Archive for the ‘Wetenswaardig/Worth Knowing’ Category

STIAS lesing/lecture: Prof Salima Ikram

Thursday, October 30th, 2014



U word vriendelik uitgenooi na die sesde openbare STIAS lesing van 2014. Die geleentheid bied aan akademici, navorsers en studente van die US en in die Wes-Kaap, sowel as belangstellendes vanuit die publiek, die kans om meer te wete te kom oor STIAS genote en assosiate se werksaamhede.

By hierdie geleentheid sal professor Salima Ikram

Professor in Egiptologie aan die  Amerikaanse Universiteit in Kaïro

en STIAS genoot ‘n aanbieding gee met die titel:


‘May They Live Forever: Ancient Egyptian Mummies’


You are cordially invited to attend the sixth public STIAS lecture of 2014. This presents an opportunity to academics, researchers and students at SU and in the Western Cape, as well as members of the public, to learn more about the work of STIAS fellows and associates.

On this occasion Professor Salima Ikram

Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo

and STIAS fellow will present a talk with the title:


May They Live Forever: Ancient Egyptian Mummies



Ancient Egyptian mummies have gripped the popular imagination from early times. Mummies have been regarded as immortals, a source of medicine, terrifying monsters, and objects of curiosity. Now they are regarded as an invaluable source of information of funerary beliefs, technology, ancient diet, and the health of the ancient Egyptians. This lecture explores the history of mummies from their inception, into their most recent incarnations in Egypt.  The evolving details of mummification over time will be explained, with attention paid to methods of wrapping and the jewellery and amulets included within the wrappings. The talk will also summarize the ways in which scholars now use their analysis of mummies in order to elucidate the history, economy, culture, and religion of ancient Egypt.

Datum Woensdag 12 November 2014
Tyd 13:00
Plek JC de Wet lesingsaal, Ou Hoofgebou 1023 – Ryneveld Straat, Universiteit Stellenbosch

Ons sien daarna uit om u by hierdie geleentheid te verwelkom  –  moet dit nie misloop nie! Vir meer inligting kontak vir Felicia McDonald by 021 808 2581 of

Date Wednesday 12 November 2014
Time 13:00
Place JC de Wet lecture hall, Ou Hoofgebou 1023 – Ryneveld Street, Stellenbosch University

We look forward to welcoming you at this event  –  not to be missed!

For more information, contact Felicia McDonald at 021 808 2581 or

Dr. Salima Ikram is Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, and has worked in Egypt since 1986. She has lived in Pakistan, the US, UK and Egypt. After double majoring in History as well as Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology at Bryn Mawr College (USA), she received her M. Phil. (in Museology and Egyptian Archaeology) and Ph.D. (in Egyptian archaeology) from Cambridge University. She has directed the Animal Mummy Project, co-directed the Predynastic Gallery project, and is Director of the North Kharga Oasis Darb Ain Amur Survey.

Dr. Ikram has worked on several excavations in Egypt as well as in the Sudan, Greece, and Turkey. Her research interests include death, daily life, archaeozoology, ethnoarchaeology, rock art, experimental archaeology, and the preservation and presentation of cultural heritage. She has lectured on these and other subjects all over the world. Dr. Ikram has written several books (for adults and children) and articles, with subject matters ranging from mummification to the eating habits of the ancient Egyptians. She has also appeared on television.

Looking inside Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies/’n Kykie binne Antieke Egiptiese Dieremummies

Thursday, August 16th, 2012


Interfacing Ancient Studies and modern technology

Prof. Sakkie Cornelius, Dr. Anton du Plessis, Dr. Ruhan Slabbert

The ancient Egyptians believed in life after death and mummified their dead to preserve the body for “eternity”. However, they also mummified animals. As a matter of fact, they mummified many more animals than humans. Mummified animals included pets such as cats and dogs which accompanied their owners into the afterlife. Sacred animals such as the Apis bull were mummified after they died and even the flesh of animals (cuts of beef and whole ducks) were wrapped and placed as food offerings in tombs.

The largest number of mummified animals, of which there are millions, can be classified as votive offerings to certain deities: the cat (Felis spp.) to Bastet, the ibis (family Threskiornithidae) to Thoth and the falcon (family Falconidae) to Horus. Votive mummies of animals were especially popular in the Graeco-Roman period (after 300 BC and ending with the advent of Christianity during the 4th century AD). These mummies served as a “prayer” to a certain deity, donated by pilgrims and ritually buried in special containers in catacombs.

The animals could be deliberately killed by breaking the neck or crushing the skull and then eviscerated and covered in natron for drying and finally bandaged. Certain animals were possibly bred on a commercial scale (as in the case of the ibis, but probably not the falcon). Some animal mummies are mere fakes (as a result of the “commercialisation” of mummification), consisting only of bundles of plant material and filled with mud or bandages, or some bone fragments.

Iziko Museums in Cape Town house a collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts, among these are animal mummies. On 28 June and 11 October 2012 four bird mummies and what is presumed to be a cat mummy were scanned at the Computed Tomography (CT) scanner at CAF (Central Analytical Facilities) of the University of Stellenbosch using a state of the art industrial x-ray CT scanner. This new facility (see is open to academic and commercial users and allows one to investigate objects non-destructively in full 3D, therefore allowing high definition viewing of the inside of the mummies without physically opening them.

The aim of the scan was to determine whether the mummies are mere fakes and if they contain bone fragments or whole skeletons. Normal x-ray images (also possible with this instrument) are useful for this purpose but the additional information gained by the CT scan helps to accurately and easily measure bone fragment dimensions and thereby allows the identification of the species of animal.

It was established that the one bird is a fake presumably containing only some plant material and mud, the second only contains a claw, and the third and fourth both contain a complete bird skeleton. The “cat” has only a partial front and full hind body and limbs preserved. The next step will be to determine the date (radiocarbon dating) of the objects, how the animals were killed, the substances used in the process of mummification, whether the “cat” is indeed a cat and what species of bird is involved.

This project was undertaken by the Department of Ancient Studies (Prof. Sakkie Cornelius and Ms. Liani Swanepoel), CAF (Drs. Anton du Plessis and Ruhan Slabbert) and Iziko Museums (with thanks to Ms. Lalou Meltzer, Director: Social History Collections and Ms. Esther Esmyol and her team).



Antieke Studie en moderne tegnologie

Prof. Sakkie Cornelius, Dr. Anton du Plessis, Dr. Ruhan Slabbert

Die antieke Egiptenare het in ’n lewe na die dood geglo en hulle dooies gemummifiseer om die liggaam vir die “ewigheid” te bewaar. Hulle het egter ook diere gemummifiseer. Trouens, hulle het veel meer diere as mense gemummifiseer. Gemummifiseerde diere het troeteldiere soos katte en honde ingesluit wat hulle eienaars in die lewe na die dood vergesel het. Heilige diere soos die Apisbul is na hulle dood gemummifiseer en selfs die vleis van diere (beessnitte en heel eende) is toegedraai en as voedseloffers in grafte geplaas.

Die grootste aantal gemummifiseerde diere, waarvan daar miljoene is, kan as wydingsoffers aan sekere godhede beskou word: die kat (Felis spp.) aan Bastet, die ibis (familie Threskiornithidae) aan Thoth en die valk (familie Falconidae) aan Horus. Sulke dieremummies was veral in die Grieks-Romeinse periode (na 300 v.C. en eindig met die koms van die Christendom gedurende die 4de eeu n.C.) gewild. Hierdie mummies het as ’n “gebed” aan ’n sekere godheid gedien. Hulle is deur pelgrims geskenk en in spesiale houers in katakombes begrawe.

Die diere kon opsetlik gedood word deur die nek te breek of die skedel te verbrysel. Daarna word hulle ingewande eers uitgehaal en dan word die karkas met natron uitgedroog en toegedraai. Sekere diere is moontlik selfs op kommersiële skaal geteel (soos in die geval van die ibis, maar waarskynlik nie die valk nie). Sommige dieremummies is suiwer namaaksels (as gevolg van die “kommersialisering” van mummifikasie) wat slegs uit bondels plantmateriaal gevul met modder of verbande of enkele beenfragmente bestaan.

Iziko Museums in Kaapstad huisves ’n versameling antieke Egiptiese artefakte, hieronder tel ook dieremummies. Op 28 Junie en 11 Oktober 2012 is vier voëlmummies en wat as ’n katmummie beskou word by die Rekenaartomografie-skandeerder (CT-skandeerder) [Computed Tomography (CT)] by SAF (Sentrale Analitiese Fasiliteite) van die Universiteit van Stellenbosch met ’n allernuutste industriële x-straal CT-skandeerder geskandeer. Dié nuwe fasiliteit (sien is oop vir akademiese en kommersiële gebruikers en bied nie-destruktiewe ondersoeking van voorwerpe in volle 3D. Sodoende is hoë definisie besigtiging van die binnekant van die mummies sonder om hulle fisies oop te maak, bewerkstellig.

Die doel van die skandering was om te bepaal of die mummies suiwer namaaksels is en of hulle beenfragmente of volledige geraamtes bevat. Normale x-straalbeelde (ook moontlik met hierdie instrument) is nuttig vir hierdie doel, maar die bykomende inligting wat deur die CT-skandering verkry is, help om die afmetings van beenfragmente noukeurig en maklik te bepaal en maak hierdeur die identifikasie van die dierspesie moontlik.

Daar is vasgestel dat die een voël ’n namaaksel is wat vermoedelik ’n hoeveelheid plantmateriaal en modder bevat, die tweede bevat slegs ’n klou, en die derde en vierde bevat beide ’n volledige voëlskelet. Die “kat” het slegs ’n gedeeltelike voorlyf en volle agterlyf en ledemate wat bewaar is. Die volgende stap is om die voorwerpe te dateer (radiokoolstof) en te bepaal hoe die diere gedood is, watter stowwe in die mummifikasieproses gebruik is, of die “kat” inderdaad ’n kat is en watter voëlspesie betrokke is.

Hierdie projek is deur die Departement Antieke Studie (prof. Sakkie Cornelius en me. Liani Swanepoel), SAF (drs. Anton du Plessis en Ruhan Slabbert) en Iziko Museums (met dank aan me. Lalou Meltzer, Direkteur: Sosiaal-Historiese Versamelings en me. Esther Esmyol en haar span) onderneem.

Click here for a three dimensional video of the one bird mummy with complete skeleton.
Kliek hier vir ‘n driedimensionele video van die een voëlmummie met volledige skelet.
Click here for a three dimensional video of the other bird mummy with complete skeleton.
Kliek hier vir ‘n driedimensionele video van die ander voëlmummie met volledige skelet.
Click here for a three dimensional video of the “cat” mummy.
Kliek hier vir ‘n driedimensionele video van die “kat”mummie.
2012 © Ancient Studies & CAF, University of Stellenbosch

Dr. Anton du Plessis, Prof. Sakkie Cornelius and Dr. Ruhan Slabbert.
Dr. Anton du Plessis, prof. Sakkie Cornelius en dr. Ruhan Slabbert.
(© Ancient Studies)


One of the bird mummies inside the CT scanner.
Een van die voëlmummies binne die CT-skandeerder.
(© Ancient Studies)


The one mummified bird in the form of a Horusfalcon showing its wrappings.
Die een gemummifiseerde voël in die vorm van ’n Horusvalk.
(© Iziko Museums + Photograph Carina Beyer)


Three dimensional rendering from CT scan data showing a bird claw without the rest of the body (the rest of the material including bandages, mud and plant material surrounding the claw was removed by thresholding in this image).
Driedimensionele beeld van CT-skanderingsdata wat ’n voëlklou toon sonder die res van die lyf (die res van die materiaal insluitende verbande, modder en plantmateriaal wat die klou omring, is deur beeldsegmentasie [thresholding] in hierdie beeld verwyder).
(© CAF)


The other mummified bird in a bitumen wrapping.
Die ander gemummifiseerde voël in ’n bitumenhuls.
(© Iziko Museums + Photograph Carina Beyer)


Three dimensional rendering from CT scan data showing a full bird skeleton.
Driedimensionele beeld van CT-skanderingsdata wat ’n volledige voëlskelet toon.
(© CAF)


The other bird mummy in linen wrappings.
Die ander voëlmummie in linne toegedraai.
(© Iziko Museums + Photograph Carina Beyer)


Three dimensional rendering from CT scan data showing a full bird skeleton.
Driedimensionele beeld van CT-skanderingsdata wat ’n volledige voëlskelet toon.
(© CAF)


The “cat” mummy.
Die “kat”mummie.
(© Iziko Museums + Photograph Carina Beyer)


Three dimensional rendering from CT scan data showing persumably a cat with a partial front and full hind body and limbs.
Driedimensionele beeld van CT-skanderingsdata wat vermoedelik ’n kat toon met ’n gedeeltelike voorlyf en volledige agterlyf en ledemate.
(© CAF)


The other “bird” mummy.
Die ander “voël”mummie.
(Iziko Museums + Photograph Carina Beyer)


Three dimensional cross-section from CT scan data showing that the “bird” mummy is a fake stuffed with plant material and mud.
Driedimensionele deursnee van CT-skanderingsdata wat toon dat die “voël”mummie ’n namaaksel is wat met plantmateriaal en modder gevul is.
(© CAF)



The pyramids of Meroë in the Sudan – Stephanie Nieuwoudt

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

The Sudan gets a lot of bad press. But this country also boasts wonderful pyramids – even more than those found in Egypt. Stephanie Nieuwoudt visited one of the sites.

As the wind whipped my skirt around my thighs, the sand stuck to my face because of the heat induced perspiration. But I did not care. I was standing on a red sand dune at Meroë, ancient burial grounds of around forty kings and queens of the Meroitic kingdom.

Holy ground indeed.

In his book, Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux describes camping under the stars at the foot of the burial place of the ancient Meroitic royals that ruled the area between 300 BC and 300 AD. Theroux conjures a romantic setting of a night spent in the open with only the canvas of a little tent between him and the surrounding desert.  

Maybe it is because of the remoteness and stillness of the surrounding desert that one comes so strongly under the impression of sacred rituals enacted here hundreds of years ago.

In literature about these pyramids, much is made about the fact that they are smaller than the ones found in Egypt. But what makes this site special is the number of pyramids rising from the desert floor. More than fifty of these structures dot the landscape in two different ancient burial places. The North Cemetery contains 44 pyramids while there are more than ten in the South Cemetery.

Being one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt is on most travellers’ list of things to see and tourists abound. In contrast Sudan is not yet on any well-trodden tourist route. A protracted civil war in the south of the country has kept tourists away. And although international captains of commerce are increasingly investing in the Sudan, it seems unlikely that the country will soon be bustling with tourist activity given that it is for all practical purposes still a police state governed by strict Muslim laws which prevent the erection of nightclubs, movie theatres and other forms of entertainment which attract tourists.

The upside is that on a blisteringly hot Saturday there were only six visitors at Meroë as well as Ali the caretaker, a few camel riders and a handful of locals selling artefacts.

The Meroë site, about a three hour car journey from the capital Khartoum, is one of several burial sites found in the Sudan. There are royal pyramids at El-Kurru, Nuri Jebel and Barkal. But these sites are far from Khartoum and can not be reached as part of  a day excursion.

The Meroë pyramids are younger than the royal pyramids at El-Kurru a city in the ancient kingdom of Napata,  which was built by Piye – also known as Piankhy – (747 BC to 716 BC), son of Kashta, ruler of Napata. Piye famously conquered Egypt and became one of a long list of Pharaohs.

This cross-cultural influence can be seen in the basic shape of the pyramids as well as the scenes depicted in the relief work on the inside walls of the structures.

In 591 BC the Napata dynasty was conquered by Egypt and the capital of Kush (the ancient name given to a region which included a part of Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt) eventually moved to Meroë which by 330 BC was a flourishing economic centre.

The ancients grew crops and traded food and livestock with other people nomadic and otherwise.  Historians believe that the ancient city of Meroë was much more fertile than it is today. The once thriving city is situated on the east bank of the Nile but throughout the centuries conditions have turned the landscape into a desert area. The Meroë pyramids are therefore today situated on red sand.

Ali, who is not only caretaker but also self-appointed guide of the site at Meroë, is effusive. “Beeble, beeble,” he keeps on repeating while pointing to the relief figures. It takes a few seconds to realize that beeble means people. And there are indeed many “beeble”. Kings and queens, slaves and half human half animal beings reminding one of the reliefs seen in Egypt.

Ali, a thin man covered in the traditional white robes of the Muslim men of this area, energetically moves from one pyramid to the other. Unfortunately his command of English does not match his infectious eagerness to show off the pyramids. In spite of not understanding his mostly Arabic chatter, one gets the distinct impression that he feels a strong sense of ownership and is proud of these centuries’ old structures.

Although he doesn’t know the English words for many of the pictures, he points to the distinctly Egyptian influenced scales of justice, the falcon headed Horus, god of the sky, Isis, goddess of magic and protector of the dead and Osiris, brother and husband to Isis.

Also depicted are slaves chained to each other, proof that the ancient kings and queens of this ancient land were not averse to enslaving others – most probably other peoples they had defeated.

The pyramids of Meroë are known by the number allocated to them by archaeologists in modern times. Pyramid number six, the one where Queen Amanishakhete was buried in the First Century BC has a depiction of the queen pushing a spear into the necks of a group of prisoners

What is one to make of this scene? Is it a show of strength by an omnipotent queen or a sign of weakening power?

Unfortunately time has wrought much damage to the pyramids and in most cases only parts of a relief has been preserved.

However, most of the damage seems to have been done by an Italian fortune hunter Giuseppe Ferlini who in 1834 received permission from the then ruler of Sudan, Ali Kurshid Pasha to look for treasure at Meroë.

According to literature on the subject Ferlini was impatient to find the treasures he believed to be buried inside the pyramids and to speed up his work, he used dynamite to blow the tops off some of the structures.

He left few records of what he found. He merely gathered all the treasures he could, took them to Europe and sold it. He lived a rich man’s life. Yet some of the treasures have found its way to museums in Germany.

Before Ferlini there were other excavators dating back from ancient times who robbed the pyramids carrying away priceless goblets, jewellery and other artefacts.

To date, no mummies have been found at Meroë, but according to dr. Julie Anderson, a curator at the Egyptian and Sudan division of the British Museum,  fragments of wooden coffins suggest that some of the mummification rituals – more specifically wrapping of bodies – was followed. It is unknown whether the bodies were treated with natron and resins or left to mummify naturally.

Ancient tomb raiders left no mummies or coffins, Ferlini did his share of damage and some modern visitors still  think it is acceptable to chop away pieces of relief to take home.

Reconstruction work on the Meroë pyramids was started in the 1970’s by the Sudan Antiquities Service and some Western partners.  Some of the  restoration includes the installation of prefabricated roof slabs, glass bricks in the slabs to let in light to view the relief work and modern brickwork. In some cases the result seems slightly incongruous with the modern building materials forming a sharp contrast to the much older stone used by the original builders.

Although there are over 500 pyramids at the different sites in Sudan, Anderson says it is difficult to specify exactly how many there are as new discoveries are still occurring and not all cemeteries have been fully investigated by archaeologists. As recently as 2003 a team from the Sudan Archaeological Research Society discovered the remains of a small granite pyramid in a previously unknown site in the region of the 4th Cataract of the Nile.

The centres of the pyramids at Meroë were in ancient times filled with rubble and earth which can still be seen today lending an air of abandon to the site.

It also makes the pyramids seem much more fragile that the mammoth structures in Egypt. And it might be this sense of fragility that causes the  surge of anger at the four other visitors who take turns climbing to the top of the largest pyramid where they pose for the all important tourist memento: the photograph. Proving to friends and family back home that a specific site was indeed visited.

With his robes flapping in the wind, Ali rushes to the pyramid and with a barrage of Arabic words he manages to convey his fury.  It is difficult to say whether it is Ali or simply a feeling that they had seen enough, but the tourists leave immediately.

Some of the treasures carried away from the site at Meroë have over the years found their way to museums in Germany as well as the British Museum in London.

Back in Khartoum a Sudanese journalist says  he thinks his government is not doing enough to preserve the country’s heritage.

“Our national treasures are in a terrible state. Look at Meroë. Our pyramids can be as famous as those in Egypt. But the Sudanese are careless. We do not realize the potential of the pyramids to attract tourists.”

Of course he is right. But it is not only a lack of a tourism plan that keeps tourists away. Many potential tourists fear the frequent outbreaks of violence in the Sudan. On the other hand, one shudders at the thought of throngs of visitors at the site. But it is also a pity that these treasures are largely unknown of by the general public.

Stephanie Nieuwoudt
Journalist, translator, editor /
Joernalis, vertaler, redigeerder
SAFREA Member / lid
+27 (0)83 297 8785