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Animal Mummy Coffins of Ancient Egypt

Thursday, January 23, 2014

In ancient Egypt, the practice of mummifying animals became widespread in the first millenium B.C. Until the advent of Christianity, visitors to temples could buy animal mummy bundles as offerings to the gods. Wealthier pilgrims could also splurge on elaborate coffins shaped as creatures to hold these mummies, which ancient Egyptians probably believed represented the souls of the gods. Along with the sale of animal mummies, the production of lavish bronze and wooden coffins must have been an important source of revenue for temples.


The coffins below illustrate the wide array of animal forms taken by Egyptian gods. They will accompany 30 newly rediscovered animal mummies in The Brooklyn Museum's traveling exhibit Soulful Creatures:Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt. The exhibit's catalogue is available at


Egypt Ibis Mummy CoffinThis bronze coffin dating to between 664 and 30 B.C. held an ibis bundle, the most common type of animal mummy in ancient Egypt.



Epgyptian Cat Mummy CoffinThis wooden coffin held a complete mummified cat, an animal that became popular as a domestic pet in the first millennium B.C. and was associated with the goddess Bastet.


Egypt Hawk Mummy CoffinA bronze coffin, possibly from the animal necropolis at Saqqara, Egypt, was dedicated to the falcon god Horus.


Egypt Snake Mummy CoffinThis bronze cobra coffin with the head of a human wearing a crown represents the god Atum, who was thought to have swum in primordial waters before creating the world.


Egypt Crocodile Mummy CoffinBaby crocodile mummies in wooden coffins like this were used by ancient Egyptians seeking the help of the crocodile god Sobek.


Egypt Shrew Mummy CoffinA painted wooden coffin dating to between 664 B.C. and 332 B.C. depicts a shrew, a nocturnal animal, which represented Kenty-irty, a god with the ability see in darkness.




The Sultan’s African Palace


Monday, December 02, 2013

From the tenth to fifteenth centuries, the East Coast of Africa was home to hundreds of trading towns collectively known as the Swahili Coast. These wealthy, independent Islamic sultanates brought the riches of the African interior, including ivory, gold, and slaves, to a hemisphere-spanning trade network.


Among the richest and most influential of these towns was Kilwa Kisiwani, located on an island off the Tanzanian coast. At Kilwa’s height in the early fourteenth century, its leader, Sultan al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman, constructed a massive palace called Husuni Kubwa. The site, built of jagged blocks of coral called coral rag, is now only accessible from a worn staircase carved out of the cliff leading up from the water. Its ruin includes traditional Swahili elements, such as a stepped greeting court bordered by guest rooms for visiting merchants, and elements borrowed from other Islamic palaces, such as an octagonal swimming pool, grand audience court, and a residence with some 100 rooms. But the sultan had overreached in his ambition: The palace was occupied for only a short time before it was abandoned, unfinished.


Husuni-Kubwa-greeting-courtStepped greeting court


Husuni-Kubwa-roof-visitors-quartersRubble from stone roof and visitor’s quarters in the stepped court


Husuni-Kubwa-live-coral-decorationsDecorative elements carved from live coral heads


Husuni-Kubwa-octagonal-swimming-poolOctagonal swimming pool


Husuni-Kubwa-audience-courtAudience court, with candle niches at left


Husuni-Kubwa-collapsed-domeCollapsed dome made of carved live coral


Husuni-Kubwa-courtyard-residence roomsCourtyard surrounded by dozens of residence rooms



Swahili Towns feature item
Stone Towns of the Swahili Coast
 Swahili Towns Sidebar1
Matters of Context

Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

SheepBy the 19th century, linguists knew that all modern Indo-European languages descended from a single tongue. Called Proto-Indo-European, or PIE, it was spoken by a people who lived from roughly 4500 to 2500 B.C., and left no written texts. The question became, what did PIE sound like? In 1868, German linguist August Schleicher used reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary to create a fable in order to hear some approximation of PIE. Called “The Sheep and the Horses,” and also known today as Schleicher’s Fable, the short parable tells the story of a shorn sheep who encounters a group of unpleasant horses. As linguists have continued to discover more about PIE (and archaeologists have learned more about the Bronze Age cultures that would have spoken it), this sonic experiment continues and the fable is periodically updated to reflect the most current understanding of how this extinct language would have sounded when it was spoken some six thousand years ago. Since there is considerable disagreement among scholars about PIE, no one version can be considered definitive. Here, University of Kentucky linguist Andrew Byrd recites his version of the fable, as well as a second story, called "The King and the God," using pronunciation informed by the latest insights into reconstructed PIE.

Schleicher originally rendered the fable like this:


Avis akvāsas ka


Avis, jasmin varnā na ā ast, dadarka akvams, tam, vāgham garum vaghantam, tam, bhāram magham, tam, manum āku bharantam. Avis akvabhjams ā vavakat: kard aghnutai mai vidanti manum akvams agantam. Akvāsas ā vavakant: krudhi avai, kard aghnutai vividvant-svas: manus patis varnām avisāms karnauti svabhjam gharmam vastram avibhjams ka varnā na asti. Tat kukruvants avis agram ā bhugat.


Here is the fable in English translation:


The Sheep and the Horses


A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: "My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses." The horses said: "Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool." Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.


And here is the modern reconstruction recited by Andrew Byrd. It is based on recent work done by linguist H. Craig Melchert, and incorporates a number of sounds unknown at the time Schleicher first created the fable:


H2óu̯is h1éḱu̯ōs-kwe


h2áu̯ei̯ h1i̯osméi̯ h2u̯l̥h1náh2 né h1ést, só h1éḱu̯oms derḱt. só gwr̥hxúm u̯óǵhom u̯eǵhed; só méǵh2m̥ bhórom; só dhǵhémonm̥ h2ṓḱu bhered. h2óu̯is h1ékwoi̯bhi̯os u̯eu̯ked: “dhǵhémonm̥ spéḱi̯oh2 h1éḱu̯oms-kwe h2áǵeti, ḱḗr moi̯ aghnutor”. h1éḱu̯ōs tu u̯eu̯kond: “ḱludhí, h2ou̯ei̯! tód spéḱi̯omes, n̥sméi̯ aghnutór ḱḗr: dhǵhémō, pótis, sē h2áu̯i̯es h2u̯l̥h1náh2 gwhérmom u̯éstrom u̯ept, h2áu̯ibhi̯os tu h2u̯l̥h1náh2 né h1esti. tód ḱeḱluu̯ṓs h2óu̯is h2aǵróm bhuged.


A Civil War POW Camp in Watercolor


Sunday, November 10, 2013

On November 27, 1863, Union Private Robert Knox Sneden was captured by soldiers under the command of Confederate leader John Singleton Mosby at Brandy Station, Virginia. It would mark the beginning of a year of captivity for the topographical engineer-turned-mapmaker. He would spend six-and-a-half months at the infamous Andersonville prison in southwest Georgia, a site that would come to symbolize the brutal suffering of the Civil War.


Almost a year after his capture, Sneden was paroled and left under the supervision of Isaiah White, a physician serving Camp Lawton, a newly built POW camp in east Georgia where Sneden had been transferred two months earlier. During his short stint there, Sneden produced several drawings of the prison and its surrounding environs. He would later turn these into watercolors once he returned to New York after the war. “In exchange for promising not to escape, Sneden worked as a clerk for an army surgeon at Camp Lawton," says Andrew Talkov, head of program development at the Virginia Historical Society, which keeps an archive of 5,000 pages from Sneden's personal memoirs that includes the Camp Lawton paintings. "Because of that position, he had greater liberty to move freely around the camp."


Sneden's paintings offer insights about the construction of the prison, how the prisoners lived within it, and the layout of the Confederate encampment that surrounded it. The artwork helped to orient the archaeologists excavating Camp Lawton nearly 150 years after its brief stint holding prisoners of war. “Sneden’s drawings give us imagery in many cases where imagery doesn’t otherwise exist," says VHS lead curator Dr. William M. S. Rasmussen. "Sneden had an incredible visual memory and he combined it with notes and sketches he made in the field to produce an impressive visual record of life during the Civil War.”


 Click on the map to view a larger, scrollable version of Sneden's depiction.


Sneden-Camp-Lawton-plan-articleSneden depicts the layout of Camp Lawton and its surrounding environs in a map dated to 1864.



Camp-Lawton-Winder-HQ-articleThe view of Camp Lawton from the headquarters of Confederate General John H. Winder, which was located due south of the prison's gate.



Camp-Lawton-stockade-articleA view from within the stockade shows that most of the POWs at Camp Lawton chose to live on the higher and drier ground at the northern end of the enclosure.



Camp-Lawton-ovens-deadline-SnedenPrisoners swiped bricks from ovens at the north end of the camp to line the floors of their makeshift shelters, known as shebangs. The depiction also clearly shows the deadline in front of the stockade. If a prisoner crossed it, he would be shot by a guard looking over the fence.



Life on the Inside
Camp Lawton's Stockade and Forgotten Population

National Museum, Baghdad: 10 Years Later


Thursday, April 11, 2013

national-museum-baghdad-galleryThe round hole made by an artillery shell was visible long before we pulled up next to the National Museum in Baghdad in early May of 2003. The puncture, just below a frieze of a king in a chariot, was in the replica of a Babylon gate next to the exhibit halls. An American tank sat in the archway. Though I had seen images of the destruction that took place a month before, the sight was startling.


Inside it was worse. The administrative area was in shambles. Filing cabinets were turned over, and papers dating back to the museum’s founding by British archaeologist Gertrude Bell in the 1920s, were strewn about. Small fires had destroyed some offices. In the display area, angry mobs had shattered the cases and smashed 2,000-year-old statues. The primary storage facility had been breached, and some 15,000 objects—no one knows exactly how many—were gone. Among the missing pieces were thousands of tiny cylinder seals, as well as several iconic artifacts such as the Lady of Warka, a stone head of a woman found at Uruk, which is considered the world’s oldest city.


Had museum officials not hidden 8,366 of the most valuable artifacts in a safe place known only to them, this event might have been a catastrophe for cultural heritage in Iraq. For a while, no one knew for certain how much damage had been done; I was with a team of U.S. archaeologists who arrived to assess the situation. Most of the museum’s estimated 170,000 artifacts were eventually found to be safe. The rampage had earned front-page headlines across the world. It was entirely preventable.


Some 2,500 years earlier, the Persian king Cyrus the Great was able to storm nearby Babylon, then the world’s largest city, but texts from the time relate that there was no chaos or looting. However, in 2003, American troops failed to secure what was second on their own list, after the Central Bank, of important places to protect in the modern Iraqi capital. Archaeologists had visited the Pentagon prior to the invasion to provide military officials with detailed coordinates of all major Iraqi cultural heritage sites.


The looting of the museum was over less than 48 hours after it began on April 10, 2003. But it was only the start of a decade of disaster for Iraq’s cultural heritage, a heritage that includes the world’s first cities, empires, and writing system. More than ancient vases and display cases were affected. The invasion began a grim era of sectarian violence and lawlessness in the very land that developed the state, legal codes, and recorded history itself. That era continues. “These are still very tough days,” says Abdul-Amir Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist who today is working on a doctorate at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook. I first met Hamdani in May 2003 on the sidewalk outside U.S. military headquarters in the southern city of Nasiriya, where he was desperately attempting to get help to stop the vandals poaching ancient sites. “There is still nothing protecting many sites from looting and destruction.”