Mummified bird could unlock new ways to experience museum exhibits

(From left) Carol Anne Barsody, Van Hunter Adams, and Jack Defay photograph a mummified bird to create a 3D rendering of the artifact on February 24 at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

(CNN)It all started with a report of two mummies in a university closet.

Carol Anne Barsody, a graduate student in archaeology at Cornell University, was looking for a case study for her research. She focuses on how different technologies can be used in museum exhibits, and how they could impact current exhibit practices, repatriation of artifacts and access to collections.
Enter Frederic Gleach, a senior lecturer and curator of Cornell's anthropology collections.
    Frederic Gleach, senior lecturer and curator of the anthropology collections at Cornell, positions the bird. The 3D rendering process involved taking hundreds of photos from all angles with a smartphone.
    Approached by Barsody, Gleach remembered that a colleague from another department had called a decade earlier to ask if Gleach wanted two small mummies he had found in a closet. There were no records of where they came from or what was inside them.
      After retrieving the two artifacts from that closet, Gleach would later discover one of them was only filled with twigs. However, the other mummy had a clue: It was in a box labeled "hawk mummy."

      It takes a village

      Barsody and Gleach took the bundle to the Cornell University Hospital for Animals to get a better look at what was inside. Without disturbing the mummy, an imaging technician took radiographs -- a type of X-ray -- and performed a computerized tomography (CT) scan.
        What appeared was not a hawk. It was an ibis.
        The CT scan also revealed some soft tissue was still intact, which was at least 1,000 years old, potentially even 2,000 to 3,000 years old, according to Gleach.
        An X-ray of the mummified bird shows its neck pulled back, with the skull in the middle and curved beak to the right.
        Making the rounds once more, Barsody and Gleach brought the artifact to Vanya Rohwer, curator of the birds and mammals at the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates, to confirm the bird's exact identification.
        After analyzing the scans and reviewing a database, Rohwer identified the bird to be a male sacred ibis, according to the Cornell Chronicle.
        A sacred ibis is a long-legged wading bird, mostly white with a black head and neck, with some black plumes in its tail. They can be found in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East but are no longer found in Egypt.
        The mummified bird's head was pulled all the way back to its body, and the researchers determined its rib cage and sternum had been removed, which was not a typical Egyptian mummification practice, according to Barsody.
        Mummified sacred ibises were common in ancient Egypt.
        Egyptians would mummify many animals, including pets, to serve as companions in the afterlife with whom they were entombed. Sacred ibises, however, were mummified as offerings to the god Thoth in temples, Barsody found in her research.