Egyptian Animal Mummies “Unwrapped” with Unobtrusive X-Ray Imaging

3-D imaging allows for in-depth study without disturbing ancient artifacts

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Archaeologists can now see inside animal mummies without desecrating them, Science Alert reported. The world’s fascination with ancient Egyptian mummification has often conflicted with locals’ wishes that they remain undisturbed. Why were they preserved in the first place?

Woman worshiping a mummified animal
Ancient Egyptians followed the practice of mummification of animals for various reasons, including spiritual beliefs of worshipping sacred creatures. Painting by John Weguelin / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

According to Science Alert, a world-famous ancient Egyptian burial practice can now be studied while still being preserved. “A cat, a snake, and a bird that were mummified in ancient Egypt have undergone non-invasive, high-resolution 3D X-ray scans, helping us to understand how they were kept, and the complex mummification procedures practiced thousands of years ago,” the article said.

“The new work can also help us to understand the relationships ancient Egyptians had with animals, and the roles those animals played in their complex spiritual lives. Millions of mummified animals have been found—everything from scarabs to puppies, to ibises, to crocodiles.”

So why do this in the first place? And how? Egyptian animal mummification was a major part of the ancient culture’s spiritual beliefs.

When Kitty’s Nine Lives Are Up

According to Dr. Bob Brier, Egyptologist and Senior Research Fellow at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, there were four reasons Egyptians mummified their animals.

“First, animals were sometimes placed in tombs as food for the deceased,” Dr. Brier said. “Also, sometimes pets were mummified—you know, you could take Fido to the next world with you. A third reason was animals were sacrificed to the gods and mummified as offerings.

“And the fourth, and the rarest, and probably the most interesting, was sometimes an animal was viewed as a god; and when it died, it was preserved and buried like a god.”

However, Dr. Brier said that contrary to popular belief, ancient Egyptians likely didn’t worship animals. Instead, Egyptologists believe that the relationship between ancient Egyptians and animals was that rather than see every alley cat and stray dog as a god, certain gods were simply associated with certain types of animals. The goddess Bastet was depicted as a woman with the head of a cat.

So Bastet is our cat goddess, but not every cat was Bastet,” he said. “So in some ways, Bastet would’ve had a soft spot in her heart for cats, but not every cat in the street was viewed by the Egyptians as a god.”

The only clear exception is the Apis bull.

Apis Bull

Egyptian beliefs about the Apis began with how they thought it was born.

“Lightning came from the heavens, struck a cow, conceiving the Apis, and then the Apis was born—so it is part god, part terrestrial beast,” Dr. Brier said. “The Apis had special markings: It had a diamond shape on its forehead, it had a scarab shape under its tongue, it had wings on its back, and its tail hairs were doubled at the ends.”

Dr. Brier said that when the Apis was born, it lived in a temple and was pampered, perfumed, and treated like a god. Additionally, only one Apis was alive at once, and when it died, the search for the new Apis began, much like reincarnation of the Dalai Lama in Buddhism. While the search was underway, they mummified the Apis. Oddly, although the Egyptians never wrote down mummification procedures for humans, there are instructions for the Apis bull.

“It says that when you’re mummifying it, the Apis should be clamped to a board—a mummification board—with 22 clamps,” Dr. Brier said. “It gives us the number of clamps, it tells us which priests should be present. It even gives us the names of the bandages, the magical names of the bandages, and it tells us in what order we place those bandages around the mummy.

“And when it refers to the mummy, it says wrap the god’s skull; wrap the god’s leg.”

It appears to be the only situation in which an animal in Egypt is revered as a god, thus clearing up the explanation for the fourth and final reason an animal was mummified.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Bob Brier contributed to this article. Dr. Brier is an Egyptologist and Senior Research Fellow at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Hunter College and PhD in Philosophy from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.