For decades, 30 boxes lay forgotten in the storage vaults of the Brooklyn Museum’s Egyptology department. The contents had not been catalogued, or even seen, since the 1930s and 40s, when they were purchased from the New-York Historical Society. But in 2009, curatorial assistant Kathy Zurek-Doule finally opened the boxes. Lying nestled inside each one was an elaborately wrapped mummy in the shape of an animal. Ibises, hawks, cats, dogs, snakes, and even a shrew were all represented in the collection, which had been amassed by a wealthy New York businessman in the mid-nineteenth century. Faced with an unexpected trove of objects unlike any other the museum has, Egyptology curator Edward Bleiberg and his team embarked on a comprehensive study of the mummies. The rediscovered objects gave Bleiberg the chance to investigate a question that has puzzled archaeologists ever since they first realized that vast animal cemeteries along the Nile hold millions of mummies: Why did the ancient Egyptians invest so much in the afterlife of creatures?
Unlike Greeks and Romans, ancient Egyptians believed animals possess a soul, or ba, just as humans do. “We forget how significant it is to ascribe a soul to an animal,” says Bleiberg. “For ancient Egyptians, animals were both physical and spiritual beings.” In fact, the ancient Egyptian language had no word for “animal” as a separate category until the spread of Christianity. Animal cults flourished outside the established state temples for much of Egyptian history and animals played a critical role in Egypt’s spiritual life. The gods themselves sometimes took animal form. Horus, the patron god of Egypt, was often portrayed with the head of a hawk; Thoth, the scribe god, was represented as an ibis or a baboon; and the fertility goddess Hathor was depicted as a cow. Even the pharaohs revered animals, and at least a few royal pets were mummified. In 1400 B.C., the pharaoh Amenhotep II went to the afterlife accompanied by his hunting dog, and a decade later his heir Thutmose IV was buried with a royal cat.
However, large numbers of mummies in dedicated animal necropolises did not appear until after the fall of the New Kingdom, around 1075 B.C. During the subsequent chaotic 400-year span known as the Third Intermediate Period, the central Egyptian state collapsed and a series of local dynasties and foreign kings rose and fell in rapid succession. This time is often depicted as calamitous in official accounts, but Bleiberg notes that during the First Intermediate Period, a similarly chaotic era without central authority that lasted from 2181 to 2055 B.C., life for the average Egyptian went on as normal. In fact, University of Cambridge Egyptologist Barry Kemp has shown that villagers were relatively prosperous during this time, perhaps because they paid taxes only to local authorities, and not to the central state. If life in the Third Intermediate Period was similar, then the average Egyptian may have had more disposable income. With no pharaoh to mediate Egypt’s relationship to the gods, and with foreigners undermining religious traditions, there was also a turn to personal piety among the general public. “Without the pharaoh, people needed to approach the gods on their own,” says Bleiberg.