Carol Ann Barsodi, a graduate student in archeology at Cornell University, was looking for a case study of her research. She focuses on how different technologies are used in museum exhibits, and how they can affect current exhibition practices, repatriation of artifacts and access to collections.
Enter Frederick Gleich, Senior Lecturer and Curator of Anthropology Groups at Cornell.
As he approached Barsodi, Gleach recalled that a colleague from another department had called a decade earlier to ask if Gleach wanted the little mummies he had found in a closet. There were no records showing where they came from or what was inside.
After retrieving the artifacts from that treasury, Gleach later discovered that one of them was only filled with twigs. However, the other mummy had proof: it was in a box labeled “The Hawk Mummy”.
It takes the village
Barsodi and Glitch took the package to Cornell University Animal Hospital to get a better look at what was inside. Without disturbing the mummy, the imaging technician took x-rays — a type of X-ray — and performed a computerized tomography (CT) scan.
What appeared was not a hawk. It was an ibis.
CT scans also revealed that some soft tissue remains intact, which were at least 1,000 years old, and possibly even 2,000 to 3,000 years old, according to Gleach.
After making the rounds again, Barsodi and Glitch brought the artifact to Vanya Rohor, curator of birds and mammals at the Cornell Vertebrate Museum, to confirm the bird’s accurate identification.
The sacred ibis is a long-legged wading bird, mostly white with a black head and neck, with some black feathers in its tail. It can be found in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East but is no longer found in Egypt.
According to Barsodi, the mummified bird’s entire head was pulled back to its body, and researchers determined that its rib cage and sternum removal, was not a typical Egyptian mummification practice.
Stuffed ibis were common in ancient Egypt.
The Egyptians mummified many animals, including domestic animals, to serve as companions in the afterlife with whom they were buried. In her research, Barsodi found that sacred ibis were mummified as offerings to the god Thoth in temples.
Barsodi decided that the mummified sacred ibis would be her case study. But she needs to know more about the bird.
How did you get to Cornell?
Barsodi had found minutes from a Cornell Board of Trustees meeting in 1884 detailing the arrival of a human mummy called Penny. But there was no mention of other artifacts. Impasse.
To get more clues, another option could be radiocarbon dating, a process in which carbon is measured from organic materials (such as soft tissue) to determine the age of the person in question.
But Gleach said more material must be extracted than is needed for a simple DNA test.
“I’m hesitant to sacrifice materials in order to do so much archaeological work,” Glitch said. “In particular, radiocarbon dating is inherently destructive…once the sample is burned for radiocarbon dating, it’s gone.”
Barsodi and Glitch turned to Dr. Eric Leadbeater, professor and chair of the department of ophthalmology at Cornell University, about extracting DNA from soft tissue.
After examining the mummy, Ledbetter confirmed that such a procedure could be done through endoscopic microsurgery, Gleich said.
“It’s precise enough to be able to enter either through the hole in the cloth which can be seen in the front of the mummy or through the gauze of the cloth itself,” he said.
The DNA will be extracted within two weeks, according to Barsodi. The organic material will then be sent to a laboratory where it will be referenced along with a database consisting of sacred ibis DNA samples taken from tombs and temples at archaeological sites in ancient Egypt.
If the DNA matches another sacred ibis from the database, Barsodi said she should be able to determine which temple her mummified bird originally came from, and thus its age and area of origin.
Coming to a screen near you
In addition to discovering the story behind the mummy bird, Barsodi is working to create an accessible, educational experience of multisensory exhibition for potential museum-goers.
In collaboration with Jack Davey, an undergraduate student in electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University, she has created a low-cost 3D rendering of the mummy and plans to open an exhibition in October of two sections — one with the stuffed bird, the other with the hologram.
The 3D rendering process involved taking hundreds of photos of the artifact from all angles using a smartphone.
Defay used the images with open source software to digitize the artifact, a process that could allow smaller museums to display artifacts that are inaccessible due to lending costs, including insurance and transportation.
Visitors will be able to see both by the end of their stay and will be asked if they’d prefer to see the original or if they are happy with the hologram alternative.
Bring the bird to everyone
If it’s on its way, Barsodi’s stuffed bird project will be shared outside of the gallery, through a tech package that can be downloaded to mobile phones, tablets or computers in towns away from museums or during pandemic times when people are not visiting museums.
“I come from a very small city, and we don’t have any museums near where I grew up or that are easily accessible. Really the first time I was able to visit a museum was when I was in university, which is crazy to think of.”
People can compare the size of an artifact to everyday household items, such as a pen or a penny, or in the case of a mummy bird, learn what the call of a male sacred ibis might sound.
“I wanted to give it the multisensory class so that it could be suitable for all learners — just in case someone has a visual impairment, they can still handle something with touch and sound,” Barsodi said.