Animal mummies unwrapped: hi-res 3D X-rays reveal secrets of life and death in ancient Egypt

Three mummified animals from ancient Egypt have been digitally unwrapped and dissected by researchers from the University of Leicester and University of Swansea, using high-resolution 3D scans that give unprecedented detail about the animals’ lives and deaths more than 2,000 years ago.

The animals – a snake, a bird and a kitten – are from the collection held by the Egypt Centre at Swansea University. Previous investigations had identified which animals they were, but very little else was known about what lay inside the mummies.

Now, thanks to X-ray micro CT scanning, which generates 3D images with a resolution 100 times greater than a medical CT scan, the animals’ remains can be analysed in extraordinary detail, right down to their smallest bones and teeth. 

Richard Thomas, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Leicester, said: “It has been estimated that there may be up to 70 million animal mummies in ancient Egypt. Many of these animals were votive offerings – animals that had been placed in temples dedicated to different gods.

“Advances in imaging technology are, for the first time, revealing new insights into the lives of these animals and mummification practices without disturbing the wrappings. In our study we have been able to visualise bones and teeth, materials and even desiccated soft tissue in new levels of detail. The scans have made it possible to 3D print and handle the skeletal remains and take a virtual walk-through the mummies, revealing the impact of the industrial scale of mummification on the animals themselves.

“The application of new imaging technologies, alongside archaeological approaches, has the potential to transform our understanding of ancient Egyptian mummification practices, and human-animal relationships more broadly, without damaging the delicate remains.”

The ancient Egyptians mummified animals as well as humans, including cats, ibis, hawks, snakes, crocodiles and dogs. Sometimes they were buried with their owner or as a food supply for the afterlife, however the most common animal mummies were offerings bought by visitors to temples to offer to the gods, to act as a means of communication with them. Animals were bred or captured by keepers and then killed and embalmed by temple priests.

Using micro CT equipment, researchers found:

  • The cat was a kitten of less than five months old, according to evidence of un-erupted teeth hidden within the jaw bone. Separation of vertebrae indicate that it had possibly been strangled.
  • The bird most closely resembles a Eurasian kestrel.
  • The snake was identified as a mummified juvenile Egyptian Cobra (Naja haje). Evidence of kidney damage showed it was probably 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.

Although other methods of scanning ancient artefacts without damaging them are available, they have limitations - standard X-rays provide two-dimensional images and medical CT scans provide 3D images, but the resolution is often low.

Micro CT, in contrast, gives researchers high resolution 3D images. Used extensively within 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 3D shape can then be 3D printed or placed into virtual reality, allowing further analysis.

Professor Richard Johnston, of Swansea University College of Engineering, who led the research, said: “Using micro CT we can effectively carry out a post-mortem on these animals, more than 2,000 years after they died in ancient Egypt. With a resolution up to 100 times higher than a medical CT scan, we were able to piece together new evidence of how they lived and died, revealing the conditions they were kept in, and possible causes of death. These are the very latest scientific imaging techniques.  Our work shows how the hi-tech tools of today can shed new light on the distant past.” 

The research paper was published in the journal Scientific Reports 

The authors respectfully acknowledge the people of ancient Egypt who created these artefacts.