Scientists study the secrets of 2,500-year-old mummified animals ,For early archaeologists, the only way to peer into an ancient coffin or container was to take the artifact apart. Actually it was only through disassembling ancient artifacts that these people learned about the life, religions and rituals of antiquity, including those of Egypt.
Nowadays, there is a longer list of less invasive approaches to studying antiquity, and this list is expanding. According to a publication published in Scientific reportsfor example, a team of researchers recently applied a new, non-invasive technique to image six sealed coffins from about 2,500 years ago in Egypt.
By revealing the remains of mummified lizards, the team says the paper provides a clearer picture of the preservation process of ancient animals, while also signaling the suitability of the new technique for future studies of ancient artifacts.
A closer look at the mummified animals
Mummification of animals was widely practiced in Ancient Egypt as a way to gain the favor of the gods, many of whom were associated with animals such as cats, crocodiles and snakes. And while many of these mummified animals were sealed in animal-shaped statues and statuettes, many others were sealed in small caskets made of cast metal.
As 1970, when archaeologists applied computed tomography (CT) to mummies for the first time, researchers used the technique to get a closer look at these ancient animal mummies — regardless of how they were held — without the risk of damaging the artifacts themselves. The results of the scans are sometimes so clear that they can reveal even the smallest fragments of the mummies’ fine tissues.
(Courtesy of: Daniel O’Flynn, Anna Fedrigo, Laura Perucchetti and Aurélia Masson-Berghoff/Scientific Reports). Using a technique known as neutron tomography, the researchers revealed that the ancient coffins contained a combination of animal remains and fragments of cloth wrappings.
But while CT is very successful at detecting animal mummies placed in statues and statuettes, it is not very successful at detecting animal mummies placed in metal coffins. This is because the presence of metal can sometimes create streaks or shadows, also known as “artifacts”, on a CT scan, obscuring the true appearance of the contents of the containers.
By selecting six sealed coffins from the British Museum’s collections that had been unsuccessfully CT-scanned in the past and analyzing them using the alternative technique of neutron tomography, the researchers found that three coffins contained the remains of ancient animals – possibly lizards – and fragments of fabric.
Read more: The animal mummy business
A new approach to the mummies of ancient animals
Building a three-dimensional image of an artifact based on its ability to absorb neutrons, neutron tomography scanners fire a beam of neutrons at an artifact and use the absorption patterns to reconstruct the shape and structure of the artifact, according to press release about the research.
By sending these neutron beams at the six coffins, the researchers revealed bones and bone fragments, including an intact lizard skull, in three of the six containers. They also found pieces of cloth in the same three coffins, potentially made of linen, which was the Egyptians’ favorite material for wrapping their mummies. According to the researchers, the fabric was wrapped around the lizards – in all likelihood – before they were sealed inside.
The coffin accessories also support the theory that several of the containers contained the carcasses of ancient lizards. All six coffins, cast from copper compounds, were decorated with three-dimensional images of lizards, snakes and eels, some with human heads.
While three of the coffins came from the ancient city of Naucratis, one came from Tell el-Yehudieh and two came from unknown locations. They all date from the first millennium BC, but between 660 and 250.
“The findings demonstrate the effectiveness of neutron tomography for studying mummified remains in sealed metal containers,” the researchers state in their paper, “and provide evidence linking the animal figures presented above [the containers] to the hidden remains.”
Read more: This tomb contains 10 mummified crocodiles from 2500 years ago