The remains of some Egyptian mummified animals have been analyzed using CT scans and X-rays — revealing a mystery that could date back thousands of years. At least one-third of the artifacts turned out to be completely hollow, and another third contain only partial remains.

In a study conducted by the University of Manchester, researchers examined 800 animal mummies discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries. The use of CT scans and X-rays allowed the scientists to investigate the insides of the mummies without damaging the specimens. The research team examined cats, birds, shrews and crocodiles.

The demand for mummified creatures was very high in ancient Egypt, and researchers believe sellers may have created faux mummies and passed them off as authentic. Some of these items were stuffed with material commonly found in the homes of Egyptian craftsmen.

"Basically, organic material such as mud, sticks and reeds that would have been lying around the embalmers workshops, and also things like eggshells and feathers, which were associated with the animals, but aren't the animals themselves," said team leader Lidija McKnight of the University of Manchester.

Human mummies – which were created with the intention of preserving the body for the afterlife – were protected, but mummified animals, used as religious items, were sold on the commercial market. The elaborately prepared animal remains were included as offerings in burial rituals. Up to 70 million creatures may have been entombed in this way.

In one case, eight baby crocodiles were wrapped together into a single crocodile-shaped mummy. A relic in the form of a cat, created thousands of years ago, was by contrast found to contain just a few bones from an actual feline.

About 30 catacombs, each dedicated to a single variety of animal, have been discovered in Egypt so far. Many of the animals were killed when they were young, and producing the vast number of animals found in the catacombs would have likely required a massive breeding and slaughtering program.

"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," McKnight said.

It is possible that the empty or nearly hollow mummies were not a scam, but were created with the full knowledge of the buyer — although that may not have always been the case.

The BBC will feature the findings about the animal mummies in 70 Million Animal Mummies: Egypt's Dark Secret on May 11. The show explores the practice of animal mummification and its role in religious practices.

Photo: Amy Leonard | Flickr

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