Here's What Mummified Pets in Ancient Egypt Look Like Beneath the Surface

If you've ever wondered what a cat that lived in Egypt more than 2,000 years ago looked like, scientists are now finally able to provide a particularly detailed image.

Researchers from Swansea University in Wales—in collaboration with experts and researchers from the Egypt Centre and from Cardiff and Leicester universities— released images of mummified animals that lived in Ancient Egypt in the journal Scientific Reports on Thursday. Scientists digitally unwrapped and dissected the mummies of a snake, cat and a bird that are on display at the Egypt Centre at Swansea University.

Although the animals' coverings don't necessarily reveal exactly what's beneath the surface, museum curators and researchers have long known the species of each animal on display. But for the first time ever, scientists were able to view the animals' remains in intricate detail using high-resolution 3D scans to peek inside their carefully prepared wraps. Not only were they able to analyze the smallest bones and teeth of each animal, but the X-ray micro CT scan, which can generate 3-D images with 100-times more definition than the standard medical CT scan, helped determine how the animals lived and how they died.

"Using micro CT we can effectively carry out a post-mortem on these animals, more than 2000 years after they died in ancient Egypt. With a resolution up to 100 times higher than a medical CT scan, we were able to piece together new evidence of how they lived and died, revealing the conditions they were kept in, and possible causes of death," said Professor Richard Johnston of Swansea University College of Engineering, who led the study. "These are the very latest scientific imaging techniques. Our work shows how the hi-tech tools of today can shed new light on the distant past.

Ancient Egyptians were known for mummifying animals just as often as humans, and while many were buried as pets alongside their owners, oftentimes other animal mummies including cats, dogs, snakes, hawks, ibis and even crocodiles were mummified in ritualistic sacrifices to the gods. More than 70 million animals met their demise this way, according to the report, and based on the images of the bird, snake and cat mummies at the Egypt Centre, they too were most likely offerings to deities.

The images provided by the CT scan helped scientists discover that the cat mummy was that of a kitten likely less than 5 months old, based on evidence of unerupted teeth that were still buried within the cat's jawbone. The cat also had separated vertebrae, leading scientists to believe that it was killed by strangulation.

The mummified snake turned out to be a young Egyptian Cobra. Images revealed evidence of kidney damage and gout, but the cause of its death was likely some form of whipping action, like, for instance, being lifted by the tail and whipped in the air by someone perhaps eager to make a snake mummy, causing a spinal fracture. Researchers were also able to determine that the snake experienced an "opening of the mouth" procedure after its death—a common ritual during mummification believed to help subjects regain their senses in the afterlife.

As for the bird, researchers determined that it belonged to a species closely related to the Eurasian kestrel, a member of the falcon family.

How Mummified Pets in Ancient Egypt Look
A cat statue is displayed after the announcement of a new discovery carried out by an Egyptian archaeological team in Giza's Saqqara necropolis, south of the capital Cairo, on November 23, 2019. Scientists used high-resolution 3D scans to look inside the mummies of a cat, a bird and a snake. KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images