Egyptologists study mummies made of pets, sacrificial beasts

Monday, October 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Alexandra Witze / The Dallas Morning News

When Fido and Fluffy died in ancient Egypt, they got truly royal burials – designed for eternity.

"Everyone knows that the ancient Egyptians mummified human beings, but few know that they also mummified animals," says Salima Ikram, an archaeologist at the American University in Cairo.

Pets were mummified. So were sacred animals, such as the crocodile and the ibis, a wading bird. So were bits of animals; meat was mummified to feed humans in the afterlife.

But Hollywood has never made a movie about the terrible ibis mummy. Nor have scientists expressed much interest, Dr. Ikram said last month at an Egyptology symposium in Dallas.

"These poor animal mummies have been ignored," she said.

Once, European sailors stuffed cat mummies into ships' holds as ballast. Upon arrival, the mummies were unceremoniously ground up and used for fertilizer.

Only now are scientists realizing how much animal mummies can teach them, said Dr. Ikram.

For instance, researchers can learn about the environment that surrounded the Nile millennia ago. More than a million ibis mummies pack the cemeteries at Hermopolis, south of Cairo. Yet that species of ibis no longer lives in modern, arid Egypt, Dr. Ikram said.

Similarly, many of the mummified fish in the Cairo Museum's collection belong to species that no longer live in the Nile.

By studying the types of materials used to wrap mummies, as well as fragments of plant material caught in the wrapping, scientists can learn what plants were abundant in the area.

Ancient Egyptian undertakers made animal mummies the same way as human mummies. The mummy-makers removed the creature's entrails, then salted the body with a desiccating substance called natron. After several weeks of drying, the body was cleaned, oiled and bandaged for eternity.

Modern scientists understand the basics of this process but still struggle to understand the fine points of mummification. At the Cairo Museum, Dr. Ikram's team tested ways to mummify dead rabbits. Most of the experiments worked. But one rabbit exploded after three weeks of natron treatment.

To learn why and how the ancient Egyptians mummified animals, Dr. Ikram and her colleagues are cataloging the museum's collection of dried critters.

The collection includes an impressive stone sarcophagus with the image of a cat carved on the side. Long thought to be a chest to hold a human's internal organs, the sarcophagus turned out to be the final resting place of a prince's beloved kitty. Inscriptions on the chest linked the cat with the god Osiris, said Frank Yurco, an Egyptologist at the Field Museum in Chicago.

If an ancient Egyptian had a beloved pet – and enough money – the animal often accompanied him or her into the afterlife.

For example, two royal women each had their pet gazelle mummified. The style and quality of wrappings, and the elaborate gazelle coffins, matched the work done for any human mummy, Dr. Ikram said.

Mummified pets could look forward to a good afterlife. Pictures inside tombs show hunting dogs in the midst of pursuit; monkeys eating luscious fruits; and cats with a generous bowl and even table legs to scratch.

Favorite pets probably died of natural causes before their mummification, Dr. Ikram said. X-rays don't reveal broken necks or other signs of trauma on pet mummies.

"I've never found a pet mummy that was willfully killed," she said.

But other animals weren't as lucky. By far, most mummified animals were ritually slaughtered to serve the gods, Dr. Yurco said.

The ibises at Hermopolis, for instance, served as offerings to the god Thoth, as did the thousands of mummified baboons nearby.

At Saqqara, an ancient "city of the dead," some 10,000 cat mummies mark sacrifices to the goddess Bastet, Dr. Yurco said. Many of them were kittens whose necks had been twisted.

By about 700 B.C., huge animal cemeteries had sprung up across Egypt. Few animals escaped the carnage – geese, lizards, scorpions, monkeys, and "just about every kind of critter you can think of," Dr. Yurco said.

Along with pets and animal offerings, sacred animals often ended up as mummies.

The ancient Egyptians believed that a god would inhabit an animal's body during its lifetime, then move on, dalai lama-like, to another body upon death. So the animal host received great mummy attention after its death.

The sacred bulls of the Apis cult got the most special treatment, as they were believed to be the physical manifestations of Osiris. They weren't eviscerated; their internal organs were probably dissolved with a turpentine enema and then removed, Dr. Ikram said. Tendons on the front legs were often cut so that the bull could repose, sphinxlike, in its coffin.

Crocodile cults also mummified their idols. The Cairo Museum collection includes an impressive gilded crocodile mummy nearly 19 feet long, Dr. Ikram said. Ancient authors, like Herodotus, described how sacred crocodile mummies were often decorated with earrings and bracelets. But scientists have yet to discover any such fashionable crocs, Dr. Ikram said.

A fourth category of mummies involved animal parts meant to serve as food for humans. These "victual mummies" were buried in tombs alongside humans, rather than in their own sacred cemeteries, Dr. Yurco said.

X-rays of some shapeless mummy bundles have revealed scrumptious-looking ducks, oxtails, and entire sides of beef ribs inside, Dr. Ikram said. Joints of meat were prepared as if ready for cooking.

"The ancient Egyptians must have been as fond of barbecue as we are today," she said.

While most mummy bundles contain at least an animal body, others are completely empty.

Some elaborately wrapped bundles turn out to contain a twig or single bone of the creature they are meant to represent. Some cat mummies contain cow bones.

Hawk mummies, in particular, are usually fakes – perhaps a reflection of how hard it was to catch the birds, Dr. Ikram suggested. Other mummy-makers apparently cut corners, skipping the expensive and time-consuming steps of actually preserving the body.

And X-rays of one crocodile mummy revealed that it had been put in backward, its head tucked in the tail wrappings, she said.

"Clearly someone was having a bit of a gossip when they were doing their wrapping."