How to make your pets last longer…

Wrapped up beneath these bandages is a mummified animal. How did it die? What material is it wrapped in? Are there amulets we can’t see inside? Is it an animal at all – could they be human remains?

Mummified cat, ancient Egypt, 2000-100 BCE, (source: Science Museum).

To answer question like these and more, the Science Museum is collaborating in a new nationwide project analysing the remains of ancient Egyptian animals. Led by researchers at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, the Ancient Egyptian Animal Biobank project is aiming to scan, sample and study all such remains in the UK.  

Dr. Lidija McKnight and Stephanie Atherton - researchers from the UK wide Ancient Egyptian Animal Biobank project - take a look at our mummified animal collections on 30/03/11 (Source: Katie Maggs).

Ancient Egyptians appear to be the only civilisation to have deliberately mummified and preserved animals. Yet, relatively little is known about their motivations to do so (for some theories visit this British Museum site).

The study should produce valuable information about the role of animals in ancient Egypt – a critical part of the human story there.  Egypt was (and is) an agricultural society. Studying these animals will shed light on the food supplies and environment ancient Egyptians lived in, as well as the diseases that may have affected both animals and humans.

It’s a great opportunity for the Science Museum to get to know more about these objects. Part of the collections amassed by Henry Wellcome in the early 20th century, we know relatively little about where and when in Egypt they come from. Participating in this project will give us a better insight into how complete the remains are, whether there are other items inside we cant see, cause of death -  and a better idea of the time period and regions they’re from. Moreover – knowing more about their materials will help us care for them better in the future.

Along with birds like this one and cats - crocodiles, baboons, cows and bulls have all been found preserved through mummification. You can see some of the beak and wings poking though the cloth that this bird is wrapped up in. (Source: Science Museum)

Next steps will be bringing the animals up to a Manchester hospital for x-ray and CT scanning later in the year. With scanners focussed on patients for most of the week - imaging has to be carried out on the weekend by radiographers willing to donate their free time to do this.

Samples of the various remains will also be collected for testing. We don’t damage the animals on purpose to do this – often small fragments flake off whilst they sit in the showcase. We can gather these up and send them to the biobank for analysis. 

You can visit our collection of mummified animals in the Art and Science of Medicine gallery (5th floor). We’ll keep you up to date with progress and report back on what the study finds out!

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