Aug. 20 (UPI) -- X-ray images of three mummified animals -- a cat, a bird and a snake -- have offered researchers fresh insights into the relationship between ancient Egyptians and animals during the Late Period, between 664 and 332 B.C.
"These particular animals belong to a class of mummified animals which tend to be called 'votive offering,'" researcher Carolyn Graves-Brown, curator of the Egypt Center at Swansea University in Wales, told UPI in an email.
"They seem to have been bred in huge numbers, killed and prepared by priests to act as go-betweens between people and the gods. They were then purchased by visitors or pilgrims to temples and given to the gods, sometimes with messages attached."
3D X-ray images showed the cat skull to be roughly half the size of the external mummified wrappings. The cranial structure confirmed the skull belonged to an Egyptian domestic cat, while the teeth suggest the cat was just 5 months old when it was killed and mummified.
Researchers identified the mummified bird as an Eurasian kestrel, and confirmed that the bird's neck was broken after its death. Scientists weren't able to determine whether the cat's neck was broken during its killing or the mummification process, as a way to keep the cat's head upright.
The X-ray analysis -- detailed Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports -- suggest votive offering animals regularly experienced rather unpleasant and premature endings.
Though animals held significant spiritual significance for the ancient Egyptians, votive offering specimens were subject to abuse. Authors of the new study suggest this bifurcated relationship with animals continues today.
"Humans, then as now, had a very strange relationship with animals where in some instances they were happy to abuse them in millions (think factory farming), but at the same time animals could be special," Graves-Brown wrote.
Inside the mummified snake, the evidence of abuse revealed itself in the form of a mysterious dark mass that puzzled scientists for some time. The dark mass turned out to be the snake's kidneys, which instead of shriveling over time, had hardened as a result of dehydration prior to its death.
"This has been seen in modern captive reptiles and snakes that have been kept with limited access to water," lead study author Richard Johnston, an associate professor of materials research at Swansea, told UPI in an email.
The latest study is one of the first to confirm that votive offering animals were subject not just to simple mummification, but also to complex ritualistic behavior.
The high-resolution images of the mummified snake revealed hardened resin in its mouth, suggesting the serpent was subject to the Opening of the Mouth procedure, previously only observed in humans.
The ceremony involved the manipulation of a mummy's mouth, making to appear that the mummy could breathe and speak.
"Other evidence for the opening of the mouth ceremony is largely textual and pictorial," Graves-Brown wrote.
"But it is usually in reference to humans. There for example pictures of the Opening of Mouth being carried out on humans (and also statues). There is a very small amount of archaeological and textual evidence in relation to animals."
The imaging technology used for the study, called non-invasive X-ray microCT imaging, has opened up the opportunity to reexamine thousands of artifacts in museum collections around the world.
Johnston told UPI that he and his colleagues plan to continue performing 3D scans of additional mummified animals.
"We can scan more animal mummies, looking for features hidden within the wrappings that reveal aspects of the life and death of the animals, but also contribute to the understanding of life and society of people at that time," Johnston wrote.
"We have data from other scanned animal mummies from the Egypt Center that we'll revisit with newer software and virtual reality."