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Ancient pets preserved: the Egyptians went to great lengths to mummify dead animals
Science World. (Oct. 18, 2010)
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Archaeologists found a hunting dog and a baboon buried together in an ancient Egyptian tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes. The animals died around 1400 B.C.; yet they were so well preserved that they still have their fur. How is that possible? The dog and baboon are mummies.

Mummies are bodies that have stayed largely intact for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians are well-known for mummifying humans, but scientists are discovering that they created mummies of the animal sort--cats, rams, crocodiles, birds, and many other creature--even more frequently.

"Animal mummies are the most commonly preserved artifacts from ancient Egypt," says Edward Bleiberg, curator of Egyptian, classical, and ancient Middle Eastern art at New York City's Brooklyn Museum. "There are millions of them." And each mummy has its own story to tell.


Normally, a dead body decays until it's nothing but bones. That's because bacteria in the body, together with insects and animals, feed on the body's organs, soft tissues, and fluids, causing them to decompose, or break down.

The ancient Egyptians believed that a being would live forever in an afterlife if its body was preserved. Around 2600 B.C., they developed a way to slow down the decaying process. They began to mummify human remains using a complex procedure that killed bacteria and dried out the body so microorganisms couldn't grow (see Nuts & Bolts, p. 8).

About a thousand years later--around 1500 B.C.--Egyptian mummy makers turned to animal subjects as well. Some animals were mummified to serve as food in the afterlife for Egyptians who had died. Mummified pets were placed in their owners tombs to accompany them to the afterlife. Other animals were mummified as offerings to gods, or because the Egyptians believed that the spirit of a god lived within the animal.



Experts believe that animal mummies were very important to the ancient Egyptians. But until recently, few people studied them. The reason: It is very difficult to see what is inside the mummies without mining them.

In the 1800s, researchers simply unwrapped mummies, destroying them in the process. "Unwrapping a mummy is not as simple as peeling a banana," says Bleiberg. "It's very hard to get the wrappings off because of the resins that have been poured into them. So very often the body was damaged." A body can also decay once it is unwrapped.

In the 1930s, researchers began to use X-rays to try to see what was inside mummies. However, the images were not completely clear.

Today, scientists examine mummies using high-tech digital X-rays called computed tomography, or CT, scans. The scans give the researchers clear, 3-D images of a mummy's insides without the sarcophagus being pried open or the linens being destroyed. "The body is completely undisturbed, and we get to see the way it looked when the ancient Egyptians prepared it," says Bleiberg.


CT scanning a mummy is no small feat. Five to eight people carefully pack the mummy and transport it by van to a nearby hospital. They bring the mummy in on a gurney, just like they would a live patient. Then they slide the mummy into the hospital's doughnut-shaped CT scanner on a board.



The CT scanner has detectors all the way around it. The detectors circle the mummy in a spiral pattern, shooting it with high-energy waves (X-rays). The scanner takes approximately 1,500 images of the preserved remains.

"The X-rays go all the way through the mummy, capturing the mummy in three dimensions," says Jonathan Elias, director of the Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. "We can capture everything about that mummy on film."

Scientists have been using CT scans on human mummies since 1975. They began using the technology on animal mummies about five years later. Although X-rays remain the most common method for studying mummified animals, more and more scientists are using CT scans on animal mummies. The process is the same as with human mummies, but scanning is usually much quicker with preserved animals. Imaging a small animal mummy takes only seconds, while scanning a human mummy takes about five minutes.

Although animal mummies may be faster to image than human mummies, it is more challenging to see inside them--even with such high-tech tools. "When the ancient Egyptians made animal mummies, they tended to fold the limbs inward, all bunched up," says Elias. "So the mummies axe very dense, making it hard to see what's going on." The tiny size of many animals also makes the CT scans more difficult to read.


Researchers say they can learn a lot about the ancient Egyptians from examining animal mummies. CT scans can show scientists how the Egyptians treated the animals when alive, and if and how they killed them. "[That] would give us a better understanding of the Egyptian culture," says Elias.

Scientists are also investigating whether the ancient Egyptians used the same process to make both animal mummies and human mummies. Researchers, for example, don't know if the organs of animal mummies were always removed.

One thing scientists have learned already is that the Egyptians were logical thinkers. Through trial and error, they continued to improve their mummy-malting process over time. One of these improvements was their formula for making resins.

"They were able to do experiments just like we do," says Bleiberg. "They observed the results of what they had done and learned to improve the process over time. They understood the scientific method."

nuts & bolts



(1) Workers cut open the corpse's torso and removed the organs. Only the heart remained, because it was believed to control thoughts and feelings in the afterlife.


(2) They pushed a long iron hook up the nostrils, scrambled up the brain, and scooped out its pieces. They let the rest of the brain drain out through the nostrils.


(3) Workers washed the body with bacteria-killing chemicals and dried it with a salt called natron. After 40 days, they removed the salt and rubbed the body with oils.


(4) They wrapped the body with linen strips and poured resins onto the strips to further dry the body. Sometimes workers placed the mummy in a stone coffin called a sarcophagus.

it's your choice

1. What was NOT part of the Egyptians' mummification process?

(A) taking out almost all of the body's Internal organs

(B) drying out the body using salts and chemicals

(C) removing all the hair from the body

(D) wrapping the body in linen strips

2. Ancient Egyptians mummified animals

(A) to provide food for humans in the afterlife

(B) as offerings to gods

(C) so pets could be with their owners in the afterlife

(D) all of the above

3. How do CT scans help scientists study animal mummies?

(A) They make the mummies less fragile.

(B) They can detect where mummies are in tombs.

(C) They tail how old the mummies are.

(D) They provide a clearer image of mummies' bodies than an X-ray.


1. c 2. d 3. d



* Did ancient Egyptians mummify only humans?

* What steps did ancient Egyptians take to make mummies?

* What do you think are some of the challenges in studying animal mummies?


* Early embalmers left the heart in the mummy's chest but removed the liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines. The organs were then placed in vessels called canopic jars. Later this practice was abandoned and the organs were returned to the chest cavity after being dried with natron.

* Mummification typically took 70 days.

* It was very expensive to make a mummy, so it was usually reserved for the pharaohs, members of nobility, and officials.


* New technologies, like CT scans, have helped scientists see inside mummies. What other types of technology do you think exist that would help to examine these artifacts without damaging them? Can you think of any other types of archaeological artifacts that may hold secrets that a CT scan could potentially reveal?


ART: Have students work in groups to create a mural of ancient Egyptian daily life with words written in hieroglyphics. For a list of hieroglyphics and information on Egyptian murals, use the "Art" and "Writing" lesson plans found at the University of Chicago's Ancient Egypt online exhibit:


You can access these Web links at

* Visit the British Museum's Web site on mummification to find out more about how bodies were mummified, explore a mummy and its coffin, and compete more activities at:

* Boston's Museum of Science's interactive mummy exhibit shows what CT scans and other technologies reveal:

* Watch as Egyptologist Salina Ikram explains how animal mummies are made: www,



Mummies in History

In "Ancient Pets Preserved" (p. 8), you read about how the ancient Egyptians mummified humans and animals. Some of the milestones in the practice of mummification are listed in the table below. Construct a timeline to show how the process evolved.

Directions for making a timeline:

1. On a separate sheet of paper, use a ruler to draw a line that is 24 centimeters (9.4 inches) long.

2. Make a vertical tick mark with your pencil every 3 cm (1.18 in.), beginning at the left end of the line and continuing to the right end of the line.

3. Starting at the left end of the line, label the tick marks "3000 B.C.," "2500 B.C.," and so on in 500-year intervals. When you reach "0" on the timeline, begin labeling tick marks "500 A.D.," "1000 A.D.," and so on. You should finish by labeling the last mark "2000 A.D."

4. Add the information from the table (above) to your timeline.

Analyze It

1. About how many years ago did Egyptians bury bodies in sand?

2. Approximately how many years passed between the discovery of Ramesses II and Tutankhamen?

3. What do you think would have happened to the brain and other organs if the ancient Egyptians had not removed them as part of the embalming process?


1. Egyptians buried mummies in the sand approximately 5,010 years ago.

2. 41 years passed between the discovery of Ramesses II and Tutankhamen,

3. Answers will vary.

Mummification Milestones

EVENT                                                    APPROXIMATE

Embalming process is developed and internal organs
removed.                                                 2600 B.C.

Egyptian embalmers begin to mummify animals.             1500 B.C.

Mummy of Ramesses II is found.                           1881 A.D.

Removing the brain becomes standard procedure.           1700 B.C.

Mummy portraits are enclosed in the mummy                100 A.D.

Early burials in sand create natural mummies.            3000 B.C.

Mummy of Tutankhamen is found.                           1922 A.D.

Internal organs are returned to the body after drying
body is stuffed to look more lifelike.                   1000 B.C.

Researchers begin studying animal mummies with CT
scans.                                                   1980 A.D.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Walters, Jennifer Marino. "Ancient pets preserved: the Egyptians went to great lengths to mummify dead animals." Science World, 18 Oct. 2010, p. 8+. Kids InfoBits, Accessed 19 Dec. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A239529320