Animal mummies: a Pharoald racket

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By Phil Weir

Yet again, I’ve been left terribly troubled – not to say, deeply disturbed – by a terribly, deeply shocking news report.

This particular mind-boggling bulletin from the world of science was built around the revelation that some spankingly- fresh research is suggesting that certain Ancient Egyptian embalmers may have shortchanged their customers – not dead ones, living ones, and specifically those who sought the all-over bandage treatment for animals.

Mummified creatures were big business in the time of the pharaoahs, but not because Ramtutankhtiti III and Twotonnepatra XXXI wanted to be accompanied into the afterlife by their dead pet hamster or budgie.

It seems that, back in the day, making pre-annointed, pre-packaged fauna offerings to the gods was all the rage with the general population of the renowned early civilisation.

Nor was it a case of waiting for your pet meerkat to snuff it.

If you were keen for your friendly neighbourhood priest to do, on your behalf, a bit of incanting over a dead something or other on an altar, you’d pop along to M. Balmer and Sons, of Nile Wynd, Thebes, and purchase a rigor mortis tortoise, or such, off the shelf.

And if you were wealthy, you’d probably trip off to the temple with a crocodile under your arm. If times were tight, you’d have to settle for a rat, a bat, a cat or a sprat.

But here’s the moment I take your breath away.

After using scanning devices to peer inside hundreds of surviving votive tributes to Horus or Ra or Anubis, modern-day mummy probers have found out something quite surprising.

Here comes their jaw-dropping discovery...

Only about a third of these bundles contains the preserved remains of entire animals. Another third have bits and pieces of an animal, which could be nothing more than bone fragments, egg shell shards and feathers. As for the last third... well, they are completely unstuffed with stiffs or parts of stiffs. They have no animal parts at all, being constructed out of twigs and the like – perhaps just what was lying about the embalmers’ studio at the time of construction.

The kind view is that, as well as there not being enough animals to keep up with demand back then, those making the offerings were not bothered about the content of the bandages. Ultimately, the offering was symbolic.

Ideally, the parcel would contain an entire animal. However, the presence of eggshell and feathers, would also be enough to suggest the essence of an animal. And ultimately even an-animal-free mummy in the shape of an animal would do the trick.

I take the other view, though. I reckon a percentage of Ancient Egyptian embalmers were out-and-out Ancient Egyptian crooks.

I’d bet my favourite plastic Sphinx ornament and asp-skin braces, that an awful lot of those customers, who, once upon a time, in animal mummy shops in the shadows of the pyramids, firmly believed they were being flogged a dead horse, were, in fact, being flogged not a dead horse nor flogged any part of a dead horse, and the floggers were doing so knowingly.

Thieving Thebans! That’s what they were.