By Maxime Tamsett, CNN
It all started with a report of two mummies in a university closet.
Carol Anne Barsody, a graduate student in archaeology at Cornell University, was looking for a case study for her research. She focuses on how different technologies can be used in museum exhibits, and how they could impact current exhibit practices, repatriation of artifacts and access to collections.
Enter Frederic Gleach, a senior lecturer and curator of Cornell’s anthropology collections.
Approached by Barsody, Gleach remembered that a colleague from another department had called a decade earlier to ask if Gleach wanted two small mummies he had found in a closet. There were no records of where they came from or what was inside them.
After retrieving the two artifacts from that closet, Gleach would later discover one of them was only filled with twigs. However, the other mummy had a clue: It was in a box labeled “hawk mummy.”
It takes a village
Barsody and Gleach took the bundle to the Cornell University Hospital for Animals to get a better look at what was inside. Without disturbing the mummy, an imaging technician took radiographs — a type of X-ray — and performed a computerized tomography (CT) scan.
What appeared was not a hawk. It was an ibis.
The CT scan also revealed some soft tissue was still intact, which was at least 1,000 years old, potentially even 2,000 to 3,000 years old, according to Gleach.
Making the rounds once more, Barsody and Gleach brought the artifact to Vanya Rohwer, curator of the birds and mammals at the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates, to confirm the bird’s exact identification.
After analyzing the scans and reviewing a database, Rohwer identified the bird to be a male sacred ibis, according to the Cornell Chronicle.
A sacred ibis is a long-legged wading bird, mostly white with a black head and neck, with some black plumes in its tail. They can be found in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East but are no longer found in Egypt.
The mummified bird’s head was pulled all the way back to its body, and the researchers determined its rib cage and sternum had been removed, which was not a typical Egyptian mummification practice, according to Barsody.
Mummified sacred ibises were common in ancient Egypt.
Egyptians would mummify many animals, including pets, to serve as companions in the afterlife with whom they were entombed. Sacred ibises, however, were mummified as offerings to the god Thoth in temples, Barsody found in her research.
The mummified sacred ibis would be her case study, Barsody decided. But she needed to know more about the bird.
How did it get to Cornell?
Barsody had found minutes from a Cornell Board of Trustees meeting in 1884 that detailed the arrival of a human mummy called Penpi. But there was no mention of other artifacts. A dead end.
To glean more clues, another option could be radiocarbon dating, a process in which carbon would be measured from organic material (like soft tissue) to determine the subject’s age.
But Gleach said that more material would need to be extracted than what’s needed for a simple DNA test.
“I’m reluctant to sacrifice the material in order to do that much archaeological work,” Gleach said. “In particular, radiocarbon dating is destructive by nature … Once you have burned the sample to run radiocarbon dating, it’s gone.”
Barsody and Gleach turned to Dr. Eric Ledbetter, a professor and section chief of ophthalmology at Cornell, about extracting DNA from the soft tissue.
After inspecting the mummy, Ledbetter confirmed such a procedure could be done though endoscopic microsurgery, Gleach said.
“It’s precise enough to be able to go in either through the hole in the fabric that’s visible on the front of the mummy or through the gauziness of the fabric itself,” he said.
The DNA will be extracted in a couple weeks, according to Barsody. Then, the organic material will be sent to a lab where it would be cross-referenced with a database consisting of sacred ibis DNA samples taken from tombs and temples at archaeological sites in ancient Egypt.
If the DNA matches another sacred ibis from the database, Barsody said she should be able to determine the temple her mummified bird originally came from, and subsequently its age and region of origin.
Coming to a screen near you
In addition to discovering the story behind the mummy bird, Barsody is working to create an easily accessible, multisensory exhibit learning experience for would-be museumgoers.
Collaborating with Jack Defay, an electrical and computer engineering undergraduate student at Cornell, she created a low-cost 3D rendering of the mummy and plans to open an exhibition in October with two sections — one with the mummified bird, and one with its hologram.
The 3D rendering process involved taking hundreds of photos of the artifact from all angles with a smartphone.
Defay used the photos with an open-source software to digitize the artifact, a process that could allow smaller museums to showcase otherwise unattainable artifacts due to loaning costs, including insurance and transportation.
Visitors will be able to see both by the end of their stay and will be asked if they prefer seeing the original or are happy with the hologram substitute.
Bringing the bird to everyone
If she has her way, Barsody’s mummified bird project will be shared beyond the exhibition, through a tech pack that could be downloaded on cellphones, tablets or computers in towns far away from museums or during pandemic times when people don’t visit museums.
“I come from a very small town, and we don’t have any museums near where I grew up or that were easily accessible. Really the first time that I was able to visit a museum was when I was in university, which is crazy to think about.”
People could compare the size of an artifact with everyday household items, like a pen or penny, or in the case of the mummy bird, learn how a male sacred ibis’ call might sound.
“I wanted to give the multisensory layer to it so it could be for all learners — just in case like if somebody was visually impaired, they could still engage with an object with both touch and sound,” Barsody said.
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