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Thousands of animals — from crocodiles to cobras, down to scarab beetles — were once mummified in ancient Egypt. New analysis of the dyes on the textiles that tightly bound these mummies is now helping scientists rewrite the history of color. 

Recent finds have increased the number and type of mummified animals known today. Archaeologists working at Saqqara, south of Cairo, in 2019 discovered dozens of mummified animals. The necropolis finds included two lion cubs dating to the 26th Dynasty (664–525 BCE), only the second time lion mummies have been found. The use of CT scans have commonly revealed the bones within these objects, yet questions about the use of color and dyed fabrics on the outside of these objects remained.

Work to reconstruct the techniques of fabrication and materiality of the textiles used on animal mummies has a long history. In 1999, Egyptologist Salima Ikram began to reconstruct the ancient techniques for the mummification of animals along with her students at the American University in Cairo. The research would eventually lead to Divine Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt. The study explored the four different types of offerings for which the researchers concluded these animal mummies were used: food offerings, sacred animals, votive offerings, and as pets.

CT scans of the ibis at the Brooklyn Museum have revealed that the herringbone pattern on the linen, resin, beak, and crown all cover a mummy made only from ibis feathers (30 BCE–100 CE) Abydos, Egypt, now at the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY (image courtesy the Brooklyn Museum).

These remains of ibises, cats, calves, crocodiles, and various birds of prey have generally been studied for their ability to reveal the structures of Egyptian religion and ancient embalming techniques, but museum preservation specialists and digital humanists interested in the history of color have demonstrated that these remains can also help us reconstruct the history and meaning of the dyes, tannins, and patterns used in animal burials.

In order to reconstruct the colors that once decorated animal mummies, museum conservators and preservation experts have increasingly turned to non-invasive digital techniques. A new article from researchers at scientific labs within London’s British Museum and the Museo Egizio in Turin analyzes the colorants used on textile wrappings of animal mummies originally excavated from Ancient Egypt and held within museum collections.

Diego Tamburini, Joanne Dyer, and the rest of the authors of the open access study note that the linen wrappings used on these animals were often thrown away and undervalued as items of interest in their own right by modern archaeologists.  

[T]he use of bands of different colours (black, brown, orange, pinkish/red) could create many variations of the same pattern. Additionally, dyed textiles and painted motifs were used to reconstruct some of the anatomical parts of the animal (eyes, ears, beak, etc.) …

In order to examine the chemical nature of the colorants used on mostly linen textiles created from flax plants, scientists used broadband multispectral imaging (MSI) and then fiber optic reflectance spectroscopy (FORS) technology. Optical microscopy with visible or UV light (called Vis-OM, UV-OM), as well as advanced analytical chemistry methods such as high performance liquid chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry (HPLC–MS/MS) all aided the museum scientists in identifying the chemicals used on these delicate linen wrappings.

Dyes responded differently to variant types of UV irradiation. The luminescence given off by each dye is a type of signature that can indicate when and where it was used. For the animal mummy study, the scientists discovered use of safflower (Carthamus tinctorius L) and red ochre as two of the primary colorants identified among the 20 specimens examined by the museums. When used as a dye, safflower tends to provide a nice pinkish hue. However, it is very sensitive to UV rays and thus fades quickly following exposure to the light sources.

Dyes responding differently to differing types of UV irradiation: a, Visible-reflected (VIS); b, UV-induced visible luminescence (UVL); c, infrared-reflected false colour (IRRFC); d, UV-reflected false colour (UVRFC) images of the proper right top section of C2 (2021) (image courtesy Tamburini et al., and the Heritage Science journal)

In addition to dyes, analysis of the brown and black linens indicated the use of tannins. These tannins were used by those in ancient Egypt to bind dyes — thus acting as a mordant — to the fibrous materials being stained. Darker colors in the study were found to often have a tannin combined with an additional iron mordant, whereas the brown linen samples tended not to have iron added. Iron triggers autoxidation on these textiles. This often leads to quicker breakdown of them. That is why darkly colored linens from antiquity are often so difficult to preserve. 

It is important to understand color not only in terms of accurate reconstruction, but also as a means of connecting these objects to Egyptian religion. Christina Riggs, a professor at Durham University and historian of ancient Egypt who specializes in its visual culture, spoke to Hyperallergic about the reasons behind these colorful and complex wrappings.

The dyed colors of the linen textiles on these embalmed animals often goes together with intricate patterns of folds and wrappings. Handbooks that explain how to wrap animal mummies survive from ancient Egypt. Magic phrases were spoken by priests while the wrapping and interlacing took place. Something similar might have taken place when wrapping smaller animals or bundles of animal parts, helping these objects function as thanksgiving offerings for the gods. The intricate patterns perhaps also had a protective (apotropaic) function, confusing any harmful forces that would threaten the sacred.

The partnership between labs at the British Museum and those in Torino are increasingly revealing that mummy wrappings themselves were much more colorful than we might have thought. Despite the widespread perception that inside sarcophagi lay only drably covered bodies, new chemical analysis of these mummies, along with earlier work on the red colorants on dyed shrouds, have established that these wrappings deserve a second look.

The intricate patterns and strategic colors of the linens used on mummified remains have only begun to be understood by humanists, museum specialists, and chemists working together. What is apparent is that like literary texts, color does not exist within a vacuum and its meaning must be translated. Color reconstruction is important not only to revivifying our reimagination of the past, but also to decoding the complex lexicon spoken by both the absence and the addition of colored patterns in the ancient world.

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Sarah E. Bond

Sarah E. Bond is associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. She blogs on antiquity and digital humanities, and is the author of Trade...

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