Researching Ancient Egypt’s Animal Mummies

Scientists using powerful X-ray machines have been studying the mummies, and consequently provoking debate about our knowledge of the religious beliefs of ancient Egyptians. The BBC has produced a documentary on the mummies, which will air on Monday, writes Michael E. Miller for The Washington Post.

Researching Ancient Egypt's Animal Mummies

Some mummies empty, others contain partial skeletons

A team of researchers from the University of Manchester made CT scans of over 800 ancient Egyptian animal mummies. Despite the long-held belief that every mummy contains a body, around a third of those scanned were found to be completely empty, while another third contained only partial skeleton, and occasionally as little as one bone.

Egyptologist Lidija McKnight said that despite their apparent cosmetic similarities, many of the mummies contain very different things. For example, one cat mummy may contain a full skeleton, while another will be empty.

Researchers have known about the empty mummies for decades, and they were initially thought to be fakes. Now the sheer volume of empty mummies ha prompted them to change their minds.

Function of animal mummies varied

A lot of people believe that all Egyptian animal mummies were pets sacrificed in order to go with their owners into the afterlife, but McKnight claims there are four types of animal mummies. The first are cult animals, which people worshiped when they were alive before giving them elaborate tombs after they died. Next are the pets which were enshrined with their owners, as well as other animals which were mummified along with their owners to provide food for them in the afterlife, and lastly votive offerings.

The largest proportion of animal mummies were in fact votive offerings, which were offered to the gods in order to gain favors from them. McKnight explains the huge amount of votive mummies by claiming that the practice was “almost sort of an industry that sprang up at the time and continued for more than 1,000 years.”

One explanation for the empty mummies is their use as offerings, which McKnight says means that “the materials that they were using were just as important as the animals themselves.”

McKnight hopes that people realize that modern science allows researchers to investigate ancient artifacts without necessarily taking them apart. “They are little time capsules,” she said, “and we can use modern science to look inside them.”