Stuffed into the sand-buffeted ancient ruins scattered about the Nile Delta are tens of millions of mummified animals. Birds, cats, dogs, crocodiles, snakes—nearly all manner of creature that lived during the time of the Egyptian pharaohs—were carefully preserved and tucked away in the depths of temple catacombs.
For the past 74 years, around five dozen of these mummified animals have sat on the polished display tables and dusty shelves of the Brooklyn Museum like unopened presents. Their time-worn linens and tightly-sealed sarcophaguses have guarded their inner contents for thousands of years, leaving the museum curators and historians to glean clues from external observation.
But in preparation for an upcoming exhibition of Egyptian animal mummies, Brooklyn Museum curator Edward Bleiberg and conservationist Lisa Bruno joined forces with veterinary radiologist Anthony Fischetti to use one of the most powerful medical imaging tools—X-ray computed tomography (CT scan for short)—to reveal the inner secrets of mummified specimens in exquisite detail.
For seven hours on Friday, June 17th, Fischetti and his team of technicians subjected 32 animal mummies from the Brooklyn collection to the powerful X-rays of a CT scanner housed on the 8th floor of the Animal Medical Center (AMC) in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The chaotic scene was the 21st-century version of a Victorian-era mummy unwrapping. Amid constant camera flashes, journalists, photographers, bloggers, and the occasional curious veterinary intern, huddled around the mummy handlers in order to catch a glimpse of the ancient creatures as they were removed from the safety of their boxes and readied for the scanner bed.
One by one, cats, Ibises, mice, crocodiles, hawks, snakes, the odd egg, and a couple of unknowns were showered with a hefty dose of radiation—much higher than what Fischetti uses on his living patients—in order to penetrate through dense material such as the resin that Egyptians used to preserve the animals.
Within seconds of the each scan, Fischetti would issue preliminary verdicts:
“There’s not much in this one.”
“This just looks like a hollow bird bone.”
“Could that be a baby?”
“This one is a little too well preserved. Are you sure you didn’t make this in Brooklyn?”
Some mummies turned out to be nothing but bundles of linen. Others, thought to hold the remains of birds, just contained feathers. Still others were a mélange of bones from different animals. Fischetti scanned a beautifully preserved Ibis, followed by an unidentifiable sack of shattered bones.
It will take him a couple of weeks to piece together the hundreds of cross-sectional X-ray images that were generated for each mummy in order to reconstruct highly detailed three-dimensional images.
Both Bleiberg and Bruno, who had previously gotten glimpses of what lay inside the mummies from traditional radiographs, are hoping that the more advanced CT scans will unleash a flood of new information about how and why, for a period of around 500 years, the ancient Egyptians were so keen to mummify animals.
Despite their sheer number, very little attention has been paid to animal mummies over the past few centuries. In fact, they often represent a nuisance to archaeologists who, in order to study recently-excavated temples, must first clear out thousands—sometimes millions—of mummified animals that filled inner chambers from floor to ceiling.
“One of the things we’re very interested in is identifying the cause of death,” Bleiberg adds. Most experts now believe that ancient Egyptians ritualistically sacrificed and mummified animals as offerings to the gods. Indeed, in some of the mummies that were CT scanned, Fischetti was able to recognize the tell-tale-signs of a broken neck or blunt force trauma.
“X-rays are only going to tell you so much,” Bruno says. “We really wanted to get CT scans done so that we could get a three dimensional image and actually see soft tissue.”