This Saturday, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology hosted its second annual “Spooky, Weird, and Magical: Halloween with the Kelsey” tour. Led by docent Robin Little, the tour explored a variety of objects from the approximately 1,500 on permanent display through the lens of Halloween. Before we began, Little made clear: “When I say weird, I don’t mean weird in a negative way. I mean unusual. I am not putting any value judgment on the word ‘weird’.”
Here are the 5 “weirdest,” or most unusual, artifacts we saw, along with explanations about their historical context, according to the tour.
- A Cat Mummy
The Kelsey has a strict rule against any human remains within its collection; however, this policy does not extend to the domain of animals. Their collection currently includes a mummified hawk, baboon, cat head and entire cat (pictured above). In Ancient Egypt, animals were associated with certain gods, and cats were particularly powerful divine symbols. Many Egyptians wanted to have their pets buried next to them and as a result, many mummified animals have been found alongside the remains of their owners . But dealers were not always scrupulous, and the recent ability to x-ray artifacts has revealed that many animal mummies actually just contain random assortments of bones. It remains uncertain what remains are actually under this cat-shaped mummy.
- Four Human-Headed Canopic Jar Lids
The Ancient Egyptian process of human mummification began with the removal of four internal organs: the lungs, the liver, the stomach and the intestines. Once the organs were removed, they were treated with various chemicals, wrapped in linen and then placed into canopic jars like the ones above. The jars were buried alongside the mummified body in their sarcophagus. Different jars were reserved for specific viscera and possessed specific magical properties.
- Some Very Rusty Forceps
These forceps are an example of a medical tool that would be used to deliver babies in Ancient Rome. Although seemingly not the most hygienic instrument, they allowed practitioners to reach areas they could not with their fingers alone. Forceps came in various forms and could be used for various other purposes, such as extracting tumors or even cosmetic surgeries. Romans would often accompany such medical practices by taking votives of certain body parts to shrines in hopes of receiving prayers for healing.
- A “Demon Bowl”
“Demon Bowls,” also known as “incantation bowls” from the Parthian Period in modern-day Iraq, were an ancient alternative to demon busters and an example of early practical magic. The bowls were used as a protective measure to lure and then trap demons or ghosts, although they could also be used to summon one for help. Since the majority of people were illiterate, the spells were often illegible. Recent research has even suggested that the spiraling magical inscriptions were gibberish or “pseudo script,” so we still do not know what they mean to this day.
- Villa of the Mysteries
In 1924, archeologist and museum namesake Francis Kelsey commissioned Maria Barosso to paint a five-sixth-scale replica of the monumental mural in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. The watercolor reproduction is complete with the damages suffered by the villa after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. In the mural, which scholars have surmised relates to Bacchus, the Roman God of wine, fertility and festival, a group of mostly female figures appears to be engaging in a string of sacred rituals involving masked centaurs and even whippings by a winged figure. New interpretations of the story behind the murals are constantly being proposed, but because only members of the mystery cult knew about the details of the rituals and nothing was written down, the exact nature of the cult remains a mystery.
Saturday Sampler tours at the Kelsey Museum are free and open to all visitors.
Daily Arts Writer Jaden Katz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.