Three mummified animals have been digitally unwrapped and dissected in unprecedented detail, providing, the researchers say, new insights into religion and human-animal relationships in ancient Egypt.
Previous investigations had identified the animals as a snake, a bird and a cat, but little else was known about what lay inside the wrappings.
However, high-resolution 3D scans allowed a team of engineers, archaeologists, biologists and Egyptologists to gather new evidence of how they lived, the conditions they were kept in, and the possible causes of death.
X-ray micro CT scanning can generate images with a resolution 100 times greater than a medical CT scan, revealing even the smallest bones and teeth.
“Using micro CT, we can effectively carry out a post-mortem on these animals, more than 2000 years after they died in ancient Egypt,” says research leader Richard Johnston of Swansea University, UK. The three mummies are from the university’s Egypt Centre.
Used in materials science to image internal structures on the micro-scale, the method involves building a 3D volume (or tomogram) from many individual projections or radiographs. The shape can then be 3D printed or used in virtual reality.
Analysis of images of the teeth and skeleton indicate that the cat was in fact a kitten, less than five months old, and may have had its neck broken at the time of death or during mummification to keep the head in an upright position.
Measurements of the mummified bird of prey suggest it most closely resembled the Eurasian kestrel. It did not appear to have died from injuries to the neck.
The snake was identified as an Egyptian Cobra (Naja haje), and evidence of kidney damage suggests it was deprived of water during its life, developing a form of gout.
Analysis of bone fractures shows it was ultimately killed by a whipping action, prior to possibly undergoing an “opening of the mouth” procedure during mummification.
If true this demonstrates the first evidence for complex ritualistic behaviour applied to a snake, the authors write in a paper in the journal Scientific Reports.
The ancient Egyptians mummified a number of animals, including cats, ibis, hawks, snakes, crocodiles and dogs.
Sometimes these were buried with their owner or as a food supply for the afterlife, but the most common were votive offerings, bought by visitors to temples to offer to the gods as a means of communication.
Animals were bred or captured by keepers, then killed and embalmed by temple priests. It is believed that as many as 70 million animal mummies were created in this way, the researchers say.
Credit: Swansea University
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