The Calvin Wells Archive Collection has its fair share of weird and wonderful items which reflect the doctor’s endeavors in palaeopathology, archaeology, palaeopathology, and Egyptology. These items are primarily historical records in the form of research notes, correspondence, photographs, radiographs, transparencies, and audio-visual material. There are exceptions however, and one peculiar bird-shaped object has left the Putting Flesh on the Bones team stumped. See image and x-ray image below:
The object is approx 30cm x 7cm.
In the spirit of the classic BBC gameshow ‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral’ – hosted by Wells’ close friend Glyn Daniel – we are asking our specialist audience to help us identify the object. If we cannot get the correct answer, we might at least be able to get a few interesting ones.
To our happy surprise Calvin’s mystery object generated a lot of conversation among archaeologists, biological anthropologists and palaeopathologists on Facebook and Twitter. Some of the more interesting answers included a child’s toy, a replica human organ and a bag-pipe. The most common – and convincing – answer we received is that it is a fake mummified bird, or a fake mummified African sacred ibis to be precise.
Spot the resemblance? An African sacred ibis feeding (via Wikipedia)
It was extremely common for the Ancient Egyptians to trade in mummified animals, and they often contained only traces or remnants of the original creature. These mummies served as votive gifts or effigies to be used in religious ceremonies and acts of worship. Given that Calvin had a deep interest in Ancient Egypt and the process of mummification it would seem fitting that he would own a mummified ibis.
Following this lead we contacted Dr Lidija McKnight, Egyptologist and expert in mummified animal remains, and Andrew Chamberlain, Professor of Bioarchaeology, at the University of Manchester. Based on our photographs, they have concluded that the object is not a mummy but rather a bird decoy. In Dr McKnight’s own words:
‘Rather than scaring birds away (like a scare crow), the sight of an ibis-type bird feeding, would have lulled other birds into a sense of security, perhaps allowing the opportunity for capture’
It is possible that at some point the object had a legs, hence the hole in the bottom of the torso, and could be placed standing up. Like our respondents, Dr McKnight suggested that we get the object carbon dated in order to verify whether it is indeed ancient. This is our next step and we will keep you posted.
Thanks to Dr Lidija McKnight, Professor Andrew Chamberlain and all our expert respondents on Facebook and Twitter.