Small Mummy at Cornell Wasn't What It Seemed

Carol Anne Barsody uncovers misidentified ibis
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 12, 2022 2:47 PM CDT

A football-sized mummy, thought to hold an ancient Egyptian hawk, actually holds "something sacred." When and how the remains ended up at Cornell University are unclear, and it's also unclear why the mummy was mislabeled as a hawk. But Carol Anne Barsody, a master's student in archaeology, recently discovered the error while researching how new technologies can benefit museums. Radiographs and CT scans revealed a male ibis inside the linen wrappings. The black-and-white wading bird was sacred to ancient Egyptians, who sacrificed them by the millions, per Live Science.

The sacrifices were in honor of Thoth (pronounced th-oath)—the ancient Egyptian god of writing, learning, and the moon, who is usually depicted with a human body and the head of an ibis, with a long curved beak. "Not only was this once a living creature that people of the day may have enjoyed watching stroll through the water," Barsody tells the Cornell Chronicle, "it also was, and is, something sacred, something religious." And despite being up to 2,000 years old, the CT scan showed its feathers and soft tissue are well-preserved. The scan also revealed the bird was "folded" into form, "with its head twisted back and its rib cage and sternum removed—an uncommon practice for the time," per Smithsonian.

Its leg was broken before mummification, while its beak was apparently broken after. Barsody plans to find out more without disturbing the mummy too much. She hopes DNA can be found in soft tissue extracted through endoscopic microsurgery. "It's precise enough to be able to go in either through the hole in the fabric that's visible on the front of the mummy or through the gauziness of the fabric itself," Frederic Gleach, curator of Cornell's anthropology collections, tells CNN. Barsody can then compare the DNA with ibis samples from across ancient Egypt's necropolises, to hopefully nail down the age and region from which the bird came. Meanwhile, she's working on a hologram version of the mummy as well as a 3D model. (More mummy stories.)

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