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100-Year-Old Sacred Congolese Statues Have Digestive Tracts

This statue has legitimate plumbing. From the Indy Star's Robert Scheer. indy.st/IovdDI

The headline pretty much says it all.

If you aren’t a regular reader of the Indianapolis Star, you may have missed this awesome article about how sacred statues sculpted by the Songye people contain carefully dug out digestive tracts.

The Songye people, who live in the Democratic Republic of Congo, use the statues in fertility and war ceremonies.

Experts had long known that the priests inserted materials in to the statues’ mouths and other orifices “to enhance the figures’ magico-religious powers,” said Richard McCoy, a conservator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, to the Indy Star.

For example, McCoy said the statues had food, dirt struck by lightning and the teeth of albino men stuffed in their orifices.

But nobody expected a fully carved digestive tract inside the figures, McCoy told the Indy Star.  ”We were blown away.”

McCoy made the discovery when he put a 100-year-old Songye figure in an X-ray machine. After the initial discovery in 2006, he started visiting other museums to see if these digestive tracts are common.

And indeed they are: He discovered that some 42 Songye statues have carved out digestive tracts.

McCoy has now graduated from studying the digestive tracts in two-dimensions (using X-ray images) to studying the figures in three-dimensions (using computer tomography, or CT scans).

It’s not the first time conservation scientists have used CT to look at artifacts. They’ve used the technique for years to investigate cultural heritage objects ranging from ancient Egyptian cat mummies to 17th century globes of the world.

4 Comments

  • Apr 24th 201218:04
    by Captain Pegleg

    Reply

    Why did they write this and not include a CT image showing the “digestive tract”?

  • Apr 25th 201206:04
    by Sarah Everts

    Reply

    This news is from a newspaper article… I expect the researchers want to publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal at some point, and journals can be pretty strict about republishing data (such as a CT scan) that’s been already published elsewhere–even mainstream media. But that’s just my guess.

  • May 9th 201214:05
    by Richard McCoy

    Reply

    I’m just seeing this post today; thanks for posting it and your kind words! And you’re right, Sarah, I’m working on article that will feature these images.

  • May 31st 201202:05
    by George Lungu

    Reply

    These statues might have been built for educational purpose :-). Thanks for posting.

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