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A Third of Animal Mummies Contain no Animals at All

Researchers discover ancient Egyptians peddled fake animal mummies.

(Mario Sánchez/https://www.flickr.com/photos/mariosp/4423733728/)
smithsonian.com

It’s a scandal thousands of years in the making: Recently, scientists at the Manchester Museum and University of Manchester discovered that a third of the museum’s collection of Ancient Egyptian animal mummies were empty.

 "We always knew that not all animal mummies contained what we expected them to contain," Dr Lidija McKnight, an Egyptologist from the University of Manchester, tells Rebecca Morelle for BBC News, "but we found around a third don't contain any animal material at all — so no skeletal remains." That the number of fakeries was that high, McKnight says, was a surprise. 

Scientists discovered the ersatz mummies while conducting a scanning project to document how well the remains were preserved. After analyzing over 800 mummies of all shapes and sizes, the team was stunned to discover that only a third contained intact remains. Another third of the animal mummy collection was stuffed with partial remains and the last third had no animal parts whatsoever.

While the Ancient Egyptians mummified humans in order to preserve their bodies for the afterlife, animal mummies were religious offerings, similar to lighting a candle in a church. And researchers believe they were in high demand: over the years, Egyptian excavations have uncovered around 30 catacombs stacked floor-to-ceiling with mummified animals, Morelle writes.Which means that mummifying animals was probably big money in Ancient Egypt and was likely done on an industrial scale. Scientists believe the animals were likely bred en masse specifically to be turned into mummies.

Mummy makers would have had a hard time keeping up with demand, and turned to other materials to fill out their quotas. However, as Dr. McKnight tells Morelle, the Ancient Egyptians might not have been bothered by buying animal-free mummies:

We think they were mummifying pieces of animals that were lying around, or materials associated with the animals during their lifetime - so nest material or eggshells. They were special because they had been in close proximity with the animals - even though they weren't the animals themselves. So we don't think it's forgery or fakery. 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.

At the least, maybe it was the thought of Fluffy tagging along with you into the afterlife that counted.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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