Saturday, 30 March 2013


Unidentified mummified remains found in Egypt
Why have indigenous groups around the globe intentionally mummified the deceased?

How and why did taxidermy arise within Western society?

This blog is dedicated to answering these questions using case studies of both mummification and taxidermy. It can be argued that based on similar methodologies and motivations, taxidermy can be conceptualized as a type of Western take on mummification. In subsequent blog posts, we will discuss examples of methods from both practices, instances in which each are conducted for the sake of affection toward the subject, and occurrences of both as a demonstration of conquest over the subject, with comparisons following the examples used. Using this cross-cultural approach, we seek to broaden the (mis)understanding of taxidermy as simply an eccentric past-time for a minority of hobbyists, demonstrating instead how it constitutes a complex utilization of animal remains in the construction of individual and collective identities and relationships, in a similar fashion the intentional mummification of numerous Indigenous societies.



Certain images and information may be unsettling to some viewers due to the graphic nature or content


Link to : Bibliography
Link to : Terminology

Background Information

A Little Taxidermic History

In determining the origins of taxidermy, there is much dispute amongst historians, hobbyists, and professional taxidermists as to what may be considered a true starting point. If one were to consider taxidermy in relation to skinning animals and tanning hides, then the practice would be of ancient origin., a large online community and database for everything taxidermy related, starts out their history segment by stating that the first taxidermic practices originated amongst hunter and gatherer tribes who formed skins over natural objects to be cured for later use in rituals which eventually lead for the need of professional tanners(, 2007). Author Pauline Wakeham considers this type of thought problematic in that “stereotypes of skinning and savagery” have aided in reinforcing colonial ideals of primitive native populations and that this origin assumption leads many to ignore that taxidermy was born in the Western World(Wakeham, 2008).Wakeham is critical of this “mythological white fantasy” of primitive life. She relates this ideology to a sort of search or re-examination of the human relationship to nature and considers this idea to lend itself to notions of evolutionary progress in that modern taxidermists are not only part of nature, but are masterful over it(Wakeham, 2008). Karen Wonders notes that taxidermy aims at reanimating life and has the “double-purpose” of being both an artistic and educational endeavour; embalming and tanning seek strictly to preserve(as cited in Wakeham, 2008) a body, skin, or fur with minimal damage control to the flesh being necessary. Both embalming and taxidermy may be used in preparation or preservation of scientific specimens.

The word taxidermy is an etymological derivative of the Greek taxis, meaning “arrangement” or “preparation”, and derma meaning “skin," with the term originally appearing in the Nouveau dictionnaire d'histoire naturelle of 1803-04 with the first known specimen predating the word(Wakeham, 2008). This first recorded attempt at taxidermic preservation was by a Dutch entrepreneur wishing to maintain the integrity of exotic birds from the East Indies that suffocated during transport some 450 years ago, reinforcing the link of taxidermy to colonial powers and exploration(Wakeham, 2008). Taxidermy may therefore be seen as both a form of colonial technology of nature control and one linked to a more primitive life-style, a masculine way to conquer land and “go-native” which aids in naturalizing New World conquest through an imagined and artificial sense of belonging(Wakeham, 2008). Many taxidermic specimens were kept for the sake of curiosity, examples and reminders of the wonders that lie beyond Europe's borders. It was not only a form of showing off animals as curiosities and trophy kills, but also a form of showing off the power and ability to kill. In this sense, taxidermy was for the wealthy. It would not only have been costly to have an animal “stuffed”, but even more costly to acquire exotic animals for collections. Hunting for sport was more of a leisurely past time of the wealthy. Acquired specimens were items to be treasured and objects of pride. After the publication of Linnaeus's Systema Naturae in 1723, North Americans and Europeans developed an even greater affinity for taxidermy collection as a source of knowledge in the realm of natural history studies(Wakeham, 2008).

Collecting was not the only reason taxidermy gained popularity. By the 1800's, hunters started to bring in animals to be sewn up and stuffed in a crude manner which is where the term(s) “stuffing” or “stuffed animal” originate from(, 2007). The original technique produced many abysmal specimens and gave taxidermy a poor reputation which still haunts the industry(, 2007). Skins would not have been preserved very well and would have been prone to insect invasion or decomposition if not cleaned and dried well. Many specimens were not prepared to resist attack which made compiling and documenting natural history difficult(Farber, 1977). By the early 20th century, taxidermic practices began to evolve and more closely resemble current practices through the initiative of famous artists like: Carl E. AkeleyWilliam T. Hornaday, Coloman Jonas, and Leon Pray(, 2007). This lead to the development of more anatomically correct animal forms which included detailed musculature and animals preserved in artistically appealing poses that were more species appropriate, quite different from the traditional snarling figures offered as hunting trophies(, 2007). During the later part of the 20th century, taxidermy progressed into a “ full-fledged form of wildlife art”(, 2007). People can now be seen competing in taxidermy competitions and own stand-alone businesses that are solely devoted to providing this preservation service to the public. One such up-coming competition will be held by the Montana Taxidermists Association on March 20-23, 2013, at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center in Billings, Montana(

A Brief Overview of Mummification
When many people around the World think of mummification, they generally conjure mental images of the famed and well known, bandage wrapped, Egyptian style mummies. Not much is actually known about the mummification techniques used to preserve bodies during Egypt's Old Kingdom reign and the first known report of the the process is thought to have been recorded by the Greek traveller-historian, Herodotus (450 BC)(Saeed, Rufai, &. Elsayed, 2001). Analysis of the mummy “Idu-II”'s(2150[+/-]50BC) fragmented clavicles pieces do however extend the Egyptian history of embalming practices by 1000 years which is much earlier than that previously thought by researchers(Saeed, Rufai, &. Elsayed, 2001). The Egyptian people are also famed for the mummification of animals. Egyptian mummification is indeed the most well known style of preservation but is by no means the oldest form of the practice.
A lesser known form of intentional mummification is that of the Chinchorro culture from South America. Their style of intentional or artificial mummification is the World's oldest and most ancient example of the practice(Guillén, 2004). The Chinchorro society was comprised of sophisticated hunter, gatherer, and fishing peoples which made up a part of the early preceramic Andean culture within the geographic area(Arriaza, Doubrava, Standen, & Haas, 2005). Artificial mummification practices in the region date back to around 6000 BC and began to diminish or taper off amongst the Chinchorro peoples by approximately 2000 BC(Arriaza, Doubrava, Standen, & Haas, 2005). Some scholars who utilize temporal associations consider there to have been an early phase of mummification from 11,000 to 8000 BP, a mid phase from 8000 to 6000 BP, and a late phase occurring between 6000 and 4000 years BP(Guillén, 2004). One interesting aspect is that while cultural practices and styles of preservation changed throughout the years, one aspect remained consistent: within each style of mummification, not all individuals were granted “the full rite of artificial mummification”(Arriaza, Doubrava, Standen, & Haas, 2005).
Another group of people who utilize artificial mummification are the Amazonian Shuar people. For this group, the mummification ritual is not one that typically occurs after a normative or natural death; it is not part of their typical mortuary practices but a ritual practice involving war. These wars generally occur among households far away from one another because of a familial death and are fueled by revenge due to the belief that one has been hexed by the enemy through sorcery causing the death(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). In this context, a household grieving a death is likely a very aggressive one and can aid the “curaka”, a wartime leader, in playing his role which is to organize a group of warriors for vengeance(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). The local shaman is the person who determines the identification of the neighbouring enemy by consuming a liquid called “natéma” which causes him to hallucinate visions of the perpetrator(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). Once all rituals surrounding the “tsantsas” (shrunken heads) have been completed, the trophy head is often discarded or is given to children to play with because its value is lost after having served its purpose(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). This ritual of mummification as a method of revenge greatly sets apart the preservation practices of both the Egyptian and Chinchorro people from that of the Shuar. The Chinchorro and Egyptian people do not simply dispose of their dead after the mummification process has been completed.

– Maia Biel

Link to : Bibliography
Link to : Terminology

Taxidermy: Methods and Types

Preservation of a birth defect
Basic “Types” of Taxidermy
Taxidermic typology may be broken down into a few basic categories:

Trophy or Gamehead MountsGameheads are the type of mounted specimen many would associate with the idea of a hunting lodge. This type of mount is generally just the head, neck, shoulders, and sometimes the breast of a specimen and is usually hung as a plaque(, 2006). These mounts provide a “face-to-face” encounter with the dead animal, both literally and figuratively. They are a sign of a skilled hunter and direct evidence of death(Desmond, 2002). Trophy mounts may also include prized fish.

AnthropomorphicAnthropomorphism is when an object possess or is described as having humanistic qualities. It is a form of “anti-naturalistic” taxidermy(Henning, 2007) in that the animal is not preserved in a way as to portray its natural form or mannerisms. The famous Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter stuffed or mounted small animals such as mice who wore clothing and performed human-like activities like sports(Henning, 2007). Potter displayed these creations at Mr. Potter's Museum of Curiosities(Henning, 2007).

Anthropomorphic taxidermy

Educational and Natural History Specimens – These are specimens which are preserved for the sake of knowledge, a sort of inventory of species belonging to the same taxonomic group or a specific geographic area. The specimens are used for education about anatomy, to improve species and genus recognition capabilities, knowledge of an animal's habitat and that animal's life(Beard, 1890).

RogueRogue taxidermy is generally used to create fantasy creatures and was once quite popular amongst sideshows of the past. It was often created for the purpose of providing physical evidence of mythical beasts such as the mermaid(also called a Fiji or Feejee mermaid) displayed in London, 1822, which was made using a stitched-together monkey torso and fish tail(Bondenson as cited by Connor, 2009). Many other fictional animals such as the Jackalope and Chupacabra were also used to draw in the curious crowds at sideshows. The Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists is a modern group of artists who still practice this form of taxidermy(Connor, 2009). This type of taxidermy not only includes well known fictitious animals, bu also includes totally random “mash-ups” of animals such as the peakeroo (peacock/kangaroo) and budgericat (budgie/cat)(Connor, 2009).

Pets –  Some people choose to have their pet taxidermied instead of cremated or buried. They may wish to display the deceased family member within the home in a favourite past location(Rothfels, 2002). A modern and expensive option for having this type of taxidermy done is through the process of freeze-drying the body in a specific from which can vary in cost from $350 to $3000 and take an extended period of time to complete(Rothfels, 2002). Most taxidermists refuse to work with pets due to the fear of a disappointed client and the fact that the pet's body will be a constant reminder of its previous life(Rothfels, 2002).

Butterflies in a natural history collection
The Taxidermic Process
The Initial Goal: To preserve an animal's flesh and to “resurrect” it in as natural and lifelike a manner as is possible(Rothfels, 2002). Birds, fish, and mammals all undergo treatments with similar initial steps but birds and fish require that additional techniques be applied prior to completion(, 2013). Skin and other keratin tissues, hair, fur, and sometimes bone, is preserved. 

1) First and foremost, the taxidermic process requires that an animal be deceased prior to beginning the procedure. Early taxidermy manuals teach that all marks of death must be removed; bullets are taken out and the entry wound is cut in a horizontal manner before being stitched to provide a clean and invisible seam(Rothfels, 2002). These early manuals also recommend suffocation of wounded animals in order to maintain the integrity of the body if future taxidermic work is intended(Rothfels, 2002). Blood stains are sponged away and then the nose, mouth, and shot-wound are stuffed with cotton to maintain form and prevent further bleeding(Beard, 1890). The animal may be relocated to a cool area until one is ready to skin it(Beard, 1890) in order to prevent any insect invasion or decomposition.

2) An animal must be measured prior to skinning in order to ensure a form will fit inside. Measurements are taken from top to bottom, including girth, while following the curvature of the animal's body(Beard, 1890). The animal, with eyes already removed, is skinned and then cleaned of all remaining sinew, muscle fibres, and fats prior to preservation(, 2013). Traditionally, the macerated bones and cleaned interior of the carcass would be painted with arsenical soap(Beard, 1890) as a form of chemical preservation. More modern chemicals may currently be in use. Hides may also undergo a tanning process.

Animal skins
3) Next comes the “stuffing”. Traditionally, the bones are put back inside the body and a form is created from excelsior shavings or straw, wire, and cotton(Beard, 1890). The wire is then fed along the leg bones through ball of foot and into the artificial body(Beard, 1890). Cotton is also wrapped around the bones and wire for full-looking thighs or necks; it is also stuffed in the throat for the appearance of roundness (Beard, 1890). Modern taxidermist use polyurethane mannequin forms that the skin can be stretched over after having preserved the hide (, 2013). Polyurethane is much more resilient to future weathering than both excelsior shavings and straw.

4) When it comes to the eyes of the animal, removal is necessary. In the past, eyes would be removed and stuffed rounded with cotton which the eyelids would be stretched over(Beard, 1890). Glass eyes are the modern standard(, 2013). These artificial eyes can appear quite realistic.

– Maia Biel

Mummification: Methods and Types

Basic types of Mummies
Natural MummiesNatural mummies are created due to favourable environmental conditions that enhance preservation and inhibit bacterial growth. Sometimes this preservation is simply due to burial in the proper conditions, but may also be due to catastrophe or abandonment in such conditions(Guillén, 2004) like ice or bog preservation or  high environmental salt, arsenic, copper content, dry conditions, and adipocere formation(Guillén, 2004). The preservation of a body is also affected by gravity and the positioning of that body after death(Guillén, 2004),­

Artificial Mummies – These kinds of mummies have been created with the intention of humans by treating a body in a specific way. Organic and inorganic substances may be used to aid in the long-term conservation of soft tissue(Guillén, 2004). Artificial mummies can be externally prepared by applying substances solely to the skin, internally prepared which involves the removal of organs and filling of the cavities, and reconstructed mummies which have their skin placed over a stuffed or artificial body(Guillén, 2004).

Method for Making a Tsantsa or Shrunken Head

1) To begin creating a Tsansa, or “shrunken head”, the head must first be removed from the body. A cut is made in the shape of a “V” on the front side of the neck ending between the nipples, the skin is peeled back, and the viscera within the neck are cut as much as possible(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). An incision is then made in the back between cervical vertebrae near the base of the neck(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). The head is then brought back to camp by the victims hair or with a handle strung through the mouth and out the neck(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004) for the shrinking process to begin.

2) Two people start out the process by removing a victims scalp from the skull by making an incision and pulling away the flesh; any tough to remove cartilaginous bits like ears and noses are disconnected with sharpened wooden pins also used to remove the eyes(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). This whole process only takes about 15 minutes to complete and the skull is discarded once the flesh is removed(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). 

An Ecuadorian shrunken head
3) The preservation process amongst the Shuar is one shrouded in ritual with chanting and many rules to be followed. This next step involves the headman retrieving water in a ceramic pot large enough for one head from a river while he says: “I take the water of the boa”(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). A fire is built to warm the water and as it warms, the headman chants while dipping the head into the water three times with the warriors hands placed on top of his(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). Steeping of the head then takes place for 15-20 minutes as onlookers wait in silence for the water to boil after which the pot is taken off the hot flames(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). A stick is used to take out the skin so that it may be dried and the vessel, like the skull, is also discarded(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004)after the steeping process.

4) More ritual processes take place but none to do with the flesh being preserved. Once these ceremonial rites have been completed, the skin is retrieved, the hair is bound to the scalp, and holes are pierced at the bottom of the neck to form a vessel or pouch(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). The eyelids and mouth are then sutured, leaving a single opening at the bottom of the neck(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). This empty skin sack is then filled with heated stones and sand which is shaken to push the sand and rocks down into every crevice; this is repeated for hours while participants chant: “I am pouring sand”(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). Flesh on the exterior is also heat-treated with a large flat stone, thus completing the process(Jandial,Hughes, Aryan, Marshall, & Levy, 2004). Heat, in this circumstance, aids in both the drying of flesh and in the killing of bacteria.

Methods for Making Chinchorro Mummies
Chinchorro mummies may be classified in two basic ways: by color and exterior appearance (red, black, mud) or using the typology created by German scientist Max Uhle and expanded by Allison et al. (1984) and Arriaza et al. (1986)(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993) to include a fourth kind.

Red Mummies – The red mummies are unique in that instead of having their flesh removed, they have simply been hollowed out with all organs removed and replaced with stuffing material(Arriaza, Doubrava, Standen, & Haas, 2005). They had black or red looking painted clay face with alert expressions, open mouths, and very long human hair wigs(Arriaza, Doubrava, Standen, & Haas, 2005). Red ochre was used to give them a red appearance, making them the most visually impressive(Arriaza, Doubrava, Standen, & Haas, 2005). Red mummies date back to ca. 2500-2000 BC(Arriaza, Doubrava, Standen, & Haas, 2005).

Black Mummies – This style of Chinchorro mummification dates back to ca. 5050-2500 BC and are quite a rarity in modern times due to the fragility of clay that has not been heat-treated(Arriaza, Doubrava, Standen, & Haas, 2005). It was the most complex of the three because the body went through a full treatment of dismemberment, flesh removal, stuffing, bone and joint reinforcement, skeletal rebuilding, modelling with grey clay, skin replacement, addition of a short human hair wig, and a clay mask(Arriaza, Doubrava, Standen, & Haas, 2005). They were then painted with manganese dioxide, giving them their signature black and shiny appearance(Arriaza, Doubrava, Standen, & Haas, 2005).

A pile of red ochre pigment
Mud Mummies – Mudcoated mummies received various treatments when it came to how the body was prepared during mummification and were coated in a sand-cement mud(Arriaza, Doubrava, Standen, & Haas, 2005).
Max Uhles typology of Chinchorro mummies based upon his excavated specimens and the chosen method of preservation(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993) goes as follows:

Type I – Almost a natural mummification in the sense that there is little to no human conservation efforts with limited furs and wrappings used(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993).

Type II – This classification of Chinchorro mummy was quite complicated and went through many processes such as flesh removal, evisceration, stuffing, and body reconstruction and also wore masks, had painted faces, and wigs made of wool or hair(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993).

Type III – Evisceration was rare in these mummies and their extremities were not dissected; bodies encased in sand-cement shell(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993).

Type IV (addition) – This typology is an addition by Allison et al. (1984) and Arriaza et al. (1986) which is used for mummies that have been eviscerated and filled with clay but have had no other alterations (Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993).

General Process
Although there is much variation in the processing of remains for the different types of Chinchorro mummies, similarities do exists.

A baby Chinchorro mummy
1) The trunk or torso of the Chinchorro mummies was generally treated the same across the different styles. Complete evisceration of the abdomen and thoracic cavities was followed by the used of glowing embers and/or hot ash to remove any left-over tissue(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). Materials such as soil, clay, ash, vegetable matter, animal hide, etc. was stuffed into the torso to replace the volume which was then wrapped back in the persons own skin or a hide to hold everything in place(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). To make the body rigid, a stick was fed through the vertebrae or placed next to them(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). Any remaining length of stick was used to anchor the head and sometimes the cleaned bones would be returned back to the torso(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993).

2) In treatment of the head the brain was usually removed, like in other forms of mummification, with the inclusion of the viscera(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). Embers or hot ash were used to remove remaining tissue with the same kind of stuffing used afterwards as in the trunk but the Chinchorro generally favoured clay for the heads(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). Sometimes hide was used to cover the face or entire head, where as other times the face was amputated and covered with a simple clay mask held in place by vegetal chords(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). These masks were then painted with ochre resulting in a red colour, or with manganese dioxide resulting in a spectacular black colouring and were then attached to the bodies(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). When it came to the mummification of infants, little care was taken in replacing cranial bones but a hair wig was added as with adults(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). Often an infant's original scalp was stretched over a clay head but at times skin from other areas or animal hide was chosen(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993).

The Chinchorro clay face
3) When it comes to extremities, the more complex mummies had all of the flesh removed from the bones and the condyles were sometimes abraded or flattened with cording being used to create joint rigidity(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). Joints were also sometimes stabilized with a stick running from head to toe or with hide wrapping around the joints(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). Stuffing of extremities often involved the same material as the head and torso but also included vegetal matter, sand, and more hides with the black manganese being painted on the inside as well(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). Once completed, the arms were wrapped separately and then bound to the body; legs remained in the normal extended position(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). Less complex mummies often did not go through every stage of preparation and the extremities were just wrapped with hide or treated with sand-cement(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993).

4) The last layer or external surface often received differential treatment. Some types of Chinchorro mummies have been covered using their own skin which may have been initially removed and then replaced after the aforementioned preservation processes have been completed(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). Other mummies were covered in animal hides and sometimes even with bright orange pelican skin or, in the case of mud mummies, were encased in a layer of sand-cement(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). When it came time to bury the preserved mummies, the bodies were buried in the sand upon a reed mat(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993). This dry sand would further aid in the preservation of the mummified specimens. Bodies were placed in the extended position but by about 4000 years BP, significant flexion can often be seen in the lower limbs(Aufderheide, Munoz, & Arriaza, 1993).

– Maia Biel

Comparison: Methods

The primary goal of both taxidermy and virtually all forms of intentional mummification is the preservation of the skin of the deceased individual. Depending on the specific cultural context, the techniques of mummifying a human body may vary, but in general, the skin is treated in some way in order to prevent its destruction. This can also involve the removal of internal tissues or skeletal elements, such as in the creation of the tsantsas of the Shuar, which involves emptying the human cranium completely of any soft tissues and skeletal pieces, boiling and treating the remaining “pouch” of human head, and refilling the treated skin and sewing it together. In order for the successful creation of a taxidermied figure, all internal matter of the animal corpse must be removed, with the treated hide of the animal draped over an artificial model and/or skeletal elements and shaped into place with stuffing.

Syndey taxidermist
Because the taxidermied figures are generally manufactured for display, realistic depiction is the primary goal. A piece of taxidermy is generally considered successfully produced if the corpse in question closely resembles the animal in life. Great pains are taken to disguise the stitches and marks of manufacture, as well as any trace of the death of the animal. In most cases of mummification, however, the individual is not preserved for the purposes of display, and so realism is not considered in the production of the mummy. The cultural context determines why and how a human being is mummified, varying depending on the group. The ultimate goal of all instances of both taxidermy and intentional mummification, regardless of culture, is the preservation of animal or human remains, respectively, through treatment of at least the skin of the deceased.

Main photo of Cougar's Den Taxidermy website
The circumstances of death can differ between taxidermy and mummification. Human beings selected for the mummification process generally were not killed for the purpose of the creation of a mummy (see the Mummifaction: Conquest blog post for a discussion about instances when the individual was killed for the purpose of mummy production due to European contact). This may be the case for taxidermy as well; if a beloved pet has passed or the intact body of a wild animal is found in adequate condition, the owners or researchers may choose to send the corpse to a taxidermist for processing. Particularly in the case of large and exotic game hunting, however, the individual may be killed specifically for the creation of trophies of the expedition. Candidates for taxidermy are selected based on species, aesthetic appeal and condition of the hide after capture. The selection of an individual for intentional mummification may be based on cultural factors such as status, wealth, kinship, and so on; generally physical morphology is not taken into account.

Mummy from Egpyt
The utility of the mummies and the taxidermied figures differs as well. Whereas mummified remains are treated to some extent as sacred, because of the identity of the individual in life or the beliefs about death and power structures of the community, products of taxidermy are largely seen as commodities, objects of collection or of trade to other collectors. In some parts of the world, due to colonial expansion into Indigenous areas, mummified human remains were viewed by settling groups as souvenirs, devoid of any social or spiritual element, and European peoples began accumulating mummified remains as though they were equivalent to taxidermied trophies, keepsakes to memorialize the colonizer’s journey. This speaks to the colonial era European mindset more than to Indigenous beliefs and functions of the mummies, but is an important aspect of their history nonetheless.
Lucky rabbit's foot

-Amina Chergui

Taxidermy: Affection

Some animals end up being preserved because of the role they played in life, and a well-known example is Owney the Railway Mail dog. A mutt who was presumably brought to work with his owner some time in 1888, he became friends with the mailmen and started following the mail bags around. Eventually he would follow them onto mail carts and trains, and became a good luck charm for the travelling mail carriers. He started to collect tags from businesses and organizations in the different towns he visited across the United States and Canada. In August of 1895, Owney left from Washington on a steamship voyage around the world, which finished in New York in December of that year. After retiring in 1897, he was given a harness to hold all the tags and display them on his body. He didn’t always want to let people look at them, however, and was shot by the town marshal after biting a mail clerk (Pope, 2011). Having become somewhat of a mascot for the mailmen, it was decided he would be stuffed rather than buried. He was kept in the Albany post office until 1911, at which point he was sent to the Smithsonian Institution. Owney was fittingly commemorated with a postage stamp in 2011, and his likeness also received a restoration to a more lifelike state. 

This newly restored Owney was also safer, since he was originally preserved using arsenic (Blasco, 2011).
See the video below for more about Owney's restoration.

Cisco the dog, preserved by Perpetual Pet

Another form of taxidermy is pet preservation, a moderately active business in the United States which is frequently represented in media, but is in fact less prevalent than it seems. Many pet owners are highly emotionally attached to their pets, and wish to have them in their lives even after their physical death. For some, a memorial is not enough and they want to have the animal itself with them. The pets can be posed actively or as if asleep, and some owners will want to still hold and pet the animals, which can be done if they are well cared for and treated lightly (Perpetual Pet, n.d.). While the practice may seem eccentric to some,  it is actually one of many ways suggested on coping with the loss of a beloved pet. The physical presence is important since so much of the connection humans and animals share is demonstrated through tactile means (Pet Loss, n.d.). Preservation allows people to cuddle their pet and receive the same comfort from them even after they are deceased. The majority of pets people wish to have preserved are dogs or cats, however any sort of animal can be treated to allow their continued physical presence.

The television show American Stuffers (Animal Planet, 2012) focuses on a business which predominantly does this type of preservation; it is a reality-style show, however, so there is just as much, if not more, focus on interpersonal drama and perceived oddity or eccentricity of the customers than on the preservation process itself.

A lizard preserved by Anthony Eddy's Wildlife Studio

-Dylyn Wilkinson

Mummification: Affection

He's without his mummy... oh wait...
An indication of affection as a motive for mummification is the amount of resources and temporal investment involved in the process. The Chinchorro mummies, dating from as early as 7810 BP, are an example. These meticulously treated and preserved bodies, found in the Atacama Desert region of South America, are among the oldest known artificially created mummies in the world (Guillen, 2004). There are at least two distinct types of mummies found from this culture, called Red style and Black style. The former had the skin opened to remove muscle and internal organs, and were then stuffed with reeds, clay, and other materials. A clay mask was then shaped with its eyes and mouth open, perhaps to assist the soul in returning to the body or indicative of interaction with the deceased such as talking to them or feeding them (Arriaza, Hapke & Standen, 1998). They would then be fitted with a long wig of human hair. The Black style mummies were more complex, and were created by disarticulating the body and removing all the soft tissue before forming clay and other materials around the skeleton. The skin was then fitted over this shape and a short, human hair wig was placed on the head. A black clay mask was also present, with small slits to represent the eyes and mouth.
Examining an infant preserved in Black Style.
(See Methods for more detail.)

The sheer amount of work required to preserve bodies in this way indicates a reverence and respect for the dead, as well as an integration of the dead into the world of the living. This integration would have been literal in terms of the time and effort needed to treat the bodies, and may also have been representative of the individual’s continued agency in their society (Dillehay, 2012). Among the Black mummies, most of the recovered bodies were infants and young children, which suggests an element of grieving was involved in the decision to mummify their remains. The later Red mummies represented a wider range of ages, but several infants were also found. While many bodies were found which had been naturally mummified, all the infants recovered were artificially preserved while only some adults were given the treatment. This is hypothesized to be an ideological trend, since it is present in bodies recovered from a variety of times and contexts, and could be explained as a representation of the individual’s continued social presence after their physical death (Arriaza et al, 2005; Dillehay, 2012).

Many of the mummies recovered from Chinchorro sites displayed signs of having been re-painted or repaired. This evidence suggests that the mummified effigies of individuals were likely displayed for quite some time after their death, potentially serving a spiritual or social role, before being buried in small groups of four to six individuals which may have been family groups (Arriaza, Hapke, & Standen, 1998). The long-term upkeep of the bodies before their eventual burials indicates that the connection between the living and the deceased is not severed by physical death, and that they continue to play an important role in the family and community.

The Black style mummy of an adult woman.
© Philippe Plailly/EURELIOS

-Dylyn Wilkinson

Comparison: Affection

Considering the examples of the Chinchorro mummies and modern taxidermied remains of beloved pets and mascots, several similar trends are apparent. The desire to keep the physical presence of a loved one to aid in the grieving and mourning processes is shared, so preservation of the physical body is necessary in both cases. Many taxidermists are hesitant to work on pets, however, since it can be difficult to ensure the appearance will be sufficiently realistic for the customer.  Inevitably some people who seek this treatment for their pets are disappointed, since their loved one is not accurately represented or something may have gone wrong with the preservation. When it is done well, however, some people are even moved to tears, like Stormy in the video below.

Emotions can run high when we are reunited with loved ones, especially if they're deceased.

Owney with his mail clerk companions. 

Accuracy is important when the individual being preserved is specifically important, as opposed to a trophy mount. Any recognizable figure who differs in physical presence from their representation is likely to disappoint, and a desire for realism and historical accuracy was part of the reason Owney was restored, since it was determined from photos in the era that he had a larger snout than he seemed to in his preserved form. Also, he was beginning to lose hair and had been given a jacket by the Smithsonian Institution while he was displayed there to cover up balding patches. Many visitors to the Postal Museum, where he is now housed, have their pictures taken with Owney. Truly, how often does one get a photo opportunity with a celebrity, human or otherwise?
Two adults and two children, presumed to be a family.  © Philippe Plailly/EURELIOS

A lifelike appearance does not seem to be as important in the case of the Chinchorro mummies, although several of them, like Owney, underwent repairs after their initial preservation.  While we are as yet uncertain of the intentions of the Chinchorro culture in mummifying their dead, it is clear that they represented a continued attribution of humanity to the remains and were important enough to have such a large amount of resources dedicated to their symbolic survival. 

While many taxidermied specimens are kept for years or even decades in memory and exhibition, the Chinchorro mummies were eventually buried. We are uncertain whether this was due to a set of beliefs about the physical body’s role after death and a timeline attributed to it, to practical concerns of space in the community or house, or some other reason.

-Dylyn Wilkinson

Taxidermy: Conquest

During the era of Western history in which imperial expansion was at its highest, particularly that of the British Empire, the taxidermy of wild animals obtained from hunting expeditions throughout the colonies was prevalent. The products of these practices would often be placed within museums, which, at their infancy, were increasingly demanding specimens to fill their exhibitions, as well as in the private homes and businesses of the individuals who captured or taxidermied them (Gregory, 2012). The animals selected for this treatment were generally the pinnacle of exotica and danger in the eyes of the hunters, such as large predatory mammals, although there are also instances of non-threatening species being selected as well (Desmond, 2008). In terms of the taxidermy of animals as trophies of the hunt, it was wild species rather than domesticated animals that were selected. The individuals would ideally be at the peak of physicality in order to complete the desired effect of “taming the beast;” elderly or feeble animals would not be deemed worthy of this treatment, although young animals would be included (Desmond, 2008).

The taxidermied animals embodied a duality in both their representations and their contributions to identity construction. These creatures were individualized trophies of a specific hunting incident, representing the singular event in question, but at the same time, were representatives of their species as a whole (Gregory, 2012; Desmond, 2008); if placed in a museum after the hunt and consequential taxidermy, for example, the animal symbolizes both an individual predator/prey scenario for those involved in its procurement, and a generalized depiction of the specific taxa at large. As well, the taxidermied specimen constituted the physical remains of a deceased individual, very much reduced to an object of manufacture, but at the same time is shaped and positioned in a manner to create as life-like a representation as possible, ironically erasing traces of the actual event of the animal’s death from the skin of the resulting figure (Desmond, 2008).

The utilization of the animal in constructing identities is dual in nature as well, for the colonial hunter is enforcing his masculine, dominant identity by exerting his power over that of another, while also contributing to the imperial identity characterized by conquest, plunder, and accumulation of resources and treasures (Gregory, 2012). The taxidermied animal placed within museums as tools in the pursuit of scientific knowledge fosters the image of the colonizing body as subordinating and taming the exotic. In its procurement and modification, the taxidermied figure is employed in the production of both an individual, masculine, power-wielding identity of the hunter, and the general, expansionist, exploiting national identity of the Empire. It can be argued that once the figure loses the original context of how it was procured and by whom, it no longer fosters the individual identity (Gregory, 2012); remaining a symbol of the colonial quest for knowledge and ownership of the exotic, it will continue to support the Imperial identity.

While the practice of modern taxidermy has been transformed into an eccentric hobby, the original intentions of taxidermy, as display pieces of the exotic, remain ubiquitous; museums still employ taxidermied specimens within their exhibits, prioritizing direct observation as the primary method of obtaining knowledge. Often the artifacts of Victorian era taxidermy are stored away and virtually forgotten, outlasting the individuals that manufactured them. Curiously, the deceased animal remains are resurrected by the taxidermy practices for which they were killed, given in a sense an immortality that inevitably outlives the hunter and taxidermist (Desmond, 2008). 


-Amina Chergui