70 Million Mummified Animals in Egypt Reveal Dark Secret of Ancient Mummy Industry
Ancient Egyptians not only mummified their dead human ancestors, but they also mummified animals in their millions.
Up to 70 million animals can be mummified and buried in underground catacombs at over thirty sites across Egypt.
A team of radiographers and Egyptologists at Manchester University’s Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital used the new medical imaging equipment to study hundreds of animal mummies, removed from Egypt during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The largest survey of its kind in history will appear in Horizon’s BBC program “70 Million Animal Mummies: Egypt’s Dark Secret,” set to air this week (Monday, May 11). The documentary will examine animal mummification practices in ancient Egypt, and how many creatures were bound and buried in catacombs.
The University of Manchester system used CT scans and X-rays to look at 800 mummies, 1000 B.C., And A.D.400.
The program will investigate ancient Egypt’s huge animal mummification industry and why many of the carefully prepared, elaborately wrapped mummies found no bodies inside.
Study leader Dr. Lidija Mcknight said in a University of Manchester press release, “We always knew that not all animal mummies contained what we expected to find, but we found that a third contained no animal material at all-so no skeletal remains.”
Many animal-shaped gods were revered by ancient Egyptians. Mummified animals were considered holy gifts and used as offerings. Since this was such a common religious custom and demand was so high, some animals are thought to have suffered close or completed local extinction.
McKnight told The Washington Post, “You ‘d get one of those mummies and ask them to take a message to gods on your behalf and then wait for gods to do something in return.
That’s kind of their place in ancient Egypt’s religious belief system, and that’s why we think there were so many of them. It was almost an industry that sprang up at the time and continued over 1,000 years.
In the study, numerous animal mummies were studied, including wading birds, cats, falcons and shrews, and a five-foot-long crocodile. Scans showed that the mummified crocodile contained eight baby crocodiles carefully prepared and tied together, and bundled with the mother in one large crocodile-shaped mummy.
One cat-shaped mummy contained only a few bits of cat bone, and other objects contained no animal parts whatsoever, but rather carried fillers such as dirt, rocks, reeds, and eggshells, writes news site HNGN. The filler items were considered unusual since they were linked to the animals and were thought to have acted as symbolic remains.
One of the catacombs alone contained two million mummified ibis birds, and a network of tombs housed up to eight million mummified dogs.
Such enormous figures and the remarkable durability of bodies indicate that ancient Egypt ‘s animal mummification industry was massive.
The BBC reports, “Some experts suggest animal mummies were being sold to Egyptian pilgrims and so the ancient embalmers could make more profit by selling ‘fake’ mummies, others like Lidija believe their evidence that the ancient embalmers considered sacred even the smallest parts of the animals [and] made just as much effort to mummify them correctly.”
The temple complex in Saqqara holds millions of animal mummies to this day, yet to be excavated and cataloged by experts. Griffith University, Australia’s molecular biologist Sally Wasef collected samples of bones from these mummies to analyze their DNA and determine if they had been ‘farmed’ or intensively grown.
In 2011, Smithsonian curator Melinda Zeder spoke to the BBC about the phenomenally large animal offering industry, saying: “The ancient Egyptians were not concerned with death — they were concerned with life. And what they did to prepare for mummification was just looking at life after death and a way to preserve themselves forever.”
“Priests would sacrifice the animal for you, mummify it and then put it in a catacomb in your honor. So it was a way to get a good standing in the eyes of whatever god it was,” she said.
While research at the University of Manchester raises many questions about the mummification industry, McKnight says the preserved offerings serve as tiny time capsules, allowing a glimpse of the ancient techniques and rituals associated with religion, life, and death.