Oriental Institute Museum showcases ancient Egyptians’ veneration of birds

Birds played a vital role in the lives of the ancient Egyptians and were such a focus of religion and culture that they were mummified as offerings at temples. Visitors to the Oriental Institute Museum will be able to discover the world of birds in ancient Egypt through an exhibit that recreates the feel of a marsh from the Nile, complete with videos of birds flying overhead while the sounds of birds resonate in the gallery.

The special exhibition, “Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt,” will be presented from Oct. 16, 2012 to July 28, 2013, in the Oriental Institute Museum. It is the first exhibit to be mounted in the United States that explores the role of birds in ancient Egypt.

The exhibit includes several mummified birds along with 40 artifacts that emphasize how omnipresent birds were in ancient Egyptian culture. Those birds included ducks, ibises and other waterfowl as well as eagles, vultures and falcons, as well as more exotic birds such as ostriches. Some birds lived in the wild along the Nile while others were domesticated.

The exhibit primarily showcases objects from the Oriental Institute, many of which have never been exhibited, such as the legs for a folding stool that are beautifully inlaid in ivory in imitation of duck heads, the mummy of an eagle with remains of gilding, and a small bronze coffin topped with a figure of a falcon wearing a crown.

The show also includes treasures from other museums. From the Art Institute of Chicago comes a bronze statue of the falcon-headed god Re-Horakhty dating to about 700 B.C. The Brooklyn Museum has sent a spectacular coffin for an ibis mummy decorated with gold, silver and rock crystal, while the Field Museum of Natural History loaned a stone monument incised with an image of the enthroned king in the form of a falcon. 

Exhibit curator and Egyptologist-naturalist Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer said: “Just as the Nile River and its annual flood brought agricultural bounty to Egypt and gave rise to a powerful civilization, these waters also provided a haven for millions of birds migrating between Eurasia and Africa each spring and fall. The regular passage of such huge numbers of birds greatly influenced the lives of ancient Egyptians, who saw these feathered visitors as living symbols of fertility, life, and regeneration.”

reflecting a cycle of life and death

The significance of birds will be illustrated by tracing their impact on the ancient Egyptians from birth to death. They believed that all life emerged from an egg symbolized by the womb, represented in the exhibit by a magnificent ancient ostrich egg. At the end of life, they were buried in a coffin, which was also called an egg, creating a never-ending cycle of life, death and rebirth based on bird imagery.

The soul of the deceased was shown as a human-headed bird. A delicate painted statue of such a bird in the exhibit represents an individual’s quest for eternal contact with the world of the living. Many of the gods took the form of birds, probably because of their superhuman ability to soar through the sky and follow the path of the life-giving sun.

Egyptians could be portrayed as birds with human hands raised in adoration of their king, who was shown as a falcon, the incarnation of the “Living Horus on Earth.” Oriental Institute Director Gil Stein commented, “Our new exhibit explores the role of birds at the interface between nature and culture, and in doing so, gives us a new understanding of the ways that the ancient Egyptians experienced and gave meaning to the world around them.”

The exhibit traces bird imagery and symbolism through religion, images of the king, the economic exploitation of birds for their feathers and flesh, birds as protective deities, the incorporation of more than sixty species of birds into hieroglyphic writing, and images of birds on objects of daily life.

A special feature of the exhibit is a discussion of the role of bird mummies in religion. In the first millennium B.C., mummified animals, especially birds, were an important part of religious devotions, and catacombs for animal mummies were established throughout Egypt. A single catacomb near Cairo is estimated to have held at least two million bird mummies.

bird mummies contain secrets

In collaboration with the University of Chicago Medicine and the Field Museum, Bailleul-LeSuer CT scanned ten bird mummies from the collection of the Oriental Institute, allowing her to identify the species and also to study the way they were mummified.

“The bird mummies are particularly fascinating,” said Oriental Institute Chief Curator Jack Green. “They give us a glimpse into the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians and, with the help of modern technology, new insights into the birds themselves including some quite unexpected findings.”  

Among those surprises was the discovery that a beautifully wrapped mummy did not in fact contain the remains of a complete bird, but only a few bones.

A variety of public programs will be held in conjunction with the show. On Saturday, Nov. 10, a free public symposium, co-sponsored by the Oriental Institute and the Audubon Society, will explore the role of birds in ancient Egypt. Speakers include Bailleul-LeSuer; Foy Scalf, a PhD candidate in Egyptology at UChicago; John Wyatt, an independent researcher and specialist in African birds and mammals; Gay Robins, an art historian from Emory University, and a representative from the Audubon Society.

Bailleul-LeSuer will give free gallery tours on Oct. 17 and Nov. 14, and she will lead a bird-watching walk in Jackson Park on Oct. 21. On Dec. 16, the film Pale Male, about a red-tailed hawk’s life in Manhattan, will be screened.

A fully illustrated catalog, edited by Bailleul-LeSuer, accompanies the exhibit.