Ancient Egyptians killed snakes and cats to create mummified animals

Stunning X-ray pictures reveal ancient Egyptians whipped a snake to death by its tail and broke a kitten’s neck to create mummified animals

  • Animals were mummified as sacrifices, companions or as food for the afterlife
  • Experts from Swansea University took 3D scans inside three mummified animals
  • The cobra, kitten and kestrel’s innards were revealed in ‘extraordinary detail’
  • Analysis of the images allowed the team to learn how the animals likely died 

Ancient Egyptians broke a five-month-old kitten’s neck and whipped a snake to death by its tail to create mummified animals, stunning X-ray images have revealed. 

Experts from Wales used 3D scans to conduct a digital ‘post-mortem’ on the embalmed remains of a cat, bird and snake more than 2,000 years after their death.

The scans — which did not damage the specimens — show the three preserved creatures in ‘extraordinary detail, right down to their smallest bones and teeth.’

The findings not only provide insights into the animal mummification practice, but have also shed light on each creature’s cause of death and how they lived.

While previous investigations of the mummies had revealed what animals each mummy had been, little had been known about what lay under their bandages.

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Ancient Egyptians broke a five-month-old kitten’s neck and whipped a snake to death by its tail to create mummified animals, stunning X-ray images have revealed. Pictured, a digital reconstruction of the mummified cat’s head and skull based on micro-CT scans

‘Our findings have uncovered new insights into animal mummification, religion and human-animal relationships in ancient Egypt,’ said paper author and egyptologist Carolyn Graves-Brown of Swansea University.

Ancient Egyptians embalmed animals into mummies for various reasons — some, for example, were treasured household pets that ended up buried alongside their owners, while others were intended to serve as food for humans in the afterlife.

The most common reason for mummifying an animal, however, is thought to have been to serve as a sacred offering to the gods. 

Archaeologists believe that there may as many as 70 million mummified animals buried in underground catacombs across the whole of Egypt.

In their study, Dr Graves-Brown and colleagues used an advanced imaging technique called X-ray micro computed tomography (CT) scanning to generate three-dimensional images of the mummified animals.

From their analysis of the mummified feline’s teeth and skeletal structure, the researchers believe that the embalmed cat was merely a kitten — one less than five months old at the time of its preservation.

They also found gaps between the animal’s neck bones which, according to the team, indicates that the kitten may have had its neck broken either at the time of death, or during the mummification process as to keep the head upright.

The mummified and tightly-coiled snake, meanwhile, was identified as being a juvenile Egyptian Cobra — one which appears may have died from spine damage ‘consistent with tail capture and whipping methods.’

Experts from Wales used 3D scans to conduct a digital ‘post-mortem’ on the embalmed remains of a cat, bird and snake more than 2,000 years after their death. Pictured, the skeleton and soft tissue remains of the mummified kestrel as seen in micro-CT scans

The findings not only provide insights into the animal mummification practice, but have also shed light on each creature’s cause of death and how they lived. While previous investigations of the mummies had revealed what animals each mummy had been, little had been known about what lay under their bandages. Pictured, the three mummified specimens — a kestrel (top), a kitten (middle) and an Egyptian Cobra (bottom)

The mummified and tightly-coiled snake (pictured in this micro-CT scan) was identified as being a juvenile Egyptian Cobra — one which appears may have died from spine damage ‘consistent with tail capture and whipping methods’


Ancient Egyptians embalmed animals into mummies for various reasons — some, for example, were treasured household pets that ended up buried alongside their owners, while others were intended to serve as food for humans in the afterlife. Pictured, the skull (left) and teeth (right) of the mummified kitten

The researchers also found evidence of kidney damage in the snake, which suggests that it may have been deprived of water during its life.

High-resolution imaging also allowed the team to identify what they believe to be hardened resin in the mouth of the reptile.

They believe this may have been emplaced during an ancient Egyptian burial ritual known as the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony — which was practised in order to ensure that the deceased would still be able to eat and drink in the afterlife.

Bone measurements and three-dimensional scans of the bird, meanwhile, have revealed that it most closely resembles the Eurasian kestrel.


Dr Graves-Brown and colleagues used an advanced imaging technique called X-ray micro computed tomography (CT) scanning to generate three-dimensional images of the mummified animals. Pictured, 3D prints of the cat (left) and snake (right) skulls based on the scans

Bone measurements and three-dimensional scans of the bird (pictured) have revealed that it most closely resembles the Eurasian kestrel

The scans — which did not damage the specimens — show the three preserved creatures in ‘extraordinary detail, right down to their smallest bones and teeth.’ Pictured, a three-dimensional scan of the mummified kitten’s lower jaw — with the unerupted first molars (highlighted in red) that revealed that it was likely under the age of five months when it died

‘Using micro CT we can effectively carry out a post-mortem on these animals — more than 2,000 years after they died in ancient Egypt,’ said paper author and materials scientist Richard Johnston, also of Swansea University.

‘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.’

‘There are estimated around 70 million mummies that were produced at the time in ancient Egypt,’ Professor Johnston continued.

The work could provide a template for future investigations, he added, ‘potentially revealing lots of new insights into the animal lives at the time and also the people of the time — how they lived and worked, and the religious practices’.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

‘Using micro CT we can effectively carry out a post-mortem on these animals — more than 2,000 years after they died in ancient Egypt,’ said paper author and materials scientist Richard Johnston of Swansea University. Pictured, a micro-CT scan of the mummified snake’s head

HOW THE EGYPTIANS EMBALMED THEIR DEAD AS MUMMIES

It is thought a range of chemicals were used to embalm and preserve the bodies of the dead in ancient cultures. 

Russian scientists believe a different balm was used to preserve hair fashions of the time than the concoctions deployed on the rest of the body.

Hair was treated with a balm made of a combination of beef fat, castor oil, beeswax and pine gum and with a drop of aromatic pistachio oil as an optional extra.

Mummification in ancient Egypt involved removing the corpse’s internal organs, desiccating the body with a mixture of salts, and then wrapping it in cloth soaked in a balm of plant extracts, oils, and resins.  

Older mummies are believed to have been naturally preserved by burying them in dry desert sand and were not chemically treated.  

Gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) techniques have been deployed in recent years in find out more about the ancient embalming process. 

Studies have found bodies were embalmed with: a plant oil, such as sesame oil; phenolic acids, probably from an aromatic plant extract; and polysaccharide sugars from plants.

The recipe also featured dehydroabietic acid and other diterpenoids from conifer resin. 

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