Embalmed and Largely Overlooked

Animal mummies

In many religions, past and present, admiration to the extent of idolatry of certain species of animals is commonplace. Little wonder then, that special burial rites evolved to pay homage to the holy or otherwise revered animals and in the USA and many countries elsewhere too, there are nowadays graveyards especially for pets and often proper funeral services. In India even today a pious Hindu family would not simply bury their dead cow, but give it a proper cremation, an honour not bestowed upon the family dog or a monkey in the garden.

In the Egypt of the ancient Pharaohs, mummification of corpses was an art form designed to conserve a body’s shapes ad features beyond death. Although most people would associate only kings and other distinguished humans with mummies, various animals received the same careful treatment. In fact it has been estimated that some 70 million animals over the years were mummified in Egypt and that animal mummification was practiced on an industrial scale. Crocodiles, considered so holy that they possessed their own god, were frequently embalmed, while fish mummies, although known, were much less common. Mummified falcons or ibises are often found to accompany the dead king to the afterworld, but cats as mummies were particularly popular and important.

The most impressive animal mummies of all, however, must be the holy steers, discovered in Sakkara near the famous “Step Pyramid of Djoser” by Auguste Mariette in 1850. Twentyfour gigantic sarcophaguses , each 670 tons in weight , were present and the actual embalming techniques employed on the steers were identical to those used on humans. Human mummies 5,000 and more years old, have served scientists who through x-ray and other studies were able to reveal that atherosclerosis, pneumonia, and appendicitis even in those days were responsible for human deaths and that leprosy, gall stones, osteomyelitis and spina bifida were known, but rickets and syphilis apparently did not occur at that time. Tooth decay amongst upper classes, on the other hand, was as common then as it is today.

That animal mummies, too, hidden in various museums, hold a rich treasure of locked-away information for the forensic detectives and modern genetic fingerprint analysts of today has only recently been fully realized and in the Centre of Biomedical Egyptology at Manchester Hospital hundreds of animal mummies have been scanned with the help of the latest technology. To the surprise of the researchers there, they found that about one third of the animal mummies either contained no animal at all or only some bones. Two theories for the presence of so many “fake mummies” have been advanced: one suggests that the fakes were sold to visiting pilgrims and a ploy for the embalmers to get some extra income; the other contends that to an ancient Egyptian his or her pets were to them so important and so precious, even sacred, that in cases where only a few bones had remained of the dead animal, they too needed a proper and dignified treatment, i.e., mummification. Actually, it should be possible to obtain some veterinary palaeopathological information on the mummified animals, their ages at death, their diseases, their ecto- and endoparasites, and in case such studies have not yet been undertaken in earnest, I suggest somebody embark on this. I’d certainly be interested to hear about any results.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2018.
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