For almost half a century, researchers at the Haifa Museums in Israel thought that a pair of miniature Egyptian mummies housed in their collections contained human hearts. But when museum staff brought the sarcophagi to a local hospital for a computerized tomography (CT) scan last month, they realized the ancient wrappings actually concealed the remains of a bird and a wad of grain and mud, reports Rossella Tercatin for the Jerusalem Post.
The mummified bird is probably a falcon. Interestingly, it appears to be missing a key body part: namely, its left leg.
The bird is also missing several organs. Its neck is broken—an injury that probably occurred after death, according to Javitt.
Aside from the fact that the artifacts are Egyptian and between 2,500 and 3,000 years old, experts know little about their history and provenance, says Ron Hillel, registrar and head of collection management at the Haifa Museums, to Live Science. The so-called grain mummy measures around 18 inches long, while the other is closer to 10 inches long.
The sarcophagus containing the bird skeleton features a painted mask of the Egyptian god Horus, who is typically depicted in the form of a falcon.
Javitt tells Michael Havis of the Daily Mail that the ancient Egyptians often placed objects—including the remains of certain animals—inside tombs because they believed these items would accompany the dead into the afterlife.
“And birds in ancient Egypt had a very important role,” she explains, “ … because they were thought to be protectors, so they would often place them in the tombs with the pharaohs. I’m not saying this bird came from the tomb of a pharaoh but it’s conceivable that it had something to do with that kind of story.”
It’s also possible that the mummified bird didn’t accompany humans to the afterlife, but was one of the millions of animals the ancient Egyptians sacrificed and embalmed to appease or deliver messages to the gods.
Certain animals were thought to have special relationships with the gods they resembled. If these creatures were properly mummified, their souls would be able to deliver a message directly to the deity in question—in this case, Horus.
Per the Daily Mail, the second sarcophagus studied by the Haifa team is decorated with a mask that represents Osiris, the Egyptian god who supplanted the jackal-headed Anubis as lord of the underworld.
“During Osiris festivals that were held, [the ancient Egyptians] would produce these,” Hillel tells Live Science. “It would be a mixture of a clay or sand with these grains, and then they would dip it in water and the grains would germinate,” binding the god to life and the fertile Earth.
He adds that the researchers hope to conduct additional tests on the artifacts to uncover more of their secrets, including their exact age. Eventually, the museum plans to display the mummies in a special exhibition featuring images captured by the CT scans.