Creature comforts for mummified pets
Ancient Egyptians treated dead animals just as well as relatives
When it came to mummification, Ancient Egyptians treated animals every bit as well as humans. A recent chemical analysis of preserved beasts confirms their privileged status in ancient society.
The Ancient Egyptians mummified millions of mammals, birds and reptiles. The sheer number led many to believe that they were prepared with little care compared with human mummies. It was assumed that they were simply wrapped in coarse linen bandages and/or dipped in resin.
But chemical analysis now shows that animal mummies were prepared using embalming agents every bit as complex as those used on humans. Richard Evershed and his colleagues from the University of Bristol analysed samples from four mummies: one cat, two hawks and an ibis that were preserved between 818 and 343 BC. Their results are published in this week's Nature1.
The team used chromatography and mass spectrometry to break down chemicals from the samples into their constituent parts, and then identify them by mass. They found a plethora of organic substances, including beeswax, sugar gum and plant resins and oils, which were all routinely used in human preservation.
Beeswax is antifungal and repels water, explains Evershed. Vegetable oils would also have kept water out, whereas antimicrobial resins from conifer and pistachio trees would have helped to prevent the bodies' decay. Sugar gum was probably used to stick the bandages down.
Traces of petroleum bitumen were also found. This may have added to the waterproofing effect, but it could also have been used to colour the mummies black. Black represented life to the Ancient Egyptians, says Evershed. "The preserved animals are every bit as sophisticated as the human mummies," he says.
All wrapped up
Ancient Egyptians treated animals with great respect, regarding them as domestic pets and representatives of the gods. So it comes as no surprise that they took such care in preserving them, says Rosalie David, who studies Ancient Egypt at the University of Manchester, UK.
The Greek historian Herodotus describes three grades of human mummification, based on cost and complexity. The top class involved fully eviscerating the body, desiccating the organs, and wrapping the corpse in treated bandages.
Previous, less sophisticated studies suggested that animals probably received the second grade of treatment, says David, in which their organs would have been treated inside the body.
But it's impossible to know exactly what went on, says Evershed. Embalming was a secretive activity practised by trained professionals behind closed doors. And the reports written by Herodotus post-date the peak of Egyptian mummification, so it's hard to know how accurate they are.
- Buckley S. A., Clark K. A. & Evershed R. P. Nature, 431. 294 - 299 (2004).