About a third of supposedly mummified animals turned out to be empty, a scanning project at Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester discovered, according to a report by the BBC.
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Researchers examined over 800 animal mummies, including birds, cats and crocodiles, using X-rays and CT scans, the BBC reported on Monday. While a third contained remarkably well preserved and complete skeletons, another third had partial remains.
"We always knew that not all animal mummies contained what we expected them to contain, but we found around a third don't contain any animal material at all - so no skeletal remains," said Dr Lidija McKnight, an Egyptologist from the University of Manchester, about the biggest surprise of the project, which is being followed by the BBC's Horizon program.
Instead, embalmers probably used organic material like mud, sticks, and feathers or other body parts, she said.
According to Dr. Campbell Price, who is curating Manchester Museum's fall exhibition on animal mummies, they also used materials associated with the animals used during their lifetime, such as eggshells or nest material.
Scientists estimate that some 70 million animals were mummified, and suggest that the embalmers could not keep up with the high demand. Ancient Egyptians highly regarded animal mummies as religious offerings.
"The scale of animal mummification between about 800 BC and into the Roman period was huge," said Dr. Campbell Price, curator of Egypt and Sudan, at Manchester Museum, which will have an exhibition on animal mummies in October.
However, Dr. Price does not think that ancient Egyptians buying the boneless mummies were hoodwinked.
The animal pieces "were special because they had been in close proximity with the animals - even though they weren't the animals themselves," he explained. "So we don't think it's forgery or fakery. It's just that they were using everything they could find. And often the most beautifully wrapped mummies don't contain the animal remains themselves."