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Scientists reveal grim secrets of ancient Egyptian animal mummies

High-tech imaging let researchers unwrap mummies of a snake, a cat and a bird without disturbing the remains.

Researchers at Swansea University used a 3D scan to capture this view inside an ancient Egyptian mummy of a cobra. 
Swansea University

A snake, a bird and a cat. Researchers at Swansea University in Wales wanted to know more about a group of ancient Egyptian animal mummies that dated back over 2,000 years. They turned to a noninvasive imaging technology to tease out the secrets without damaging the artifacts.

The researchers used X-ray micro CT scanning, a technique for capturing highly detailed digital 3D images. They were able to illuminate the mummies' "smallest bones and teeth." 

"Using micro CT we can effectively carry out a post-mortem on these animals, more than 2,000 years after they died in ancient Egypt," said Swansea's Richard Johnston, lead author of a paper on the mummies published in the journal Scientific Reports on Thursday.

This vivid peek beneath the wrappings led to new discoveries about the mummies. Caution: Some of these findings are a bit grim.

The cat was actually a young kitten under 5 months old, and it may have died from strangulation. A close look at its lower jaw and teeth revealed the age. Its neck was broken, which may have happened at the time of death to keep the head in position during mummification.

This close-up view shows the lower jaw of a mummified kitten.

Swansea University

The bird resembles a Eurasian kestrel, a small bird of prey.

The snake was a young Egyptian cobra that showed signs of kidney damage that may have been tied to a lack of water triggering a type of gout. 

"Analysis of bone fractures shows it was ultimately killed by a whipping action, prior to possibly undergoing an 'opening of the mouth' procedure during mummification" Swansea said. "If true, this demonstrates the first evidence for complex ritualistic behavior applied to a snake." 

While most of us are familiar with the use of mummification as a burial practice, Swansea notes that "the most common animal mummies were votive offerings, bought by visitors to temples to offer to the gods, to act as a means of communication with them." The university estimates that as many as 70 million animals were mummified by temple priests to supply this practice.

The unveiled details on the lives and deaths of the cat, snake and bird open a small window into a distant era, one that's giving scientists insight into the connections between religion and animals in ancient Egypt.