Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ibis and the Sacred Animal Necropolis

The Ancient Egyptians are known for their intricate human mummies and their complex journey in the underworld. However, there has been evidence of animal mummies as well. Animal cults, in Saqqara during the Late Period, were at their height. Saqqara is an ancient burial ground in Egypt with numerous pyramids, including the world famous Step pyramid of Djoser. It reflected a period of less troubled times. As Dr. Ikram stated in her book, Divine Creatures, shrines, temples, the embalming and burial of animals were an expression of religious nationalistic feeling. This Late Period with the Greco-Roman Period was decorated with votive animal mummies given as gifts to the gods. Tons of animals were embalmed during this time: fish, cows, bulls, sheep, cats, dogs, baboons, jackals, ibises, falcons, hawks, crocodiles, shrews, scorpions, and snakes were all included. Most of these animals were chosen because they had something to do with or had a specific relati
on to the Egyptian gods. Animal mummies were important throughout rituals from the beginning of the Ptolemaic period, around 305 BC, through to the Roman period.

I have always been extremely fascinated with the
Egyptian depiction of animals and their roles as gods. It just seems like a beautiful concept to look for admirable traits in nature and identify with animals. When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art earlier this month, I noticed a particular shelf of animals displayed. The animals were so tiny and carved so intricately, I could not fathom the kind of craftsmanship that goes on to make these. Each of these creatures are so finely detailed, it is absolutely incredible. In search of focusing on one animal in particular, I chose the ibis bird because there is so much literature about ibis mummies and how Egyptians valued this bird and preserved the ibis to the afterlife.

There are over 5 million ibis mummies at Saqqara
and it is estimated that there were over 10,000 birds buried annually in ibis catacombs. Another discovery from the Third Dynasty shows ibis mummies in lidded pottery only 700 meters away from the Step Pyramid enclosure. One large tomb of the Third Dynasty had the remains of sacrificed bulls around it and fragments of Ptolemaic-Roman offering pots with the remains of ibis mummies. Another excavation showed the skeleton of another bull laid on clean sand and hundreds of ibis mummies in their lidded pots. Some of them were elaborately wrapped with appliqu├ęs connecting them with Thoth and Imhotep. This complex is known as the South Ibis Catacomb. Cemeteries filled with mummified
ibis birds have been found at Abydos and near Hermopolis.

The ibis bird, which belongs to the stork family, was regarded in particular as sacred and worthy of burial and mummification. Ibis is also a hieroglyphic symbol. Revered in ancient Egypt, Ibis was associated with wisdom and the ibis-headed god Thoth, who was the scribe of the gods, god of learning, and a deity. Thoth gave the hieroglyph of life to Osiris. Thoth could also be represented as the baboon and North Saqqara was a burial place for both animals.

These burials and shrines at Saqqara became a place pilgrims would come for to pay respects to, especially to the god Thoth. At Saqqara, the cult of the relatively unknown deity Thutmose, a young ibis, was particularly popular among women.

Ibis mummies were mummified with their feet grasped and plunged into a vat of liquid resin. Then they were elaborately wrapped in linen bandages. Often times they were placed into ceramic jars which later were placed into catacombs. Some of the mummies were set rigid with palm-ribs, which was the same technique used on human mummies. Mummification of the ibis included desiccation and evisceration. Large volumes of ibises have been found and understood to have been specially reared in or around the temples. At the Sacred Animal Necropolis at Saqqara, several ibis eggs in a courtyard have been identified as the ibis hatchery. Ibis temples have also provided information for specific breeding sites.

Anthropologists and archaeologists are debating and tackling the questions why the extreme increase in animal mummies happened during the Greek and Roman rule. Edward Bleiberg, the curator of Egyptian, Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Art and the Manager Curator of Ancient Egyptian, African and Asian Art of the Brooklyn Museum suggests there is a connection with traditional ancient Greek animal sacrifice, since these Egyptian animals were certainly sacrificial since x-rays show that the majority of them died young in a violent death. Was there a fusion of a new culture? Archaeologists are still researching the significance of these animal mummies.

Below is a video link describing the process of animal mummification:

Dr. Salima Ikram Explains How Animal Mummies Were Made


Giakoumis, Melina. "Return of the (Brooklyn) Mummies." Archaeology Magazine. 16 Aug. 2010.

Ikram, Salima. Divine Creatures. Cairo: American University in Cairo, 2005.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful to have a post on the animal mummies - thanks for this fascinating case study Katherine!