National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

TV News:

Marni Merksamer
National Geographic Today
July 12, 2001
 
When it came to mummifying the dead, the ancient Egyptians didn't confine the practice to people. They also prepared their pets and other animals for a long afterlife.

"The Egyptians loved their pets," said Egyptologist Salima Ikram, who directs a project at the Cairo Museum that is investigating ancient animal mummies.

As part of that work, Ikram and her students mummify dead rabbits, cats, and dogs in a quest to find an effective "recipe" for long-lasting preservation.

Susan Roesgen, co-anchor of the TV news show National Geographic Today, met recently with Ikram to find out more about animal mummification and see how it's done.



Various Motives

Animals in ancient Egypt were mummified as pets, sacred animals, or votive offerings. Each was wrapped and prepared much like a human mummy would be, then was buried alongside a person or in a separate tomb.

As today, the early Egyptians had many household pets and were quite fond of them. "When these animals died, [the Egyptians] wanted these animals to continue into the eternal life with the people, and as a result you have mummified animals," said Ikram.

Some animals were mummified because they were regarded as sacred. Beast-like animals such as bulls and crocodiles, for example, were considered the living spirits of gods. Before their death, these sacred animals were pampered as the gods would be—massaged and fed well at all times.

"When [sacred animals] die, they are buried like a pharaoh would be buried, with great pomp and circumstance," Ikram told Roesgen.

Mummified animals were also purchased by pilgrims and placed in catacombs as tribute to various gods. Such offerings, said Ikram, were regarded as eternal prayers for the gods.

Many of the animal mummies that apparently were used as votive offerings were actually fake. "Some of our 'crocodiles' are just goops of mud that have been wrapped up beautifully," Ikram noted.

Modern Rabbit Mummies

In an effort to determine what preservatives and techniques the Egyptians may have used for mummification, Ikram and her group test different techniques using a variety of animals.

Ikram presented three of the experimental rabbit mummies during her interview with National Geographic Today. Each one had been mummified with similar materials but through different methods.

Among the materials used in the process were natron, a natural salt-like substance used to dry out the dead animals; resin, which coats the internal tissue; turpentine, which acts to kill internal bacteria; and various oils, which soften the fur and skin.

"So far, our rabbits have survived quite well, and we've got x-rays of them to see how they compare with the x-rays of ancient Egyptian mummies," Ikram said.

She expects to bury the animal mummies soon so that, in five or six years, she can check to see whether they have been successfully preserved.

Given her passion for Egyptology and mummies, would Ikram like to be mummified herself one day?

"I'm not keen on being mummified," she said, "but I'd like a nice Egyptian tomb…Someone is already carving my offering slab for me, with lots of chocolate—something that they didn't have in ancient Egypt."

To see the rabbit mummies and learn more, watch National Geographic Today.
 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.