Monday, November 23, 2020

Animal mummies of the Ptolemaic and Roman Period

The earliest signs of non-human animal mummies are dated to the Badarian Predynastic Period (5500–4000 BCE), before the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. It is likely that animal mummies did not exist earlier because of the cost of mummification.  Although some animal mummies indicate only minimal treatment,  recent radiological studies by archaeologists indicate that animal mummification may have more closely followed human mummification than was originally thought. The presence of fats, oils, beeswax, sugar gum, petroleum bitumen, and coniferous cedar resins in animal mummies shows that the chemicals used to embalm animals were similar to those used on humans.

Instead of worshipping every animal of a particular species, a few animal cults would select one specific animal, chosen because of its special markings, to be the totem of the particular god. Each sacred animal was pampered and cared for until its death, when elaborate burial proceedings took place. The animal was then mummified as a sign of respect to the god. Then a new symbolic animal was chosen. These animal cults reached the pinnacle of popularity during the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods.

Image: Rhinoceros beetle sarcophagus, 664–30 BCE, Ptolemaic Period, Egypt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This rather sinister horned creature seems to represent the rhinoceros beetle, Oryctes nascicarnis, which is native to the Mediterranean region. The small bronze sarcophagus that it guards once held a beetle mummy, though not necessarily of the same species. In embalming beetles, as in all animal mummification, the Egyptians of the Late Period and Ptolemaic and Roman times gave tangible form to their belief that all animals, large and small were incarnations of the divine. - Metropolitan Museum of Art

To me the timing seems a little ironic since so many animals from Africa were hunted, some species to extinction, to provide fodder for Roman games. That hardly seems like treating animals as manifestations of the divine.

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