Monday, 11 May 2015

70 Million Animal Mummies: Egypt's Dark Secret

There was an interesting item in the running order of the Today Programme this morning (11th May 2015) on BBC Radio 4:
0740 am
Scientists have discovered that most of the animal mummies sold to Ancient Egyptians as religious offerings had little or no animal remains in them. Researchers estimate that up 70 million animals may have been mummified by the Ancient Egyptians, in a large scale industry which included factory farming. Dr Lidija Mcknight is an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, she has spent 15 years working on this research.

[The link to the broadcast recording was at: [Scroll to 1.45.50, which is the actual time the interview was broadcast. Recording no longer available 25 June 2015].

That’s quite a lot of mummies! But over three thousand years of Egyptian history that works out at around 23,300 per year, assuming the practice remained at the same level throughout. Or around 442 per week across the whole country. That’s about 70 per day, assuming that the mummifiers didn’t stop for weekends. I’m not sure that counts as a ‘large scale industry’ and ‘factory farming’. But they weren’t all cats, and included larger bodied animals, up to and including bulls. Perhaps various animals were more popular as gifts to the gods in some periods than in others, but we probably don’t have that level of detail available to us, except in a small number of cases.

The interview was with Lidija Mcknight, who has been using radiological imaging and other scanning techniques to explore animal mummies in a non-destructive way. The purpose of the interview was to promote a TV programme, ‘70 Million Animal Mummies: Egypt's Dark Secret,’ to be broadcast on the same evening at 9pm on BBC2. This programme is part of the Horizon series, which focusses mainly on science and research subjects. The key theme of the interview was that a surprising number of the mummies they investigated did not contain any of the expected contents – around 30 per cent of those that they examined (which is different to the suggestion made in the running order for the programme, which says ‘most’). So an apparently mummified cat might not contain any cat remains at all.

A number of explanations were offered, including that those providing the mummified cats, which were a popular offering to the gods, simply could not keep up with the demand, and resorted to using other materials. It was speculated that these might have been simply stuffing materials lying around the workshop, or perhaps the mummifiers were using materials which did have some sacred qualities, on account of where and how they might have been sourced. We were given some indication of the materials they found inside the mummies: these included reeds, mud, and eggshells. The possibility was mentioned that it was, for the purpose of the gift to the gods, not necessary for the cat mummies to contain cat remains – the offering would be considered sufficiently sacred on the basis of its contents.

The order of the explanations offered is interesting, since it starts from the one likely to be the most intelligible to a modern audience, which also is the most cynical: the animal mummy specialists were sometimes pulling a fast one on their customers. Which may be the dark secret. Knowledge isn’t much advanced by telling a modern audience that times never change. Times do change, which is why doing research into animal mummification is interesting and important.

It is hard now to communicate how important the concept of the sacred was in the ancient world, and how sophisticated it was. A phenomenon of ancient civilisation, which pervaded every aspect of life, and at this great distance, one which is scarcely intelligible to us.

The last explanation offered is likely to be the correct one, though no further discussion took place during the interview about why the offerings might be considered sufficiently sacred on the basis of the contents - whether actual animal, or reed, mud and eggshell. It will be interesting to see if the full documentary does elaborate on the sacred connotations of what they found.

[The programme will be available shortly after the 9pm (BST) broadcast ends, and will remain available (within the UK) for 29 days, in line with the BBCs unfathomable access policy (I know how they explain it to themselves). ]

Update - Programme now available on YouTube (25th June 2015):

Horizon Season 54 Episode 8 70 Million Animal Mummies Egypt's Dark Secret
The hashtag for the documentary is #animalmummies. 

In an article published by the Washington post today, Dr Mcknight said:
These wildly popular votive offerings help to explain why Egyptians would want animal mummies that were actually empty or, in some cases, filled symbolic items such as feathers and egg shells.“We shouldn’t view animal mummification through our modern, subjective standpoint of fakery and everything being some kind of con,” McKnight said. “There was probably much more to it than that and there was probably a much more innocent explanation for what was going on. The materials that they were using was just as important as the animals themselves.”


Mud and reeds recall stories of the creation, and the primeval mound of mud in the waters. Reeds also are symbolic of coming into existence, of generation, emerging as they do along the edges of waterways, and in the Nile Delta. The symbol of the cosmic egg sometimes stands in for the primeval mound. The image of the chick emerging from its eggshell is used in Akhenaten’s ‘Hymn to the Sun’. So these three things – mud, reed and eggshell recall as images the circumstances in which existence comes into being.


Much of what we know about mummification procedure comes from Herodotus, who arrived on the scene rather late. It is unfortunate that so much Egyptian social anthropology comes from Greek sources. We also know about the processes from excavation and the unwrapping of mummies, which shows that procedures varied in different periods of Egyptian history. Modern experimental archaeology has told us that the use of dry natron results in more efficient dessication of the body, so not all we have been told is reliable. Until the last 15 years or so, there has not been a great deal of work done in the area of animal mummies, so the Manchester research is in new and interesting 
territory, and is telling us new things.

Review of the Programme (12 May 2015)

The quality of the documentary was high (not all offerings by the Horizon series over the past ten years have been so satisfactory). We got clear information about what the researchers are doing, and how they are acquiring new information. We also got contextual information about the role of votive offerings, which mummified animals represented, and an interpretation of why the cult was so popular (animals were regarded as messengers to the gods who could plead on behalf of the person who dedicated the offering). An instance of such observance based on a papyrus from someone who was concerned about the likelihood that his father would survive was quoted to illustrate this. That's detail!

The cult of mummification seems to have reached a peak in the late first millennium BCE, which suggests that the incidence of animal mummification in earlier centuries might have been very much lower. Which indeed suggests that there was industrial production of mummies during the first millennium. Evidence was produced about diseased animals, which is what you would expect if they were being farmed in relatively confined circumstances. The geographic spread of the centres where mummy production was happening was also shown, but the chronology of this 'industrial' production was not clearly spelled out (it may not be known).

We also got a demonstration of experimental archaeology, with a piglet undergoing the process of mummification in the laboratory. The bandaging wasn't up to Egyptian standards, but that wasn't the point.

The cult of mummification probably ceased at about the time that Rome effectively proscribed the Egyptian religion by closing the temples in the fourth century CE.

We didn't get further detail about the contents of the ersatz mummies (sticks, reeds, mud and eggshell), but this wouldn't have made much sense to the general audience (even some Egyptologists), so I'm not surprised that they didn't include it. But odd to get more detailed information from a promotional interview than the actual documentary programme.

We never did find out what the 'dark secret' was. Just a clever promotional device. But I'm sure a lot of people watched it because of that title, who might not otherwise have watched.


  1. I think the 'dark secret' was the farming of animals for sacrifice, some of which we now consider pets that we'd not even farm for food, let alone sacrifice.

    That's a very modern perspective of course, but pretty 'dark' to most viewers, myself included (without a forced perspective change).


  2. Matt - I think you are probably right. They didn't spell it out as clearly as they might.

    Best, Thomas