70 million animal mummies: revealing ancient Egypt’s dark secret

The lives and deaths of mummified animals found in ancient Egyptian tombs are being revealed by Swansea University researchers, who used imaging techniques to digitally unwrap the animal remains without damaging them. The fascinating research features in the BBC’s Horizon programme.

The programme is to be broadcast at 9pm on Monday 11th May on BBC2. 

Watch a clip showing a mummified skeleton being scanned

It is estimated that there were around 70 million mummified animals in ancient Egyptian tombs.   Until recently the bones were used as fertiliser by farmers, but in the past few decades experts have begun to study them to discover more about the strange role animals – such as cats and birds of prey - played in ancient Egyptian belief.

Mummified Egyptian cat‌Picture:  an image showing how the wrapping on a mummified animal is removed digitally through pioneering scanning techniques

BBC Horizon worked with Swansea researchers from the University’s College of Engineering and the Egypt Centre.   The team use techniques such as microtomography – a more detailed version of a CT scan – which allows them to see the internal skeletons of animals. 

They can then use 3D printers to create an exact printed version, for example of skulls, which means they can study the remains in detail, to see what light they shed on the world of ancient Egypt

Dr Richard Johnston, senior lecturer in materials science in the College of Engineering, said

“We are using the very latest imaging techniques to understand the lives of people and animals from thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt.  

Traditional medical x-rays have been used in the past to look beneath mummies’ wrapping.  But our technology allows us to go much further than this.  

We can determine with much more certainty the species and age of the animals.  We can see in detail the bone length, fractures and even remains of soft tissue, which can enable researchers to identify cause of death.   Then we can use these images to create an exact replica with a 3D printer, allowing further study.”

Swansea is a leader in imaging technology, and its research team in the College of Engineering recently won a £2.5 million award for equipment allowing experts to examine materials right down almost to the atomic level. The new equipment would have lots of potential applications, for example improving detection of metal fatigue in aircraft materials or imaging complex architectures in the natural world.

The award means Swansea will be able to offer an integrated imaging facility, where researchers can examine objects at all scales.  Crucially, they will also be able to combine the data they get from looking at the same object using different techniques and equipment, building up a much fuller picture of how materials behave.

More about the Horizon programme

Find out more about Swansea University College of Engineering