Today is the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the first step of the stairs leading down into the tomb of Tutankhamun. People usually talk about the young king, but his tomb offers information related to a number of other topics, such as animal mummies for one.
The tomb of Tutankhamun yielded 48 containers filled with … the king’s provisions for the Underworld (these are the white containers under the cow-shaped bed in the uppermost photo). These are the so-called victual mummies, a very interesting type of mummy separated by scientists from the large collection of mummified animals.
Mummies of this type resembled the dishes enjoyed by the king and aristocracy in life (the average Egyptian, from the lower social strata, rarely ate meat). These could be, for example, ribs, shoulder (see the photo above), beef leg, liver or poultry: duck, goose or even pigeon. Interestingly, researchers have found that these cuts were prepared in some way, possibly roasted. However, it is not clear whether this was actually due to culinary processing or whether the “roasted” appearance was the result of pouring hot resin over the meat during the mummification process.
Such cuts of meat, of a cow for example, or whole ducks, were preserved with salt or natron, rubbed with oil, bandaged, poured with resin, and then placed inside wooden containers. The boxes were covered with a resinous substance that is a shiny black today, or a coat of white plaster—the containers found in the tomb of Tutankhamun were plastered in this way. The shape of these containers could be either oval or generally rounded, as in King Tut’s tomb, or resembling the poultry stored in the boxes (see photo below). Examples of such containers made of calcite and limestone have also been found, although the contents in these cases was not necessarily mummified.
Such provisions were meant to provide the deceased with food for eternity. It was not the only food for the dead, because richly set offering tables and long lists of offerings, including food, were painted on the walls of the tombs. These offerings kept coming back to be consumed time and again precisely because they were presented in this way. Moreover, real food offerings were brought by the living to the outer chapels of the tombs as part of the rituals for the dead. The food was symbolically intended for one of the types of the soul of the deceased (ka), but in the end they were often consumed by the priests. Some remains of pieces of meat, placed on bowls and left inside the tomb as offerings for the deceased, were found untouched in some of the Old Kingdom tombs discovered by archaeologists in the 20th century. In some other cases, all that remains are the limestone containers.
Finds of victual animal mummies, however, are quite rare and come from a slightly later period, that is, the late Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, from the tombs of royals and dignitaries.
UPPERMOST: Part of the Antechamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb, with containers encapsulating victual mummies (under the bed). Thebes, Valley of the Kings. 18th Dynasty, New Kingdom. © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Institute.
MIDDLE: Fragment of a victual mummy, a scapula in a container and LOWER: a container for the victual mummy of a pigeon. Both probably from the tomb of Prince Amenemhat (MMA No. 1021) in Thebes. 18th Dynasty, New Kingdom. Currently in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, Inv. Nos. 19.3.289a, b and 19.3.247. Rogers Fund, 1919. www.metmuseum.org, Public Domain, Creative Commons Zero.
Current study of animal mummies as part of the Warsaw Mummy Project is covered from Kamila Braulińska’s research grant awarded by National Science Centre Poland (NSC/NCN, Grant No. 2019/35/N/HS3/04438, Egyptian animal mummies in Poland: Non-invasive and historical research as part of Polish Animal Mummy Project).