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Snakes mummy revealed

14 October 2016 by Ashley Cooke

A bundle of mummified snakes wrapped in linen bandages.

Object no. M13645 – a bundle of mummified snakes, date uncertain (c. 600 BC – AD 200). Gift of Joseph Mayer, 1867.

It’s been a busy week in the run up to opening Animal Mummies Revealed, but somehow we managed to fit in X-raying seven animal mummies.

These mummies have never been studied in this way before and for a long time I’ve been intrigued by what we would find beneath the surface. The X-rays revealed that three contained animal remains which matched their external appearance (cats); three appear to be empty; and one mummy assumed to be a cat since 1852 but we now know is actually a package of serpent mummies!  It’s the last one which I found most thrilling – an assumption made 164 years was corrected within less than a minute. In the exhibition there are many examples of mummies with similar stories like this for people to see, including 3D prints of the bones inside. One of my favourites is a mummy kindly lent to us by Sunderland Museum and Winter Garden. It has the outer appearance of a jackal (like the gods Anubis or Wepwawet) but inside the mummy is made from human bones!

X-ray image showing mummified snakes

X-ray made of mummy bundle no. M13645 on 13 October 2016.

Technology now available to us in our conservation centre allows us to improve our understanding of objects that have been in our care for over a century. In Victorian times curators in Liverpool unwrapped mummies to reveal the contents. This destructive process was even performed before the public, when in 1903, Henry Ogg Forbes, unwrapped the mummy of Lady Ditamunpaseneb, before a crowded audience who were allowed to take away cuttings of the mummy bandages. Thankfully Henry and his colleagues didn’t unwrap everything and we still have a very large collection of mummified people and animals.
But just like our Victorian predecessors we have to think of new ways of encouraging visitors to come inside and be informed about the work we do with the fabulous collections in our care. In times of harsh cuts to museum funding it’s important to stage exhibitions such as Animal Mummies Revealed that demonstrate the relevance of collections kept in museums across the county. We’ve borrowed objects from a whole range of large and small museums to tell a story that started with the first pharaohs at about 3000 BC and goes right up to today – finding out when a cat is not a cat but a bundle of snakes!

Go behind the scenes of our animal mummies exhibition to find out more!

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