Many Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies Aren't What They Appear To Be

Illustration for article titled Many Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies Aren't What They Appear To Be

An extensive scanning project has revealed that about one-third of all ancient Egyptian animal mummies are devoid of animal remains, and are instead bundles of cloth filled with mud, sticks, and reeds.


As reported in the BBC, the scanning project, in which more than 800 animal mummies were analyzed with X-rays and CT scans, was conducted at Manchester University and the University of Manchester. The Egyptologists were expecting to uncover “fakes,” but not this many. Of the items examined, one-third contained the remains of complete animals, such as cats, crocodiles, and birds. A similar proportion contained partial animal remains. But the rest were empty, stuffed with organic materials such as mud, sticks, and reeds. Some were stuffed with items associated with animals, including feathers and eggshells.

Ancient Egyptians used animal mummies as religious offerings. The practice was so widespread and entrenched that upwards of 70 million animals may have been mummified from around 800 BC to Roman times. Manchester Museum’s Campbell Price says it was done on an “industrial scale,” but that the intense demand could not met by the supply. Hence the practice of embalmers stuffing the apparent mummies with whatever they could find.

That said, the archaeologists say it’s probably not accurate to refer to these partial or empty mummies as fakes or a scam:

“We think there is probably more to it than that,” Dr McKnight told the BBC.

“We think they were mummifying pieces of animals that were lying around, or materials associated with the animals during their lifetime - so nest material or eggshells.

“They were special because they had been in close proximity with the animals - even though they weren’t the animals themselves.

“So we don’t think it’s forgery or fakery. It’s just that they were using everything they could find. And often the most beautifully wrapped mummies don’t contain the animal remains themselves.”

More at the BBC.

Image: AP/Damian Dovarganes.



David Gustafson

This works as a reminder to me that we don’t know as much about ancient religions as the casual onlooker might think. For all we know, it was common knowledge that the animal mummies weren’t the actual mummified animal. (It seems unlikely to me that somebody wouldn’t open one up, sometime, just to see what it looked like.) Always good to remember that only a tiny fraction of one percent of things written down, thousands of years ago, have survived to this day, and most of that knowledge is gone forever.