Scientists have 'digitally unwrapped' some Egyptian animal mummies, including a kitten and cobra

Researchers analyzed the 2,000-year-old mummies of a cat, bird and snake using high resolution 3D scans.

Posted: Aug 22, 2020 5:50 PM
Updated: Aug 22, 2020 5:50 PM

Researchers at a UK university have "digitally unwrapped" three mummified animals from ancient Egypt using high-resolution 3D scans.

The team were also able to dissect the mummies to learn how the animals lived and died more than 2,000 years ago, according to a press release from the University of Swansea in Wales, published Thursday.

Previous research had shown that the mummies contained a snake, a bird and a cat, but now X-ray micro CT scanning -- which gives images 100 times more detailed than a medical CT scan -- means scientists have even been able to look at the animals' teeth.

"Using micro CT we can effectively carry out a post-mortem on these animals, more than 2000 years after they died in ancient Egypt," said Richard Johnston, a professor at Swansea University, who led the research.

"These are the very latest scientific imaging techniques. Our work shows how the hi-tech tools of today can shed new light on the distant past."

Researchers found the cat was less than five months old, and separation of its vertebrae suggest it was strangled to death, while the bird was identified as a Eurasian kestrel, thanks to virtual bone measurement.

The snake was a juvenile Egyptian cobra, and scientists found evidence of kidney damage, which means it probably suffered from a lack of access to water and developed a form of gout.

Researchers say the cobra was killed by a "whipping action" and may have been subject to the "opening of the mouth" ceremony during mummification.

This ceremony, which doesn't necessarily involve physically opening the mouth, was carried out on human mummies and statues of gods, and there is some evidence of it being done to mummified animals.

"The idea of it is that you make something, by carrying out the ritual, divine," said Carolyn Graves-Brown, curator of the Egypt Centre at Swansea University. "You make it be able to act in the real world."

Graves-Brown believes that small balls found in the cobra's mouth may mean it was subject to the ceremony, and if it were it would be the first evidence of complex ritualistic behavior applied to a snake.

Mummified animals such as cats, snakes, crocodiles and dogs were common in ancient Egypt. Sometimes they were buried with their owner, or provided as a source of food in the afterlife.

However, most often mummified animals were taken to temples as an offering to the gods.

"Millions and millions of mummified animals have been found, so much so that in the past, in the Victorian times, they used to use them as compost to put on the land," said Graves-Brown.

Some big museums have collections of millions of mummies, and it's unlikely they would carry out this kind of scanning on a large scale, because of the amount of work involved in scanning and analyzing the resulting data.

However, the technology could open many new avenues of research -- for example, revisiting mummified bird samples to determine the exact species, the researchers said.

In November 2019, Egypt unveiled an unprecedented discovery of dozens of mummified sacred animals, including cats, crocodiles and two lion cubs, found during the excavation of a tomb of a royal priest.

Khaled El-Enany, Egypt's minister of antiquities, said the find dated back to the seventh century BC and could fill "a museum by itself."

And in April 2019 the ministry announced the discovery of a preserved double graveyard containing the remains of a man, his wife, and mummified animals, including cats and mice.

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