Mummy Birds Recovered From Egypt Factory

Dan Morrison in Cairo, Egypt
for National Geographic News
August 9, 2007
Egyptian antiquities authorities have obtained eight mummified birds that had been displayed in a textile factory for nearly a century.

Three ibises and five falcons had apparently been kept in glass display cases since 1927 at the sprawling Mahalla factory, located about 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Cairo, said Zahi Hawass, director general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. (See an Egypt map.)

No one is sure how the mummies got there or why they came to be on display at the site's administrative offices.

Initially, however, the factory bosses were reluctant to let go of their ancient prizes.

"It was difficult at first to retrieve them," Hawass said.

But after three months of negotiations, the company agreed to release the beasts in exchange for replicas.

The mummies are now in the custody of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and may be displayed later in the museum's animal mummy room.

"The condition of the mummies is good," Hawass said. "No conservation has been done, but they are not in a bad condition."

(Hawass is also an Explorer-in-Residence with the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)

Animal Gods

The ancient Egyptians mummified many thousands of animals, often because of their symbolic association with deities. (Related: "Egyptian Animals Were Mummified Same Way as Humans" [September 15, 2004].)

The three ibises represent Thoth, or Djehuti, the ancient Egyptian god of learning.

The falcons symbolize Horus, one of the oldest of the ancient Egyptian deities, a bird-headed god of the sky and the sun.

"It is rather charming that they acted as talismans for these factories for so long," said Salima Ikram, author of Divine Creatures, a 2005 book about animal mummies in ancient Egypt.

"Nonetheless, it's great that they will be coming back to the Egyptian Museum, where they can be studied, conserved, and reunited with their brethren," she added.

"Regardless of where they came from, it is wonderful to find another stash of ancient Egyptian animal mummies."

Hawass said the mummies date from sometime during the late ancient Egyptian period—between the sixth and third centuries B.C.

The mummies were all wrapped in well-spun ancient linen.

Not So Unusual

It's not unusual for people to stumble upon antiquities in Egypt.

The 2,500 year-old catacombs of Alexandria, for instance, were discovered in 1900 when a farmer's donkey disappeared into a sinkhole.

Hawass said he learned of the bird mummies at Mahalla—now Egypt's biggest state-owned textile company—only this year.

The mummies' origins remain a mystery, and a spokesperson for the Egyptian ministry of investment, which owns the factory, didn't return calls and emails seeking comment about how the birds arrived at the factory.

Mahalla was recently in the news for an entirely different reason—the site's 20,000 restive workers. Last December they went on giant wildcat strikes, part of a wave of labor unrest that continued for several months across Egypt.

It remains unclear what other ancient antiquities might be squirreled away among Egypt's thousands of state-owned businesses.

"There are new discoveries every day in Egypt," Hawass said.

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