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It sounds like the beginnings of a detective tale: researchers in the UK recently scanned 300 animal mummies from Egypt only to discover that a full third held no bodies. Instead of bones, they found mud, sticks, eggshells. Even feathers.
As reported by Live Science, scientists at the Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank Project, based at the University of Manchester’s leading KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, applied X-ray and CT scans to mummies as part of a massive cataloguing effort. The technology offers an inside view of the tightly wrapped bundles without the damage incurred by unrolling them.
Finding a few boneless animal mummies would have been mostly disappointing — they’re not new and are generally regarded as forgeries — but researchers have never come across them on such a large scale. The discovery has given rise to the theory that these were actually made on purpose by devout worshippers.
“The Egyptians believed that fragments of animals or materials associated with the animals (i.e. mud, nest material, eggs etc.) were just as important as the animals themselves,” research associate Lidija McKnight told Hyperallergic. “They used all sorts of materials to construct mummy bundles, which to modern eyes appear strange, but to them would have been absolutely normal.”
The Egyptians mummified everything from jackals and crocodiles to cats and birds, often dedicating entire catacombs to them (as the tourist attraction of “Tomb of the Birds” in Saqqara shows). Scientists estimate that Egyptians entombed up to 70 million animals from 800 BC through Roman times for varying reasons. Some wanted to remember a beloved pet (an intention that isn’t that foreign today — the writer Charles Dickens famously had his favorite cat’s paw turned into a letter opener after it died). Others wanted to ensure they’d accompany their animals into the afterlife, and still others simply wanted to store up some food for the next world.
Animals were also closely connected to religious beliefs, and those mummies scanned at the University of Manchester are believed to have been served up as votive offerings to the gods. While the researchers can’t entirely rule out the possibility that the boneless packages were created by fraudulent embalmers, the evidence suggests otherwise.
“The extent to which these mummies exist and our knowledge of Egyptian beliefs indicates that these mummies are most likely authentic and just as worthy of dedication to the gods as the animal themselves,” she said, adding that they also show how important animal cults were to the Egyptians.
The team’s research will be presented in October in Gift for the Gods, a new exhibition partly curated by McKnight at the Manchester Museum. Visitors to the show will get to see some of the mummies firsthand and also learn about their backgrounds — how they were discovered and wound up in the UK — and what the future of mummy studies might be.
Here’s one hint: McKnight and her colleagues are currently in the process of making their own animal mummies. She says it will help the scientists test their hypotheses, as well as provide some empathetic insight into the “trials and tribulations” the Egyptian embalmers would have endured.