It’s a quandary that used to puzzle archaeologists: Why and how did ancient Egyptians mummify so many birds? Now, writes the International Business Times’ Hannah Osborne, 3D imaging has revealed answers — not only did ancient Egyptians use birds of prey for religious offerings, but they bred and force-fed them.
Osborne writes that a recent 3D scan of a mummified kestrel revealed that it choked to death on a mouse. Mouse teeth and sparrow portions were also found inside the bird, suggesting that it was force-fed.
It’s “the first real evidence for keeping raptors in captivity,” the study’s authors write. They think that the birds were bred as a sacrifice to the sun god Re. Osborne notes that the mummified bird even suggests that Egyptians bred other animals, such as dogs, ibises and cats.
The study contains intriguing details on the role of animal sacrifices in ancient Egypt. The authors write:
Certain animals, recognizable to the priests by their markings, were thought to act as hosts for the divine spark of a particular deity. During its lifetime, such an animal would be worshiped and catered to as the living god; upon its death it would be buried with great pomp, amidst national mourning. The god's spirit would then migrate to the body of another distinctly marked animal, and the cycle would continue...votive offerings in the form of animal mummies were given, a custom that became particularly popular from c. 600 BC until the Roman era, stopping in c. AD 250. These animal mummies were of the same species associated with the deity in question, but were not sacred themselves.
Given ancient Egyptians’ love of mass animal mummifications (like the tomb filled with millions of dog mummies found in Anubis), it would make sense for a mass breeding program to have existed. But it’s possible that raptor breeding served another purpose, too: hunting.