Whilst researching a children’s book about London, I was intrigued to find out about mummies in the British Museum, and contacted one of the assistant keepers in the Egyptology Department, to arrange a meeting.
There are plenty of human mummies on display in the Museum, but there are also wrapped animals, including a crocodile, baboons, cats and even a tiny fish. The ancient Egyptians were very keen on mummifying cats as offerings to their goddess Bastet. Apparently temple visitors chose a ready-wrapped cat, paid a priest for it and hoped the goddess would appreciate their offering, but perhaps it was a sacred gift-shop scam as X-rays show there’s not always a whole animal in these mummies, sometimes just a couple of bones or even a piece of wood.
The assistant keeper was full of these bits of fascinating information, and very kindly let me see one of the Museum’s temperature-controlled storage rooms, where rows of mummies rested on racks, exuding a strong scent of resin and spices from their ancient wrappings.
I asked the assistant keeper about some of the more unusual things that have happened during his twenty-five years at the Museum. ‘Sometimes people make an appointment to talk to us because they believe they were ancient Egyptians in a past life,’ he told me. ‘A woman who claimed she was Nefertiti visited one of my colleagues. I had a visit from a man who believed he’d been a particular Pharaoh. When I mentioned this Pharaoh was unusual, as his front teeth were missing, my visitor promptly shot a pair of false front teeth out of his mouth. As far as he was concerned, this proved his point.’