Planet Earth

Ancient Egyptians Loved Their Dead Animals

By Jocelyn SelimJul 24, 2005 12:00 AM

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To most people, Egyptian mummies are a handful of dead pharaohs wrapped in linen bandages and buried in pyramids outside Cairo. In reality, virtually everyone in ancient Egypt who could afford it—as many as 70 million people over 3,000 years—wound up going through the elaborate two-month mummification process.

Courtesy of Natural History Museum, London

Additionally, millions of animals were mummified and buried alongside their owners. They were, says Richard Sabin, curator at the Natural History Museum of London, something of a send-off status symbol, much like large bouquets of flowers at funerals today. “In the 1800s there were literally tons of them dug up from old and new dynasty burial sites,” says Sabin. So many, in fact, that Sabin began to suspect some may have been mass-produced for sale. “They were wrapping anything they could get their hands on,” says Sabin, including cats, birds, antelopes, and even livestock.

Like flowers today, they may have sparked a thriving market. The most convincing evidence, says Sabin, are the fakes he turned up in X-rays. On the outside these dummy mummies are wrapped like animals; on the inside they contain only reeds, sand, or other worthless material.

As part of an exhibit on mummified animals, Sabin has been analyzing the relatively few specimens that have survived. He found that skeletons of wrapped cats were much larger than those of modern house cats. “It could be that these cats were being bred to be larger to make more impressive and better-selling mummies,” says Sabin. If so, it might even suggest that cats were first domesticated to be sacrificed.

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