Archaeologists Scan Ancient Egyptian Cat Mummy and Make Unexpected Find

Surprising and unexpected.

The methods of embalming, or treating the deceased body, that the ancient Egyptians used is called mummification. Using distinctive methods, the Egyptians extracted all moisture from the body, leaving only a dried form that would not easily decay. The process of mummification was practiced throughout most of ancient Egyptian history.

According to scholars, the process of mummifying the body of the deceased began in ancient Egypt around 3,500 BC, more than 1,200 years before the first pyramid of Egypt, the step pyramid of Saqqara was constructed by Pharaoh Djoser.

Before this period, to around 5,000 BC, scholars discovered early greaves from the Badarian period which contained offerings as well as grave goods, a characteristic indicative of the early belief in the afterlife. However, during this period the bodies of the deceased were still not mummified.

Eventually, ancient Egyptian graves evolved and by the time of the Early Dynastic period of ancient Egypt, the mastaba replaced the more primitive simple grave. Mastabas were recognized in ancient Egypt not as the final resting place but as the eternal home of the body. The mastaba was seen as a kind of transformational palace where the soul would leave the body in order to live in the afterlife.

During the Old Kingdom of Egypt, mummification had become a standard practice in ancient Egyptian culture.

The Cat Mummy from the Rennes Museum of Fine Arts. Image Credit: Museum of Fine Arts of Rennes / INRAP.
The Cat Mummy from the Rennes Museum of Fine Arts. Image Credit: Museum of Fine Arts of Rennes / INRAP.

A cat mummy

Over the last decade, thanks to improved access to new medical imaging technologies, research on animal mummies in ancient Egypt has made significant advances in understanding the history and culture of this civilization.

A 2,500-year-old mummified Egyptian cat, which belongs to the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Rennes, France, was dissected with digital technology that allowed scholars to learn more about the interior.

To the surprise of the archaeologists, they found more than what they had bargained for.

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The mummified cat went through non-invasive CT scans that allowed experts to see the internal structure of the mummy. Researchers then created a 3D model of the mummy’s interior, which was then analyzed with virtual and augmented reality.

The state-of-the-art technology allowed the interior fo the mummy to be revealed to the world, more than 2,500 years after its original mummification.

To the surprise of the archeologists, the researchers discovered not one but the remains of several cats inside the “cat mummy.”

Despite numerous cat remains, the researchers say they could not spot the vertebrae nor the ribs.

The interior of the mummy featured a ball made of textile instead of the head, as well as five hind legs and three incomplete tails.

“With a medical scanner, we always expect to find something. In this case, we expected to see a cat and not several cats, but it is perhaps not so exceptional. There are millions of animal mummies, but few have been imagined. Some are empty, others contain only one bone, sometimes the cat is complete. The mummy of Rennes is a variant. Some researchers believe that we are dealing with an ancient scam organized by unscrupulous priests,” revealed Theophane Nicolas, one of the researchers of the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP).

Archaeological remains are fragile witnesses to analyze, interpret, preserve and value. Until now, digitization techniques were limited to the surface of objects, monuments, and sites.

The innovative numerical approaches developed by researchers make it possible to non-destructively provide information on the internal nature of the remains while offering a great knowledge and enrichment of the archaeological heritage left behind by our ancestors.