SANTA ANA, Calif. – Dogs and cats are often beloved family members in current culture, but animals held such a prominent place in ancient Egyptian society that tens of millions were mummified, some going into the pharaohs’ tombs to rest eternally in the company of their kings.
Others had their own special cemeteries, where they were buried in coffins as elaborately carved as those of royal family members.
Dozens of the best surviving specimens have taken up residence at Orange County’s Bowers Museum in “Soulful Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt.”
There’s a dog so well detailed that even its floppy ears are prominent. An ancient cat was laid to rest with its paws drawn across its body, creating an image reminiscent of a human’s funeral pose.
“It just shows how closely Egyptians thought of animals on some basic level as being very similar to human beings,” said Edward Bleiberg, the exhibition’s curator. “The Egyptians believed that animals had souls.”
But soulful or not, most people – other than a king or queen – couldn’t afford to keep a dog or cat around just for companionship in ancient times, Bleiberg said.
Thus the hunting dog seen waiting patiently under a chair during a dinner table scene etched onto an ancient tablet in the exhibition would likely have been shown the door if it hadn’t contributed to making that meal possible.
Most animals had an even greater job. They were charged with the responsibility of using their souls in death to carry messages to the gods they had represented on Earth during their lives. The dog, for example, was the sacred votive or messenger of the god Anubis, who is depicted in ancient Egyptian art as a man with the head of a dog.
The Ibis communicated directly with the god Thoth, who had the body of a man and head of a bird and who, it seems, was especially good at resolving human disagreements.
“There’s a letter included with one of the animal mummies that suggests there’s this man who is having a terrible problem at work,” Bleiberg noted. “He has this rivalry with a co-worker, he’s certain that the co-worker is badmouthing him to the boss and making him look bad and he requests that Thoth make him stop.”
Another letter sent with an animal mummy included a plea to heal a sick relative.
In all, the exhibition contains more than 100 items, including drawings and sculptures, as well as the mummified remains of dogs, cats, birds, snakes and crocodiles. Many are wrapped in intricately patterned linens, and some have been placed in sarcophaguses carved to resemble how the animal looked in life.
To give museum visitors a better look at what’s underneath the wrappings, the mummies have been CT scanned and the scans used to create three-dimensional images.
Preparing animal mummies was detailed and expensive work. So much so that Bleiberg says an expert at the craft earned twice that of a farmer.
Animal mummifying was such big business that Ptolemaic III, who ruled Egypt more than 2,000 years ago, passed several decrees regulating the industry.
One ordered that anyone who paid for an animal mummy really got one. How successful it was is open to debate: A CT scan of one exhibition mummy revealed nothing inside but rocks. Another showed bird feathers but no bird.
Like humans, the animals had to be cut open, salted and bathed in a substance like wine to be preserved. Archaeologists have found more than 30 Egyptian cemeteries created for animal mummies, some containing several million specimens.
Those in the exhibition come from the Brooklyn Museum in New York, of which Bleiberg is curator of Egyptian, Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Art. They were excavated in the 19th and 20th centuries.
They will remain at the Bowers until June 15, then move to Tennessee’s Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
Bowers’ president, Peter Keller, expects the exhibition could rival the popularity of its 2010 exhibit, “Secrets of the Silk Road,” which drew tens of thousands to the Orange County museum. That collection, with its ancient Chinese mummies, indicated travel along the trade route connecting Asia to Europe occurred centuries earlier than once thought.
While people will likely come to this show to see the dogs and cats, Bleiberg said, he’s hoping they’ll take something else away, something related to people in general.
Noting the work-related problems the guy with the Ibis mummy was having, the curator added that’s often the same complaint modern-day people have about their jobs.
“In many ways, it makes the ancient Egyptians accessible to us and shows how we all share innately human things,” he said.