist in African birds and mammals. Studying birds of the ancient Nile is easier than most ornithologists’ work because, he quipped, dead bones don’t fly away.
However, as the compelling presentation progressed it became apparent that binoculars and bird hides don’t help much either as many of the images John studies are representational or unclear. Patrick Houlihan’s book Birds of Ancient Egypt, published in 1986 gave a foundation to John’s interest, giving rise to decades of detailed investigation of Ancient Egyptian images to determine the exact identification of the birds that existed at that time.
It was fascinating to learn that such species as black-necked and great crested grebes, both relatively recently found in Kent, were also fluffing their feathers around Pyramid workers. John’s investigation into images taken from Deir el Bahri, now in the Museum of New York, identified red-necked grebes, now rarely found in modern Egypt, amongst the plentiful spur-winged plovers, pintails and swallows – often seen flying inside the ancient temples. He showed photos of pied wagtails and sparrow hawks, African and European hoopoes, turtle doves and water fowl, parakeets brought into Egypt along with red-billed and red-footed black stork by Alexander the Great, Siberian white cranes, northern lapwings, the white-bellied stork (probably eaten) and cob-nosed ducks. There were nightjars and goshawks and houbara bustard, all identified from original artwork thousands of years old.
Not just birds however. Closer to the ground John’s work has authenticated a statement by ancient historian Herodotus, who wrote of two crocodiles seen in Ancient Egypt: the Nile and the Desert crocs. He spoke of the crocodile bird, who went into the mouth of desert crocodiles and cleaned the mouth and teeth. John was able to verify this by citing that the desert plovers do exactly this now to the great Nile crocodiles and indeed even, like the crocodiles, lay their eggs in the sandbanks so the sun hatches them.
The Brooklyn Knife we learnt has a solitary giraffe amongst the bird images, looking into the future. The Davis comb handle, sports a saddle-billed stork which boasts a huge throat sac. Not, says John, because of any significance to the bird, but to denote wellbeing.
One of the most iconic Egyptian ornithological images is the ibis; the bald-headed ibis which was associated with Thoth, the Ancient Egyptians’ god of the moon, magic and of wisdom. Perhaps, John said, because the black tail and head could be seen to represent the moon in the sky – as could the bird in flight echo the movement of the moon. This, the ankh bird, was considered such John suggests, as it resembles a spirit flying. Now there are thought to be less than 200 remaining worldwide.
Perhaps the most recognised ancient Egyptian bird iconography is the Horus falcon, represented in dramatic statuary at Kom Ombu wearing the double crown of Egypt. This tutelary diety image was thought, probably to be inspired the peregrine falcon who also displays a red crown.
In the Valley of the Queens, Nefertiti’s tomb shows what was thought to be falcons but now are classified as female kites. While at Abydos, in the Temple of Seti, two species of kestrels are depicted. We learnt that in Ancient Egypt the grey-necked goose was domesticated and edible and 4,000 year-old bones show that pigeons were plentiful. From Kom Ombo again, two bone records show remains of owls – leading to the connection with Horus perhaps as these majestic birds were considered to symbolise the safe passage of a spirit after death?
Over at Deir el Medina, Neferhotep’s tomb housed the mummified remains of a barn owl which is also depicted in the artwork. Appropriately at Saqqara 51 Pharaoh’s eagle owls have been found and in the tomb of Ti, shoe bill storks were shown and what was thought to be African spoon-bills. Over at Medinet Habu hieroglyphs clearly illustrate swallows and elsewhere no less than eight types of swallow are depicted alongside house martins, sand martins, rocks and crag martins.
Rather surprisingly perhaps the somewhat unattractive vulture was chosen to depict the eye of Ra, Nekheb and Mut, the wife of Amon and caring motherhood. Not surprising at all, said John, as they fly at great height seeing all and remain on their nests for three to four months protecting their eggs.
During his examinations of mummified remains, John has identified some 77 different species of bird. In all he has identified 130 species of bird living in Ancient Egypt including the common kingfisher, now extinct Syrian ostrich and amazingly, flamingos found in the Sahara desert, now thousands of miles from water. He estimates that there were probably around 250 species existing. So he continues his search into identifying the birds of Ancient Egypt and we in Ankh look forward to more discoveries about the wildlife he identifies.
Wednesday 26th June 2019: Samantha Harris: The Maidstone Mummy.
The meeting was very well attended and Samantha, the museum’s collections manager, gave a fascinating introduction to the wealth of items on display at the recently modernised building. She did, naturally, concentrate on the work that has been done to investigate the collection of Egyptian mummies, and stressed that only modern non-invasive techniques were used.
She said that the museum housed a vast collection of fine art and historical artifacts, with over 600,000 items of international importance. It was founded in 1858 as the Charles Museum, after local Doctor Thomas Charles bequeathed his art and antiquities to the borough council in 1855, and the collections have been continually added to over the years. It now has one of the largest collections in Kent, with finds dedicated to the archaeology of Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc., together with costumes and displays covering ethnography, biology, fine art, geology, local history, and Japanese decorative arts and prints.
The Egyptian collection, which totals almost 600 items, has been added to over the years as a result of bequests by C19th and early C20th travellers who had purchased and donated antiquities, and by artifacts shared out to museums by archaeological teams which have received financial support from various sources. Many of the pieces purchased by travellers from Egyptian antiquities dealers have no provenance or are fake, and many modern visitors still fall victim to the blandishments of Luxor hawkers who offer them “genuine” artifacts that have been acquired by dubious means. The majority of objects in the museum come, as you would expect, with a proven context and from sites such as Alexandria, Amarna, Beni Hasan, the Fayoum, Luxor, etc. Samantha showed a number of descriptive slides covering the of types of objects on display including amulets, canopic jars, coffins, coins, flints, glass vessels, jewellery, mummified animal and human remains, pottery, scarabs, shabtis, stone stelae, textiles, and wooden figures. Samantha showed a photograph of one stele which is currently being studied, which is of a previously unknown Queen Aahotep. It was dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek and probably dates to about 1600 BC, though which ruler this queen was wife to is presently unknown.
Turning to the main subject of her presentation, the remains of Ta Kush, Samantha said that it is the only adult human mummy in Kent. She arrived in England in the 1820s and, although originally there was an inner and outer coffin, only the inner wooden coffin reached the museum. In 1843 she was unwrapped and studied by Samuel Birch of the British Museum and a local doctor, Hugh Welch Diamond. It was noticed that a hole had been made into the abdomen of the mummy, which had apparently been made by customs in order to check that illegal materials were not being smuggled into the country hidden within the corpse. She was then presented by Dr Diamond to his cousin, Mr Charles, whose collections eventually became the Maidstone Museum. Unfortunately much evidence was destroyed or lost during the original unwrapping, and the bundles of mummified internal organs, any amulets, etc., have now been dispersed or lost.
In July 2016 the Museum received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a project to open a new ‘Ancient Lives’ Gallery, which eventually opened in 2017. As part of the re-display the Museum worked with a number of organisations to conduct a CT scan and facial reconstruction of Ta-Kush in order to help determine how she looked during her lifetime. The museum arranged with Kent Institute of Medicine and Science (KIMS) and FaceLab at Liverpool John Moores University to conduct a CT scan and facial reconstruction of Ta-Kush, and later that year she made the short journey across Maidstone to KIMS to undergo a full body scan. This revealed a number of fascinating revelations about Ta Kush, as well as of other mummified remains in the museum’s collections, which were also scanned. It is most unusual nowadays to physically interfere with mummified remains by unwrapping them, but to use non-invasive techniques such as CAT scanning using hospital grade equipment, and to use other scientific techniques which do not disturb or destroy evidence and leave the mummy undisturbed for future study.
Inscriptions on her coffin, which was decorated with a figure of the goddess Nut, give her titles as “The Lady of the House, Ta-Kush; Daughter of Osiris, Pa-Muta; her mother Lady of the House, Shay”. Her father was Doorkeeper of Osiris and his name shows his Kushite (Nubian) origin, whereas her mother was Egyptian. This was a time, the 25th and 26th Dynasties, when the country was under Nubian influence and control. Early examiners suggested that she was about 14 years old, but the CAT scans reveal eruption of the wisdom teeth, tooth wear, and other skeletal deteriorations which suggest that she was between 35 and 49 years of age. The cause of death could not be determined, but the scans did show that she had spinal damage (a wedge fracture) which could have been caused by trauma caused by downward impact on her back. The study of the skull and the fact that she was of mixed race influenced the design and modelling of the facial reconstruction, and the decision was made to adorn the model with a short Nubian style wig. The model also shows a masculine type of face, and someone unkindly remarked “so she was no Cleopatra”!
The second mummy Samantha described in some detail was that once thought to be of a hawk, as it’s cartonnage covering was decorated with the head of that Horus-associated bird. The mummy had never been unwrapped but a CAT scan immediately showed that it was of a human foetus. Experts from a number of countries involved in the current project examined the evidence, and Dr Sahar Saleem of Cairo University (who investigated Tutankhamun’s two foetal mummies) gave the opinion that the mummy could date to c.300BC and was a 23 – 28 week gestation male foetus. His birth and death would have been a tragic moment for the family, so this gesture of mummification is a truly poignant one, not least as the Egyptians believed that the soul developed in the womb, so an unborn child could still pass into the afterlife in the same way as an adult. These foetal mummies were not usually eviscerated or had their brains removed, but were simply embalmed and wrapped.
The scans also show evidence of the possible reason the foetus did not reach full term, anencephaly. This is a rare and generally fatal defect of the skull which leads to errors in the formation of the brain and cranium. It is known to have genetic causes, but most recently it has also been associated with the Zika virus, which can enter the pregnant mother’s blood stream as a result of a mosquito bite and can seriously affect the developing foetus.
For a full description of Ta-Kush and the so-called hawk mummy, with access to photographs and video files, go to the Maidstone Museum web sites such as the following: