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By Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer
The Oriental Institute Museum
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 214, Summer 2012)

Like many travelers visiting Egypt in the late nineteenth century, James Henry Breasted came back from his honeymoon along the Nile in the winter of 1894 - 1895 with several bird mummies he had purchased. Alongside the other artifacts Breasted acquired during his first trip to Egypt, the mummified bundles became part of the Oriental Institute collection (fig. 1). In 1914, a selection of bird mummies excavated at Abydos was sent to Breasted by the Egypt Exploration Fund and added to the collection (fig. 2).

Two types of animal mummies are represented in the Oriental Institute collection.1 The large majority of these mummified remains are testimony to the religious phenomenon of sacred animal cults whose popularity in ancient Egypt exponentially increased during the seventh century bc and remained active until the edict of Theodosius in AD 379. During this period, millions of birds,2 in particular ibises (fig. 3 MISSING) and birds of prey, were captured or bred in captivity for the sole purpose of being mummified. These mummies were destined to become votive offerings made available to pilgrims visiting sanctuaries dedicated to falcon deities, such as Horus, and to Thoth, the ibis god. Priests from these cult centers regularly deposited these mummies in catacombs or unused tombs, where they continue to this day to be discovered by archaeologists. Mummy OIM E18275 (fig. 4) belongs to another category of such artifacts: it is a "victual" mummy, in this case a waterfowl. It had been prepared for consumption (head and feet have been removed), embalmed to prevent decay, and placed in the tomb of an elite member of ancient Egyptian society to be enjoyed forever in the afterlife.

The special exhibit entirely dedicated to birds in ancient Egypt, which will open its doors to members at the Oriental Institute on October 15, 2012, was the ideal opportunity to focus our attention on the bird mummies of the collection; most of them have never been on display or subject to research. The purpose of this study was manifold: first of all, to update the museum records of these artifacts with new photography and condition assessment, and then, to identify the contents hidden within the linen wrappings. Among the twenty-nine specimens in the collection previously identified as bird mummies, ten bundles were selected and carefully prepared (see Alison Whyte's commentary on bird mummies and conservation, p. 28) to leave the Institute for the first time since 1931 and to go across campus to the Radiology Department of the University of Chicago Hospitals, in order to undergo an in-depth checkup. I was indeed interested in applying to bird mummies the same non-destructive radiographic techniques that had proved so successful with the mummy of Meresamun. Many questions regarding the small linen bundles included in most Egyptian collections in museums around the world remain unanswered. Until recently, the examination of bird mummies was focused on the wrappings enveloping the bundles, and X-ray imaging was used to visualize the mummies' content. It is now possible to study ancient avian remains more completely by imaging them with Computed Tomography (CT), a modality that allows 3D evaluations not only of the skeletal remains, but also of the birds' soft tissues, as well as any other objects that have been included within the wrappings.

Radiologist Dr. Michael Vannier, with whom the Oriental Institute previously collaborated for the Meresamun mummy project, once again granted us access to the University of Chicago Hospitals' clinical 256-channel CT scanner. Specimens smaller than 90 mm in diameter were processed by Dr. Chad Haney in the micro-CT scanner for an even finer resolution. Before submitting the mummies to this treatment, the Zoology Department of the Field Museum of Natural History3 loaned us three "modern" specimens, in order to give us a chance to familiarize ourselves with the imaging of birds and to tune the equipment accordingly for best results. These unusual patients included a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), both recent casualties4 that had been brought to the Field Museum to be added to their bird collection and database. A naturally desiccated wryneck (Jynx torquilla) also made a great candidate for this preliminary work, giving us a glimpse at dehydrated organs within the abdominal cavity. After this instructive first round of CT scanning, the bird mummies were brought to the hospital on August 19 and October 25, 2011 (figs. 5 and 6), under the supervision of conservators Laura D'Alessandro and Alison Whyte, as well as special-exhibit coordinator Emily Teeter. In addition to Drs. Vannier and Haney, medical physicist Dr. Charles Pelizzari joined the team and shared his expertise in CT imaging and image analysis. During each trip five mummies underwent scrutiny for one hour. Acquiring hundreds of images for each mummy only took a few minutes, but processing and analyzing the data is still an ongoing process. Various post-processing techniques such as 3D volume rendering and segmentation have been applied to identify and further analyze areas of interest. Under the guidance of Dr. Pelizzari, I familiarized myself with ImageJ, a free image-processing software made available to the public by the National Institutes of Health, and I started reviewing the images, slice by slice, and exploring the content of the bundles. Drs. Pelizzari and Haney have also produced many 3D reconstructions, images and videos using OsiriX and Amira.

While being able to see the contents of the mummified packets was a major achievement, understanding what I was looking at was an equally important stage of the research. Since the beginning of the project, a manual of ornithology and a book on avian anatomy have been omnipresent on my desk. Sclerotic rings5 and tartometatarsi6 no longer hold any secrets for me! I have especially benefited from the expertise of the many ornithologists of the Field Museum, in particular Dr. Steve Goodman, who has extensively studied Egyptian avifauna,7 as well as Dr. Kenneth Welle, veterinarian with board certification in avian medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (fig. 7).

While the processing of the bird mummies' CT scan images is continuing, it has already become evident that the care taken in wrapping the mummies is not always reflected by the bundles' content. Thus OIM E9237, an elaborately wrapped mummy from Abydos that was thought to contain the remains of an ibis, does not in fact contain any bird at all, rather only a few long bones and some reeds covered with radio-dense embalming material, to give it the desired shape (fig. 8). Moreover, birds at all stages of development, from neonate (OIM E9164) and juvenile (OIM E9162) to adult (OIM E146), were deemed worthy to be mummified. We are still investigating the possibility of identifying how these birds met their end. The full results of this project will be presented in the exhibit, which will include a selection of these mummies as well as the CT scans and 3D reconstructions, and thus will allow our members and the general public to get an inside view of the many bird mummies of our collection.

As a conclusion, it is important to mention that the success of this project is the result of a collaborative effort, and I would like to thank all the people alongside whom I have worked, in particular Dr. Jack Green for granting me access to this material and for allowing me to further study these bird mummies.


1 Salima Ikram, "Divine Creatures," p. 1 of Divine Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt, edited by Salima Ikram (Cairo, 2005); mummies can also belong to two other types, which are less commonly encountered in the archaeological record: pets buried with their owners, and sacred animals held to be the receptacle of a specific deity during their lifetime and benefiting from a luxurious burial at their death.

2 Angela von den Driesch et al., "Mummified, Deified and Buried at Hermopolis Magna: The Sacred Birds from Tuna el-Gebel, Middle Egypt," Egypten und Levante 15 (2005): 203. At Tuna el-Gebel, the necropolis associated with the major cult center of the ibis god Thoth, it has been estimated that "the practice of en masse burials of ibises E lasted almost 700 years. E The total number of ibises deposited in the vast subterranean network of galleries clearly surpasses one million individuals, implying that on average 15,000 birds had been placed each year in the galleries by the cult servants." Many other animal necropoleis have been uncovered throughout Egypt, the major one being in North Saqqara, with catacombs for the Apis bull and his mother, baboons and ibises dedicated to Thoth, birds of prey dedicated to Horus, dogs identified with Anubis, and cats associated with Bastet. See Paul T. Nicholson, "The Sacred Animal Necropolis at North Saqqara: The Cults and Their Catacombs," pp. 44-71 of Divine Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt.

3 I would like to give many thanks to the staff of the Zoology Department, in particular its chairman, Dr. John Bates, for his enthusiasm for the project; Drs. David Willard and Mary Hennen, collection managers of the Division of Birds, who allowed us to borrow these specimens; and Holly Lutz, who coordinated the whole process.

4 The song sparrow had been found near a window. It most likely hit the pane and did not survive the impact. The peregrine falcon died on April 7, 2011, in downtown Chicago. He had lost a fight with another falcon, perhaps over territory.

5 The sclerotic ring is a ring of bony plates "within the orbit of the skull, supporting the globe of each eye. Birds share this eye reinforcement with their dinosaurian ancestors." Noble S. Proctor and Patrick J. Lynch, Manual of Ornithology: Avian Structure and Function (New Haven, 1993), p. 124.

6 The tarsometatarsus is a bone of a bird's lower leg. Its measurement is helpful in identifying the genus and species of a bird.

7 Steve M. Goodman and Peter L. Meininger, The Birds of Egypt (Oxford and New York, 1989).

Revised: September 11, 2012

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