X-Rays Offer Snapshot of Animal Mummification in Ancient Egypt

(Photo courtesy of Richard Johnston / Swansea University)

(CN) — Scientists used a novel X-ray technique called microCT to analyze a mummified cat, a bird and a snake from ancient Egypt, providing researchers with new clues about the animals’ lives, deaths and the process by which they were mummified.

Researchers examined the three mummified animals to shed some light on the relationship between animals and humans in the distant past for a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports. Thanks to the high-resolution imaging, they were even able to print 3-D models of the animals’ skulls for closer examination.

An X-ray microCT scan, short for microcomputed tomography, allows one to view the inside of an object in three-dimensions by scanning it into small slices and reassembling those slices so that they provide volumetric information. It’s similar to the CT scan found in hospital settings, but one which provides 100 times greater detail and allows for the identification of internal structures in whatever is being scanned.

“Thousands of years after the production of these mummified animals, the X-ray microCT technique facilitates new investigations, revealing ‘harder’ skeletal structures, mummification materials, and even desiccated soft tissues,” according to the study. “Improved understanding of animal mummification through scientific imaging can thus inform conservation and understanding of past human-animal relationships.”

The researchers determined the cat to be less than five months old at the time of its death by examining its dentition. Cats, long held in high esteem by ancient Egyptians, were seen as magical creatures by some and worshipped by others. 

Interestingly, the researchers found it to be only about half the size of its mummy wrapper. The cat’s neck may have been intentionally broken either before or during the mummification process to keep its head erect during the procedure.

The bird examined closely resembles a Eurasian kestrel, a small falcon with distinct plumage and a black-tipped gray tail. The bird also suffered injuries to its neck, but they did not appear to be the cause of its death, according to the authors. The authors said the improved resolution of the microCT scan allowed them to identify the bird to the species level.

The snake is thought to be a juvenile Egyptian cobra, which may have been killed ritualistically. In Ancient Egypt it was common to kill snakes by grabbing their tail and whipping them to break the spine, which appears to be the cause of death for this particularly unfortunate specimen. The snake’s mouth had been filled with hardened resin, which led researchers to the conclusion of ritual sacrifice.

In the ancient Egyptian religion, it was thought important to preserve the body in as close to a life-like form as possible. Mummification was practiced for over 2,000 years throughout most of ancient Egyptian history, beginning around 2600 B.C., and continuing well into the Roman era. The process took a group of priests 70 days to complete and was within the means of only the wealthiest Egyptians.

“The animal mummification ‘industry’ required high production volumes, necessitating significant infrastructure, resources, and staffing of farms that reared animals for mummification and subsequent sale,” the study authors wrote. “Dedicated keepers were employed to breed the animals, while other animals were imported or gathered from the wild. Temple priests killed and embalmed the animals so they were made suitable as offerings to the gods.”

Animals were mummified for a variety of reasons, often to serve as food for a nearby mummified human, or to provide companionship in the afterlife. Many species underwent the procedure, with cats, dogs, birds, hawks, snakes and crocodiles being the most common. Temple visitors could even purchase mummified animals as an offering to the gods, much as church visitors today light candles and incense.

Researchers hope that studying the process behind ancient animal mummification will shed some light on future conservation work and fill in some of the blanks on how animals and humans interacted during ancient times.

“In this study we applied microtomography to the study of three Egyptian animal mummies. Application of this methodology provided insight into the life and death of these animals, mummification processes, and handling/ storage in the following thousands of years,” said the authors. “This can give valuable information on ancient Egyptian attitudes towards animals and the ancient Egyptian religion.”

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