Carol Anne Barsody, a graduate student in archeology at Cornell University, was looking for a case study for her research. She focuses on how different technologies can be used in museum exhibitions and how they might impact current exhibition practices, the repatriation of artifacts, and access to collections.
Enter Frederic Gleach, lecturer and curator of Cornell’s Anthropology Collections.
Approached by Barsody, Gleach recalled 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 was no trace of where they came from or what they contained.
After retrieving the two artifacts from this closet, Gleach would later discover that one of them was only filled with twigs. However, the other mummy had a clue: it was in a box labeled “falcon mummy”.
It takes a village
Barsody and Gleach took the package to Cornell University Hospital for Animals to get a better look at what was inside. Without disturbing the mummy, an imaging technician took x-rays — a type of X-ray — and performed a computed tomography (CT) scan.
What appeared was not a hawk. It was an ibis.
The scan also revealed that some soft tissue was still intact, at least 1,000 years old, possibly 2,000 to 3,000 years old, according to Gleach.
Making the rounds once more, Barsody and Gleach took the artifact to Vanya Rohwer, curator of birds and mammals at the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates, to confirm the correct identification of the bird.
A sacred ibis is a long-legged, mostly white wading bird with a black head and neck, with a few black feathers in its tail. They are 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 up to its body, and researchers determined that its ribcage and sternum had been removed, which was not typical Egyptian mummification practice, according to Barsody.
Mummified sacred ibises were common in ancient Egypt.
The Egyptians mummified many animals, including pets, to serve as companions in the afterlife with whom they were buried. Sacred ibises, however, were mummified as offerings to the god Thoth in temples, Barsody found in his research.
The mummified sacred ibis would be his case study, Barsody decided. But she needed to know more about the bird.
How did he get to Cornell?
Barsody had found the minutes of an 1884 Cornell board meeting that detailed the arrival of a human mummy called Penpi. But there was no mention of other artifacts. Deadlock.
To glean more clues, another option could be radiocarbon dating, a process in which carbon is measured from organic matter (like soft tissue) to determine the age of the subject.
But Gleach said more material would have to be extracted than is needed for a simple DNA test.
“I’m reluctant to sacrifice hardware to do so much archaeological work,” Gleach said. “In particular, radiocarbon dating is inherently destructive…Once you burn the sample to run radiocarbon dating, it’s gone.”
Barsody and Gleach turned to Dr. Eric Ledbetter, professor and section chief of ophthalmology at Cornell, to extract the DNA from the soft tissues.
After inspecting the mummy, Ledbetter confirmed that such a procedure could be performed by endoscopic microsurgery, Gleach said.
“It’s precise enough to be able to pass either through the hole in the fabric that is visible on the front of the mummy or through the gauze of the fabric itself,” he said.
The DNA will be extracted in a few weeks, according to Barsody. Then the organic material will be sent to a lab where it will be cross-checked against a database of sacred ibis DNA samples collected from tombs and temples at ancient Egyptian archaeological sites.
If the DNA matches another sacred ibis in the database, Barsody said she should be able to determine her mummified bird’s temple of origin, then its age and region of origin.
Come to a screen near you
In addition to uncovering the story behind the mummy bird, Barsody is working to create an easily accessible multi-sensory exhibit learning experience for future museum visitors.
Working with Jack Defay, an electrical and computer engineering undergraduate at Cornell, she created a low-cost 3D rendering of the mummy and plans to open an exhibit in October with two sections – one with the mummified bird. and one with his hologram.
The 3D rendering process involved taking hundreds of photos of the artifact from all angles with a smartphone.
Defay used the photos with open-source software to digitize the artifact, a process that could allow smaller museums to showcase artifacts otherwise inaccessible due to loan costs, including insurance and transportation.
Visitors will be able to view both at the end of their stay and will be asked if they would prefer to see the original or if they are happy with the hologram substitute.
Bring the bird to everyone
If successful, Barsody’s mummified bird project will be shared beyond the exhibition, via a tech pack that can be downloaded to cellphones, tablets or computers in cities away from museums or in times of pandemic 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 easily accessible. Really, the first time I was able to visit a museum was when I was in college, which is crazy to think about.”
People could compare the size of an artifact with everyday household objects, like a pen or a penny, or in the case of the mummy bird, learn how the call of a male sacred ibis might sound.
“I wanted to give it the multi-sensory layer so it could be for all learners – just in case, like someone was visually impaired, they could still engage with an object that was both tactile and sound,” said Barsody.