CAT Scanning a Cat

New technology is offering museums ways of investigating their collections, including ways of doing things that previously would only have been possible by damaging or destroying the object. There have been some surprising discoveries, such as the British Museum and the Manchester Museum recently discovering that some of their animal mummies did not contain complete animals, or sometimes any animal at all!

Manchester Museum learned that around a third of their animal mummies don’t contain any animal material at all but were instead padded out with other organic material such as mud, sticks and reeds. This could be explained by the fact that a large market existed for mummified animals in Ancient Egypt including birds, cats and crocodiles.

ABDUA_22127.jpgThese animals were mummified for various reasons; household pets were buried with their owners but many were created as sacred offerings to the gods, who were often portrayed in animals forms such as the goddess Bastet who was shown as a cat. An entire industry existed which is thought to have produced more than 70 million animal mummies so it is not entirely surprising that not all of these mummies actually contain skeletal remains.

catSo the University of Aberdeen Museums staff wanted to find out what was inside a mummified cat from the collection and bring together an item from the internationally-significant museum collections with the University’s state-of-the-art equipment and world-leading expertise. Kevin Mackenzie from Microscopy and Histology at the institute of Medical Sciences was able to use a high resolution X-Ray Micro-CT system acquired by the University through a NERC Capital Equipment grant which is normally used for research on soils, rocks and life. For this project, we were able to CAT scan the cat!

Laura Perez-Pachon, a researcher in Anatomy created a photorealistic 3D model of its external surface. Laura uses the same type of photorealistic modelling for an exciting project that is currently running at the Anatomy Department. In this project Anatomists have teamed up with game software experts at Abertay University to create a new interactive 3D learning tool funded by the Roland Sutton Academic Trust and supervised by Dr Flora Gröning. Laura also created a 3D model of the cate skeleton from the scans and combined them with the 3D model to create a short video.


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Mistress of the House, Ta Khar, gets a makeover!

Conservation Assistant Hannah Clarke tells us about the recent conservation work done one one of the University Museums’ human mummies in preparation for travel to Germany:

‘In November, one of our oldest human mummies, known as the Mistress of the House, Ta Khar, was shipped to Jens Klocke in Hildesheim, a specialist in the conservation of Egyptian mummies and artefacts, in preparation for her upcoming loan to the Lokschuppen exhibition centre in Rosenheim, near Munich.

During Cons 2

Before Ta Khar could be sent to Jens, her linen wrappings and faience bead net needed to be stabilised so that she could be safely packed into her travelling crate. This work was carried out by the Museums Conservator, Caroline Dempsey, and myself, over a few days while the mummy was still in situ at the Museums Collections Centre.

The bead net had become tangled and the vegetable fibre threads had begun to perish, causing many losses of the beads and disfiguration of the original net design. Caroline and I used a technique suggested by Jens to gently pull the ends of the threads, in order to ease the beads back into position. We then secured them on to the body of the mummy using steel insect pins and small squares of Remy polyester fabric. This meant that the beads would be much more secure, which would allow Ta Khar to travel without any worry or further damage being caused.

While stabilising the bead net, we were surprised to find that many of the lost beads had fallen into her inner coffin, allowing us to collect them up and send them to Jens to be re-threaded into the net design! She was then carefully put into a specially made crate for her journey to Hildesheim and further conservation.


Ta Khar is recorded as being the daughter of someone called Tha en Meh. Previously she was thought to be Ptolemaic period (305 BC–30 BC), but research associated with her conservation now suggests that she lived in the 25th-26th Dynasty (700 – 600BC). During her time with Jens in Germany she has travelled to the St. Bernward Hospital, for CT Scanning as part of the Mummienforschungsprojekt (Mummy Research Project), at the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum, Hildesheim. The highly accurate scans have shown her to be a much younger lady than was initially believed, and the high quality of embalming shows that she was from the highest levels of the Egyptian aristocracy. It is now know that she has over 50 layers of linen wrappings, showing her wealth and status, which is something which is more usually associated with high status male mummification!

Jens has now been able to dry clean and consolidate the bead net, linen wrappings, and inner coffin of our Lady of the House, leaving her in a much better state of preservation for the future. Compare ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos!’

To find out more (in German) and to see the video of the scanning, click here.

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An Egyptian Tomb in Aberdeen!

An exciting new project has allowed some of the University’s Egyptian archaeology collection to be put on virtual display.

Artefacts fadeA collaboration between the University Museums and Mercury 92, a company that specialises in corporate design and communication who wanted to pilot their ZynQ 360  visualisation software with a museum collection. As with most museums, less than 5% of the University’s museum collections are ever on display at one time and many areas such as the museum stores have restricted access. We are therefore always keen to consider new and interesting ways to increase access to the collections.

The Mercury 92 team visited the Museum Collections Centre at Marischal College to carry out a photogrammetricsurvey of 14 objects. To do this, they took between 25 and 80 images of each object in order, which the software then re-assembled to create photo-realistic 3D models of each artefact.

Unknown-13d Reconstruction2

Once the artefacts were digitised, Mercury 92 went to work on creating a representation of a tomb in which to display the objects. They studied plan layouts of tombs from various Egyptian kingdoms and created one which  had the most common features but laid it out as it if was a museum exhibition, with objects being displayed on plinths.


A visit to the virtual exhibition starts with a view of the museum store – an important part of all museums, but one that is rarely possible for visitors to see. Visitors then travel into an imagined tomb and can look at a selection of artefacts. Unlike in a conventional exhibition, visitors can virtually ‘pic up’ and examine the artefacts closely.

For access to the virtual tomb click here.

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Welcome to #AberdeenPharaoh

Over one hundred objects from the University’s Egyptian archaeology collection will soon be going on display in the Lokcshuppen exhibition centre in Rosenheim, near Muncih. The exhibition ‘Pharaoh: living in Ancient Egypt’  will explore Ancient Egyptian building, religion and society through artefacts, detailed models and digital stations to give an insight into daily life in Egypt. It is the product of collaboration between the Lokschuppen exhibition centre, University of Aberdeen Museums, the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum Hildesheim, and the logistics company MuseumsPartner.



This is the largest loan ever from the University Museums, and forms the main part of the exhibition, with contributions from other museums, notable the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum, Hildesheim and the Gustav-Lübcke-Museum, Hamm and a series of large scale models.





Over the past year we have hosted curators, conservators and other museum professionals from Germany in the University Museums Collections Centre at Marischal College as the objects were selected, photographed and conserved from transportation.

The loan has allowed us to explore and discover more about our own collections through further conservation and investigation of objects, both in-house and in Germany. Alongside Caroline Dempsey, the University Museums conservator, and Hannah Clarke, conservation assistant, one of the conservators from Hildesheim, Claudia Schindler, spent some time working on limestone objects. This included and exceptionally fine stela which was then transported to Hildesheim for further detailed conservation. Research by Dr. Rafed El-Sayed and Dr Konstantin Lakomy of the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen has recently confirmed that it comes from the necropolis of Akhmim.

Lookout for #aberdeenpharaoh on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more updates!

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‘Triumph of Truth’ Travels to Yale

This week a major work cared for by the University Museums will be packed up and shipped off to the Yale Centre for British Art to be displayed in their upcoming exhibition Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World. The exhibition will explore the impact of three German princesses who married into British royalty and shaped the culture and era in which they lived through their support of philosophers and artists of all varieties.

The impressive portrait Triumph of Truth by Joshua Reynolds will be joining works from Historic Royal Palaces and the Yale Centre for British Art.


Triumph of Truth (1774)

The portrait depicts James Beattie, a prominent philosopher, scholar and poet in the eighteenth century and Professor of Moral Philosophy and Logic at Marischal College. Beattie can be seen holding on of his most notable works; Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth (1770), in which he argued against the institution of slavery. The painter, Joshua Reynolds, was known for his use of the ‘grand style’ of painting which incorporated visual metaphors in order to suggest noble qualities; a technique that is clearly used in Triumph of Truth.

Not only do the University of Aberdeen Museums hold the portrait of James Beattie, but the Special Collections Centre at the University also hold entries from Beattie’s diary during his trip to Edinburgh while the portrait was being painted, which give us further insight into the creation of the piece.


Page of Beattie’s diary from his trip to Edinburgh. Held in University of Aberdeen Special Collections.

Beattie’s writing recount his experience of having his portrait painted by Reynolds, describing him as:

A man not only of excellent taste in painting and poetry, but of an enlarged understanding and truly philosophical mind…it is the truth and simplicity of nature which he is ambitious to imitate’. Beattie later describes Reynolds as ‘the greatest designer of this, or perhaps of any age.





Clearly Beattie was more than happy to have his portrait painted by this talented artist. Throughout his dairy he repeatedly mentions Reynolds and the process of the work being created. He remarks:


Excerpt from Beattie’s diary during his trip to Edinburgh.

I sate to him five hours, in which time he finished my head, and sketched out the rest of my figure: – the likeness is most striking and the execution masterly…though I sate five hours, I was not in the least fatigued; for, by placing a large looking glass opposite to my face, Sir Joshua put it in my power to see every stroke of his pencil; and I was greatly entertained to see the progress of the work; and the easy and masterly manner of the artist, which differs as much from that of all other painters I have seen at work, as the expectation of Giardini differs from that of a common fiddler.

At the University Museums we are lucky to have so many other resources and expertise across the University that allows us to learn so much more about objects in our collections, such as this major work. Thanks to the Special Collections Centre we have the sitter’s account of having his portrait painted alongside the finished product.

The exhibition will be open Thursday, 2 February until 30 April 2017.

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Pacific Project Update – A bit of a puzzle!

Recently our team had the rather difficult but incredibly enjoyable task of sorting out the pacific grass skirts in our collections as part of the recognition project to improve the documentation and storage of our internationally renowned pacific collections. Louise called in help to try and sort out/work out which skirt was which, who donated it and what numbers they had been assigned in the past.

Assistant curator of collections and access, Louise says ‘we decided the only way to work out the documentation muddle of the grass skirts was to lay them all out side by side and work through the list of numbers and descriptions and match the skirts up to the number that matched. Sometimes going from box to box just doesn’t work and you get yourself in a muddle!’

Luckily Marischal College Collections Centre has plenty of gallery space which is big enough for the task. The team took all of the grass skirts they could find in the store and laid them out in the gallery and began their detective work.


Some of the descriptions of the skirts are very basic and very similar. For example 10 entries in the documentation system had the same description of ‘’Skirt fringed in vegetable fibre, dyed reddish brown, with plaited waist band’’. It is hard but crucial to differentiate which skirt is which from this description because they were collected by different donors and are from different areas.pacific-2

By the end of the project these descriptions will be updated with additional information and all the skirts will be packed into better storage. Next time someone wants to study these beautiful skirts they will be organised, accessible and NOT in a muddle!

The next big task is working out the headdresses – stay tuned……


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Couriering Fijian Loan

Our Assistant Curator, Louise recently went on a couriering trip to Norwich to install some of the museums most impressive Fijian objects into the UK’s largest exhibition of Fijian material, created by the Sainsbury Centre. Here’s what she has to say about the journey:

‘Couriering is when a member of the museum, usually the conservator or member of the collections team accompanies objects on loan to another museum. The courier is responsible for making sure the objects arrive safely, are condition checked, installed safely and oversee the closing of the case. They will repeat this journey in reverse for when the object returns.

The eleven objects on loan to the Sainsbury centre are from Fiji and were mainly collected by two donors, Sir William Macgregor who was Chief Medical Officer and Arthur John Lewis Gordon, the private secretary of Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon the first Governor of Fiji in the late 19th Century. Both gave parts of their collections to the University of Aberdeen Museums in the early 20th Century. Due to their donations Aberdeen has an internationally important collection not only from Fiji but from all areas of the Pacific.
The objects were packed into custom made boxes and placed into secure crates at the Collections Centre. The Conservator created what we call ‘condition reports’. These reports describe the object and set out any conservation concerns including what temperature and humidity is needed to protect the object. Once the objects are packed and the condition reports printed the crates are picked up by a specialist art handling and removal company who take the objects to Norwich.couriering-3

I then travelled to Norwich to the Sainsbury Centre when the exhibition curators were ready to start installing objects into the exhibition. I met with the centre’s conservator on arrival and the first step was to go through each condition report and check each object to make sure we are both happy with the condition of the objects and that nothing was damaged during transport.


For this exhibition I was lucky enough to work with specialist mount makers to make custom mounts for the objects. Again both parties agree on what will work best for both the object and display and mounts are created. Once everything is ready the objects are installed and the case is locked. The cases won’t be re-opened until I return to the pick up the objects for their journey back to Aberdeen.

The exhibition is entitled Fiji: Art & Life in the Pacific and has a wonderful display of beautifully crafted objects from Fiji. It is well worth a look if you get the chance. I was lucky enough to get to view objects from other collections including The British Museum and Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology at Cambridge whose collections are simply beautiful and quite similar to ours in style and history. Couriering is certainly a perk of the job, getting to see wonderful new exhibitions, new objects and meeting new colleagues from other museums. It is however a huge responsibility and hard work…

The exhibition runs from 15 October – 12 February 2017 at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

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