Researchers have used cutting-edge scanning techniques to digitally unwrap ancient mummified animals that haven't been gazed upon for over 2,000 years, including a domestic kitten, a bird of prey, and a gout-ridden cobra.
The research is not just a feat of imaging technology but also unravels some incredible insights into the diet, deification, and deaths of ancient Egyptian animal mummies.
Reported in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of engineers, Egyptologists, and biologists led by Swansea University in the UK explain how they managed to obtain super-high-resolution 3D images of the mummies using non-invasive X-ray microCT imaging.
Typical imaging techniques have their drawbacks: standard X-rays produce 2-dimensional images and medical CT scans are relatively low resolution. However, X-ray microCT imaging is able to build high-resolution three-dimensional images that can then be 3D-printed or placed into virtual reality, allowing for a broader analysis.
The mummified cat was an especially interesting subject. The imaging revealed the animal was a young cat, not older than 5 months, as shown by its unerupted teeth hidden within the jaw bone. It also had some separated vertebrae, indicating it might have had its neck snapped at the time of death or during the mummification process.
Measurements of the mummified bird suggest that it was most likely a species close to the Eurasian kestrel, a relatively small bird of prey found across much of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Then comes the mummified snake. The researchers believe the snake was a venomous species known as the Egyptian cobra (Naja haje). Shattered vertebrates suggest this snake was killed by a person through a whipping motion commonly used to kill snakes. It certainly didn't seem like a pleasant death, but it looks like its life was no slither in the park, either. The researchers noted its kidneys were damaged, suggesting it was severely dehydrated and suffering from a form of gout.
It’s estimated there are over 70 million animal mummies throughout the world. In the context of ancient Egypt, they were used to communicate with the gods, most likely given as offerings when people visited temples. Each animal, it appears, held its own significance and meaning. For example, the study explains: “Cobras were also associated with solar deities, such as those goddesses who were the daughters of the sun god, and with primeval (creational) gods such as Atum… The spitting cobra, while feared, could thus be protective and creational.”
Interestingly, the snake also appears to have had its mouth artificially prized open during mummification, an ancient Egyptian ritual described in funerary texts as the "opening of the mouth" procedure.
"The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony allowed statues of deities and the dead to regain their senses, to 'see' into the realm of the living.... Not only the mouth but the other senses, such as sight, were ‘opened’," Dr Carolyn Graves?Brown, study author and curator of the Egypt Centre at Swansea University, explained to IFLScience.
"It would be carried out on a mummified animal so that the animal could then act as a go-between between gods and the donating person," she added. "It also allowed the inanimate object to act as a host for divinity."
Although we'll perhaps never know the true meaning behind these incredible preserved animals, this new research is helping to unearth some of their mysteries.