When engineering meets Ancient Egypt amazing things are found

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Mummies are one of the most fascinating things about ancient Egyptian culture. While in one sense it is a simple burial ritual designed to preserve the remains for a long period of time, on the other hand, it is an insight into how well ancient Egyptians treated the dead as they believed they were going on a new journey. While everyone is aware of the mummification of dead people during ancient Egyptian times, few know that animals were often mummified as well. There are records of mummified cats, dogs, ibis, hawks, snakes, and alligators. A new study has revealed a level of visibility of these mummies that has never been seen before.

There is an Egypt Centre at Swansea University that specializes in the history and research of ancient Egypt. The Egypt Centre had received three mummies of animals and were using their standard methods of investigation. The animals were a cat, a snake, and a bird. Usually, the Egypt Centre and other investigators would scan the image in a traditional XRay. This would produce a 2D image which could be used to confirm basically what animal is inside the mummy wrapping, and little else.

One day a member of the staff of the Egypt Centre was having coffee with a member of the Engineering team which is located directly opposite. They started to talk about work and the three animals were mentioned as well as an apparent frustration with the meaningless results a 2D Xray provides. The member of the engineering team started to smile as he realized that he had the answer. The Engineering department had a special device that uses micro CT software to perform an incredibly rich 3D scan. Instead of scanning the image and moving it or the machine and scanning again, the object is moved within the XRay device so that the software can do a complete scan of the object.

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This allows a level of insight that has never been seen before. According to the leading member of the Egyptian Centre, he could now project a virtual 3D image of one of the animals in a room and walk around inside it. A far cry from studying low quality A4 2D scans in his office.

The results were excellent. The Egypt Centre was able to see exactly how old the animals were, what breed they were, and exactly how they were killed. The Egypt Centre realized that the cat was actually a newborn kitten, it had been strangled before being mummified. The snake had been whipped off the ground or a wall and killed instantly. Clearly, these were not prize pets but deliberate murders. 

‘Murders’ is the wrong word, these were sacrifices. The clues that the Xray provided combined with what the team already knew of Egyptian rituals allowed them to recognize that the animals were likely part of a sacrificial offering to the gods for the recently deceased. Experts estimate that there are around 70 million animals mummified in Egypt for a wide variety of reasons.

The findings show that collaboration between different disciplines can be incredibly beneficial. For this research, the Egyptian center worked with the engineering team and biologists to better understand how to analyze their mummies and what the findings meant. This research therefore not only benefits the knowledge of Ancient Egypt but allows the biology team to have a greater understanding of animal evolution, and for the engineering team to get practice using sophisticated equipment. Overall the findings show a lot about Egypt, a lot about biology, and a lot about engineering but more than that it shows that it is very important to have good neighbors.

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