Ahmed Soliman. Courtesy of the Australian Centre for Egyptology
Ahmed Soliman. Courtesy of the Australian Centre for Egyptology

Ancient beasts at Beni Hassan

Human-Animal Studies (HAS) is a rapidly growing field worldwide in which researchers from a range of disciplines explore our complex relationship with the animal world, both now and in the past.

A Macquarie University Research Development Grant has given Linda Evans in the Department of Ancient History the opportunity to study the meaning of animal imagery at the Egyptian site of Beni Hassan, an ancient cemetery on the east bank of the Nile River. The tombs, which are over 4,000 years old, are painted with well-preserved and brightly coloured murals that depict the everyday lives of the ancient Egyptian people, among which are found detailed representations of many different types of animals – from butterflies to bulls.

Unlike other cemetery sites, Evans’ study has uncovered intriguing images of creatures that are rarely found in Egyptian art, such as pigs, bats, mice, and pelicans. In a recently published paper, she also confirmed the depiction of a leashed mongoose in one of the tombs, despite earlier reports that doubted its existence. The animal appears alongside a hunting dog and men who carry a variety of weapons, suggesting that the mongoose was trained to assist hunters, probably by being sent into thick vegetation to cause the birds hidden within to emerge.

The findings from the study so far suggest that the inhabitants of Beni Hassan experienced an unusual relationship with the animals in their region, one that was less constrained by Egyptian traditions or social rules than elsewhere. Evans’ study, which will form the basis of a future HAS project examining the role of animals in cultural development across the ancient Near East, also supplements an ongoing ARC-funded initiative with colleagues Naguib Kanawati, Alex Woods, and Janice Kamrin (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which is currently documenting all of the tombs at Beni Hassan.