Unwrapping the mystery of an ancient Egyptian bird mummy

2015-09-11 12:09

Cape Town - An ancient Egyptian bird mummy in a Cape Town museum underwent a 'virtual autopsy' that allowed researchers to see what lay beneath its wrappings.

Using a CT scanner at Stellenbosch University, the team were able to study intricate internal images and make a three-dimensional print of the bird's skeleton.

The team believed the mummy provided the first real evidence that raptors were kept in captivity by ancient Egyptians.

A 3D image showing the tail of an animal extending through the bird's esophagus, crop and into its gizzard. (Photo supplied by Stellenbosch University)

Animal mummies were common in ancient Egypt and used in religious ceremonies, often as offerings. The birds were generally prepared by being gutted and dried, dipped into molten resin and then wrapped.

But the Iziko Museum’s European Kestrel mummy was not gutted and thus gave the team a glimpse into its last moments on Earth.

They found a mouse tail in its gullet as well as one or two well-digested mice and a partially digested sparrow. It may have died of choking brought on by overeating.

The study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, said force-feeding animals was commonly practiced by the ancient Egyptians.

“This would indicate that [it] was a captive specimen destined to be transformed into a votive mummy for the sun god.

“Perhaps, in their enthusiasm to give the god his due, the sacrificial offering was force-fed, and given the species’ tendency to cache surplus food, it is unlikely that it would deliberately overeat.”

(Photo supplied by Carina Beyer, Iziko Museums)

Egyptology professor at the American University in Cairo, Dr Salima Ikram, was the lead author of the study.

She said the sheer number of raptor mummies had been a mystery until now.

“Our results explain why they had so many; we now think it was because of active breeding programmes to meet the demand for these mummies."

The mummy was donated to the museum in 1911.

Read more on:    cape town  |  archaeology

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