Corruption in the ancient Egyptian industry of animal sacrifices could be the reason Egyptologists are finding so many animal mummies void of skeletal remains.
Egyptologist Professor Lidija McKnight from the University of Manchester, along with her team of researchers, recently discovered that only one-third of the animal mummies studied contained full skeletons.
“We found that in about two-thirds of the cases, we have got some animal skeletal material, but then only in about half of these do we have a complete animal skeleton. So, somewhere between one-third and a half of all the mummies we’ve looked at have a complete animal inside,” McKnight told BBC.
Over 800 mummies were scanned using x-rays and CT scans. Among the mummified remains were cats, birds and crocodiles.
Though recent news reports have indicated this Manchester Museum discovery is new, scans of animal mummies had already been made in 2014 in the United States, with similar results.
In March of last year, Archeology Magazine published an article on the scans made from animal mummies at the Brooklyn Museum in the United States. It had already been determined that several mummies were either empty or contained partial skeletal remains. One mummy, wrapped in the shape of an ibis, actually housed several snakes instead.
This discovery led to suspicions on potential corrupt practices conducted by priests at the time. Egyptologists discovered a document at the necropolis of Saqqara detailing a corruption case against the Temple of Thoth over animal mummies. It referred to what worshippers were paying for and their complaints about what they were receiving instead. Subsequent to that case, reforms were put into place and the statement, “one god in one jar” was written, indicating there could only be one whole animal per mummy.
At the University of Manchester, McKnight has a different point of view. Though many of the casings were empty, others were filled with partial skeletons as well as other organic materials, such as sticks, eggshells, mud, reeds and feathers. According to her, these items were readily available around the embalmers and represented the animals for which the mummies were made.
“They [empty casings] were special because they had been in close proximity with the animals-even though they weren’t the animals themselves,” she told BBC.
Ancient Egyptians were systematically mummified in preparation for the afterlife. A National Geographic article on why humans and animals were similarly mummified explains that though the mummification of animals was not for the afterlife, they were an important burial ritual as they represented religious offerings to the gods. The animals were often as well preserved as humans, as it was believed that animals were indistinguishable from humans with regards to having a soul. Animals were linked to the gods and it was a common belief that some were incarnations of some of the most powerful gods in Ancient Egypt.
Cats were considered the incarnation of Bastet, the protector of women and goddess of joy and music. The apis bull, which was a revered animal in Egypt, was a representation of Osiris, the god of embalming and cemeteries. Hawks were seen as manifestations of Horus, the god of light and the ibis represented Thoth, the god of wisdom and learning. These animals, in addition to lizards, beetles and pets, such as baboons, monkeys and dogs were often buried with humans as offerings to the gods.
The embalming materials used for animals were likened to those used for humans. Ingredients such as animal fats, oils, beeswax, sugar gum, bitumen and pine tree resin were all used to preserve the animals after death. As with humans, the organs were typically removed and the carcasses were rubbed with salt to remove any excess water, thereby minimizing the presence of microbes. The oils and resins were then applied to keep moisture out.
Dr. Campbell Price is the curator of Egypt and Sudan sector at the Manchester Museum.
“We know the Egyptians worshipped gods in animal forms and an animal mummy allowed you some connection with the world of the gods,” BBC quoted Price as saying.
“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.”
Between 800BC and AD400, there was a thriving animal mummy industry in Egypt. Scientists believe up to 70 million animals were mummified during that time. This would indicate that there was a very elaborate and specialized breeding program, as many of the animals were killed specifically for burial and were quite young at the time of death.
BBC’s recent coverage of the findings at the University of Manchester seems to indicate the suspicion of corruption has been assuaged.
The demand for animal mummies, scientists suspect, most likely outweighed the supply at the time. This could have led to the practice of making partial or organically-filled casings that resembled the animals people wished to honor.
Unlike what the Brooklyn Museum determined, McKnight does not believe corruption was a factor.
“We don’t think it’s forgery or fakery,” she said. “It’s just that they were using everything they could find. And often the most beautifully wrapped mummies don’t contain the animal remains themselves.”
Despite the University of Manchester’s stance on the matter, it is still possible that both museums are right. As the Saqqara document indicates, there was some controversy concerning mummified remains of animals, suggesting a strong correlation to corrupt practices. On the other hand, many people may have purchased mummies with only partial remains or empty casings because it was a less-expensive alternative to a whole animal during a period of shortage.
“This was an extremely important economic phenomenon,” Egyptology curator at the Brooklyn Museum Edward Bleiberg told Archeology Magazine. “There was a lot of money being directed toward animal mummies in first millennium.”
Regardless of the ‘truth’ in this area, it is nonetheless notable that 30 catacombs full of animal mummies have been discovered in Egypt. This indicates that the practice of animal mummification was an integral part of Ancient Egyptian life, both religiously and economically.