A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A curator of animal mummies finds a doorway into ancient Egyptian life.
"The dead dog. I love that dog," says Salima Ikram, enthusiastically. The dead dog? A royal pet, it perished more than three thousand years ago and was mummified and placed in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Now it is in Ikram's care in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Ikram patiently answers my questions about her work, including the Animal Mummy Project, a cooperative undertaking between the Egyptian Museum and the American University in Cairo, her home base. She had recently completed a reexamination of the museum's 200-plus animal mummies. "They were last studied at the turn of the twentieth century," she notes. "The book on them came out in 1905. The new nonhuman-mummies volume in the Catalogue General of the Egyptian Museum just came out this year." Modestly, she doesn't tell me that she wrote the new volume herself. "This morning I was cleaning one of these 18-foot-long mummified crocodiles," she says, "and suddenly discovered that there was a baby crocodile in its mouth. It was amazing! I was going behind its jaws, and I thought it was just some funny part of the nose that's broken off, and it turned out to be a wee crocodile. It's great!"
Now open, the renovated animal mummy exhibition looks good and has eight thousand or more visitors a week. Says Ikram, "The animals look fab, especially the crocodiles."
Since 2001, Ikram has directed, with Corinna Rossi, the North Kharga Oasis Survey (NKOS), a five-year-long collaborative project between AUC and the University of Cambridge that is recording ancient remains in the Kharga Oasis in Egypt's Western Desert. The largest of the oases, Kharga stretches 115 miles north-south, and up to 300 miles east-west. Its most impressive remains are of a series of forts built in the fourth century by the emperor Diocletian to strengthen Rome's frontiers. In places, their mud-brick towers still stand to a height of nearly fifty feet.
A typical NKOS day? "An early start, lots of mad driving around the desert, miles of walking and sketching, and then running around holding prisms at improbable angles so that the theodolite, the surveyor's transit, can pick them up," says Ikram, who works as housekeeper, director, zooarchaeologist, mummification specialist, mortuary archaeologist, photographer, field walker, and sometimes prism holder. Her codirector Rossi, from Cambridge, is the project's organizer, chauffeur, mapmaker, and military architecture specialist. So far, the team has located three new settlement sites and documented two others, plus three fortresses. "We've also identified another temple and learned a great deal about the irrigation system of the oasis, which was quite complex," says Ikram. "This season we will be working on two temple sites and exploring a route between the Kharga and Dakhla oases, where we hope to find evidence of long-term trade and occupation."
Mark Rose is executive editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.
Salima Ikram's books include two co-authored with Aidan Dodson, The Royal Mummies (American University in Cairo: Cairo, 1997) and The Mummy in Ancient Egypt (Thames & Hudson: New York, 1998), and a third in the works about tombs in ancient Egypt. Her newest book is Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt (Longman: New York, 2003). In addition to her scholarly publications, Ikram penned a series of children's books--The Pharaohs, Land and People, Egyptology, Mummies and Tombs, and Gods and Temples--that were published by Hoopoe Books (Los Altos, CA) in 1997 and 1998. Her latest is a children's catalog of the Egyptian Museum animal mummies, to be published in Arabic and English, that she wrote at the urging of Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, who also arranged funding for it.