Ancient Egyptian animal mummy 'scandal' revealed

Posted May 11, 2015 by Karen Graham
Animals and pets held a special significance in the afterlife in ancient Egypt. Animal and pet mummies were often buried with the dead as offerings and to help the deceased on their journey to the afterlife. But not all the mummified animals were real.
Catacombs have been found that contain thousands of mummies  like these cat mummies.
Catacombs have been found that contain thousands of mummies, like these cat mummies.
Many of the animal mummies may be nothing more than empty bundles of cloth and twigs, say researchers at the Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester. Their deduction comes after an extensive scanning project.
Over 800 mummies, ranging from cats to birds and crocodiles have been analysed using X-rays and CT scans, and the findings are surprising. Nearly a third of the mummies contained complete animals and were very well preserved. Another third contained only parts of animals while the remainder were empty.
Ancient Egyptians mummified all kinds of animals  birds and reptiles.
Ancient Egyptians mummified all kinds of animals, birds and reptiles.
The researchers suggest there is may be an expkanation. And the answer goes along with what we know about ancient Egyptian religious and funerary practices. The scientists say that the suppliers of the mummies found it difficult to keep up with consumer demand, so they devised a way to keep the public happy.
"Demand for the mummies may have outstripped supply," BBC News reports, citing the cloth bundles as "a scandal at the heart of ancient Egypt's animal mummy industry."
Cats were to become the most popular animal mummified.
Cats were to become the most popular animal mummified.
Dr Lidija McKnight, an Egyptologist from the University of Manchester, said: "There have been some surprises. We always knew that not all animal mummies contained what we expected them to contain, but we found around a third don't contain any animal material at all - so no skeletal remains."
She explained, the embalmers probably used pieces of this and that, such as egg shells, feathers, twigs and mud laying around the workshop to fill out the mummy. Unlike humans, where mummification was used to preserve the body, animal mummies were religious offerings.
Dr Campbell Price, curator of Egypt and Sudan, at Manchester Museum, says we know ancient Egyptians worshipped many gods in animal forms because the animal was thought to be the embodiment of a particular god. An example would be the cat. Cats were believed to represent the goddess Bastet.
Exterior view of tombs of Khety and Barquet III excavated in 1888. These tombs outside of Beni Hasan...
Exterior view of tombs of Khety and Barquet III excavated in 1888. These tombs outside of Beni Hasan, held more than 19 tons of animal mummies and remains, most of them cats.
"Animal mummies were votive gifts. Today you'd have a candle in a cathedral; in Egyptian times you would have an animal mummy. You would go to a special site, buy an animal mummy, using a system of barter. You'd then give it to a priest, who would collect a group of animal mummies and bury them," said Price.
Looking at a quick time-line, Egyptologists have pieced together the rise in the use of animals in religious beliefs in ancient Egypt. By 1500 BC, all kinds of animals, birds and even reptiles were being mummified, from the ibis to dogs, apes, bulls, rams, crocodiles, and even an occasional hippopotamus. But the most common mummy was the cat.
A beautiful mummy and its case.
A beautiful mummy and its case.
Breaking News 2015
By 900 BC, animals started taking on a religious significance, being thought of as the earthly embodiment of a particular god. Temples were constructed to the animal gods, and quite often, the animals roamed the temple, being fed and cared for by the priests until they died. They were then mummified and buried in mass graves.
There have been 30 huge catacombs discovered in Egypt to date, packed from floor to ceiling with literally millions of animal mummies, each tomb dedicated to a single animal. Scientists estimate over 70 million animals were mummified by the ancient Egyptians. "The scale of animal mummification between about 800 BC and into the Roman period was huge," said Dr Price.
From about 320 BC to 30 BC, animals were being raised specifically for the purpose of religious mummification. The mummies were sold to people on their way to a temple to worship the god represented by the mummy, and left as an offering. It has also been discovered that cats were so popular as mummies that young kittens often met with premature deaths, just to fulfill the needs of worshipers. Not only that, but they seemed to fit in the mummy cases easier.
Only one third of the mummy cases had complete animals.
Only one third of the mummy cases had complete animals.
So even though the animals were being mass-bred, mummy makers were still having a hard time keeping up with demand. So it may not have been totally a scam, and buyers may have known they weren't getting a whole animal says Dr. McKnight.
"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," she said. McKnight doesn't think the mummy makers were engaging in real fakery or forgery, instead they were just using anything they could find. The mummies are beautiful, though.