Mass-market mummy. This cat mummy was probably a religious souvenir in ancient Egypt.

Keeping Kitty Under Wraps

Animal mummies were popular religious trinkets in ancient Egypt. But although mummies of cats, birds, and reptiles were mass-produced, new research suggests that at least a few of the animals were mummified with the same elaborate care given to humans.

Religious pilgrims traveling through ancient Egypt could buy a cat or a bird wrapped up in the manner of dead kings. Archaeologists have long thought that these "votives" were created quick and dirty, meant to be hawked as souvenirs on the side of the road. Whereas embalmers rubbed the bodies of deceased humans with imported antibacterial materials and carefully wrapped them in beeswax-coated linen to keep out moisture, the sheer number of animal mummies--millions made over about 10 centuries--suggested that the animals received less attention, perhaps a dip in cheap resin and coarse cloth wrapping. However, some animal mummies appear on first inspection to be wrapped with more care than others.

To determine whether ancient Egyptians treated the animal mummies as well as humans, archaeological chemist Stephen Buckley, now at the University of York, U.K., and colleagues snipped pinhead-sized samples from four mummies--two hawks, a cat, and an ibis--from the Liverpool Museum and identified the embalming chemicals. The researchers found that along with inexpensive plant-based compounds, the embalmers also used exotic and imported ingredients to make balm as complex as that used in human mummies. These included beeswax in all the animals and fancier additives for the cat: pistacia, from as far away as present-day Somalia, and traces of bitumen, which had to be transported from the other side of the desert, they report in 16 September issue of Nature. Buckley says the care taken in production of the mummies reveals that some ancient embalmers "may have been more considerate and respectful, rather than creating them as a cynical means to an end for the pilgrims."Archaeologist Aidan Dodson of the University of Bristol, U.K., says that for many of the religious tourists buying mummies, "all they got for their money were bandages and a little bit of bone." So, he says, it's interesting that at least some of the votives were treated with "exactly the same materials that were being used with humans." Such care probably brought a higher price, Dodson suggests. He says a wider range of votive mummies needs to be tested to see how widespread the high-quality wrappings are.

Related sites
Stephen Buckley's site
Liverpool Museum Egyptian Collection