For nearly a century, an enigmatic, football-sized mummy has resided at Cornell University, flying under the radar as flashier specimens like Third Intermediate Period scribe Penpi claimed the spotlight. Now, however, the diminutive mummy is making headlines of its own: As Maxime Tamsett reports for CNN, recent scans revealed that the remains, long kept in a box labeled “hawk mummy,” actually belong to an African sacred ibis, a bird associated with Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of writing, magic and the moon.
Archaeologist Carol Anne Barsody identified the mislabeled mummy while conducting graduate research on how museums can incorporate new technologies. Pointed to the “hawk mummy” box by Frederic Gleach, curator of Cornell’s anthropology collections, Barsody decided to use the object “as a case study for how technology could be used to unwrap [a] mystery,” writes Live Science’s Callum McKelvie.
“Much of archaeology is destructive,” says Gleach in a statement. “Once you’ve excavated something, there’s no unexcavating it. Once you’ve unwrapped a mummy, there’s no putting it back together again.”
Barsody’s quest to unravel the mummy’s mysteries began at Cornell’s animal hospital, where technicians used radiographs and computerized tomography (CT) scans to peer beneath its linen wrappings. This initial survey indicated that the mummified bird was an ibis, not a hawk—a finding that prompted the graduate student to ask Vanya Rohwer, curator of birds and mammals at the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates, to confirm her suspicions. After consulting a database and taking a close look at the scans, Rohwer officially identified the avian mummy as a male sacred ibis, a type of wading bird distinguished by its black-and-white coloring.
Between 650 and 250 B.C.E., ancient Egyptians sacrificed ibises by the millions, murdering and mummifying the sacred birds as tributes to Thoth (pronounced like “oath,” with a “th” at the beginning), who also oversaw justice, magic and the judgment of the dead.
“I often compare it with the candles lit in Christian churches,” Francisco Bosch-Puche, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford, told National Geographic’s Antoaneta Roussi in 2019, when experts published the first comprehensive DNA analysis of the mummified birds. “The [ibis] mummy would remind the god that they needed to take care of you.”
Barsody, who plans to publish her research on a site titled Bird Mummy, scoured Cornell’s archives to learn more about the mummy’s origins. Though she initially theorized that it arrived at the New York university with Penpi’s mummy in 1884, the minutes of a Board of Trustees meeting suggested otherwise, making no reference to Egyptian artifacts beyond the scribe’s remains.
Instead, the archaeologist now believes that the bird was part of a trove donated by alumnus John Randolph in 1930. Randolph’s donation featured objects from Saqqara, a sprawling necropolis south of Cairo that served as a burial ground for more than 3,000 years; so far, Barsody has been unable to uncover any additional information on the ibis’ past and possible connection to Saqqara, but she places its age at around 1,500 to 2,000 years old.
“Not only was this once a living creature that people of the day may have enjoyed watching stroll through the water,” says Barsody in the statement. “It also was, and is, something sacred, something religious.”
Most animals mummified by the ancient Egyptians underwent evisceration (the removal of their organs) and desiccation (drying out of the bodily fluids) after death. But some sacrifices suffered a far worse fate: As historian Salima Ikram noted in the 2005 book Divine Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt, live birds were sometimes immersed in vats of boiling resin or pitch—a process that reduced their bones to dust.
The Cornell ibis escaped this treatment but was seemingly folded into its current form, with its head twisted back and its rib cage and sternum removed—an uncommon practice for the time. Its leg was fractured prior to mummification, while its beak was broken posthumously, perhaps when the mummy was being moved.
Next, Barsody plans to recruit another colleague, ophthalmologist Eric Ledbetter, to extract DNA from the mummy’s surviving soft tissue through endoscopic microsurgery. Once extracted, Barsody tells CNN, she’ll be able to cross-reference the DNA with ibis samples taken from archaeological sites across Egypt, revealing the region and perhaps even the temple where the bird originated.
Though experts have long theorized that the ancient Egyptians bred ibises at large-scale hatcheries, the 2019 DNA study refuted this idea, showing no signs of long-term inbreeding associated with domestication.
“Most likely, … priests tamed wild populations through food temptations within their natural habitats, such as the lakes or wetlands close [to] the temples,” lead author Sally Wasef, then an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia, told Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou.
Beyond piecing together the ibis’ backstory, Barsody is working to digitize the mummy for inclusion in an upcoming exhibition. Debuting in October, the multisensory show will feature a hologram version of the bird and a 3-D model created with smartphone scans and open-source technology.
“Now [the mummy] has this whole entire life of being studied, and respected, as a small representative of the amazing culture from which it originated,” says Barsody in the statement. “It’s had multiple lives. I look at what I’m doing as another form of extending its incredible life.”