Scientific Reports has some really remarkable 3D images (and printed replicas) of snakes, birds, and cats that were mummified by ancient Egyptians more than 2,000 years ago:
The clues to life and death of mummified animals can remain hidden beneath their wrappings. Developments in non-invasive imaging have enabled detailed study of their internal structures. Laboratory-based X-ray microcomputed tomography (microCT) and focussed imaging protocols permit smaller mummified remains, such as animals, to be studied at higher resolution. In this study, we use microCT to image three different animal mummies. Revealing the internal structures provides insights into their biography, the conditions in which they were kept, complex mummification practices, possible causes of death, and subsequent handling damage. Thousands of years after the production of these mummified animals, the X-ray microCT technique facilitates new investigations, revealing ‘harder’ skeletal structures, mummification materials, and even desiccated soft tissues. Potential evidence for an ‘opening of the mouth’ procedure was found in a snake, along with indicators of the poor conditions in which the snake was kept when alive, leading to dehydration. Examination of a cat mummy revealed it was less than five months old and had its neck purposefully broken. It was also possible to identify a bird mummy to species level from the X-ray data. Improved understanding of animal mummification through scientific imaging can thus inform conservation and understanding of past human-animal relationships.
Harnessing high-resolution non-destructive imaging for animal mummies provides new insights, exemplified by the visualization of features within the mummified snake package. Similar structures that appear to have been placed in the cobra’s mouth (Fig. 6e), have been seen in previous studies, but their significance was unknown due to the low-resolution imaging. We have shown that in this case, these inclusions lie at the opening of the trachea, or the glottis. It has been suggested previously that the mouths of mummified snakes may have been filled with resin to render them harmless. For the first time, high-resolution imaging has enabled these structures to be visualized, located precisely, and identified (as probably natron). There are numerous possibilities for how these items are located at the glottis. The placement may have been an unintended consequence of the mummification process, which can include natron or similar materials. Alternatively, these items may have been placed in the mouth as part of an ‘opening of the mouth’ procedure. The latter is supported by the fact that the snake’s jaw is wide open, an unlikely final position without some intervention to prize open and maintain separation of upper and lower jaws. There is also clear trauma to the jaw bones and teeth, which has been observed in human mummies that have undergone the opening of the mouth procedure; although this practice is previously undocumented in mummified snakes. If confirmed in other specimens, this could suggest that the mummification process for venomous snakes included complex ritualistic elements comparable to those described for the Apis Bull and human mummies. The papyrus Vienna 3,87367, includes a section detailing the preparation of the mouth, which includes the placement of myrrh and natron beneath the tongue of the bull as a desiccant, to retard decomposition.