By Michael E. Miller
What do you call an ancient Egyptian animal mummy with no body inside?
A modern mystery.
Using high powered X-ray machines, British researchers have revealed secrets hidden for almost 3,000 years in the sands of the cradle of civilization. But they have also stirred debate over what those secrets mean for our understanding of ancient Egyptians and their religious beliefs.
As part of a BBC documentary scheduled to air Monday, scientists from the University of Manchester have unveiled CT scans of the insides of more than 800 ancient Egyptian animal mummies. The startling images are as fascinating for what they don’t show, however, as they are for what they do.
Roughly a third of the animal mummies examined were completely empty, Egyptologist Lidija McKnight told The Washington Post. Another third contained only partial skeletons, sometimes as little as a single bone.
“That is the most shocking to most people, that some of them don’t contain what you are expecting,” she said. “I think the more we look at them, the more that becomes sort of commonplace.”
McKnight said that many of the mummies, which date to between 1000 B.C. and 400 A.D., look similar on the outside but contain very different things inside. Two cat mummies, for instance, might look the same but whereas one would contain a complete kitty skeleton, the other would be empty.
The mystery of the empty mummies first surfaced decades ago, she explained.
“Initially, when these mummies were first discovered and the archaeologists unwrapped some of them just to see what was in there, they were quite surprised to see that they weren’t complete animals,” McKnight told The Post. “Some of their reports and their recordings from those times suggest that they thought they were fakes and that perhaps there was some kind of deception going on on the part of the embalmers, who were making these mummies from incomplete remains.
“But I think as time has gone on it’s become clear from the sheer volume we’re looking at that perhaps there is more to it,” she said. Current estimates are that the Egyptians left behind more than 70 million animal mummies.
Many people mistakenly think that all Egyptian mummies were pets sacrificed to accompany their owners into the afterlife, McKnight said. In fact, there were four kinds of animal mummies: cult animals, which were worshiped in life and given elaborate tombs in death; pets enshrined with their owners; animals mummified as food for their owners in the afterlife; and votive offerings.
It’s this last category that made up the vast majority of animal mummies, McKnight said. “They were gifts that would be given to the gods with a prayer, sort of like how a Christian today would light a candle in a church,” she told The Post. “You’d get one of these mummies and you’d ask it to take a message on your behalf to the gods and then wait for the gods to do something in return. That’s kind of their place in the religious belief system of ancient Egypt, and that’s why we think there were so many of them. It was almost sort of an industry that sprang up at the time and continued for more than 1,000 years.”
These wildly popular votive offerings help to explain why Egyptians would want animal mummies that were actually empty or, in some cases, filled with symbolic items such as feathers and egg shells.
“We shouldn’t view animal mummification through our modern, subjective standpoint of fakery and everything being some kind of con,” McKnight said. “There was probably much more to it than that, and there was probably a much more innocent explanation for what was going on. The materials that they were using were just as important as the animals themselves.”
Asked which one of the 800 or so mummies she scanned was her favorite, McKnight said one stood out because it told a story.
“I like the big crocodile,” she said. “He’s got evidence that he’s been hit over the head. We don’t often see evidence where we can say 100 percent the cause of the death for these animals.”
That’s actually one of the things McKnight hopes people take away from her work: that technology allows us to unravel ancient mysteries, without literally unwrapping them.
“They are little time capsules,” she told The Post of the animal mummies, “and we can use modern science to look inside them.”