Crocodiles, falcons, shrews: The ancient Egyptians are thought to have mummified as many as 70 million animals—and a scan of more than 800 of them reveals that in many cases, what's inside is ... nothing. The work done by radiographers and Egyptologists with the Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester is highlighted in a BBC documentary airing tonight, and the BBC frames those findings as a "scandal." The examined mummies were subjected to a CT scanner and X-ray machine in what researchers describe as the biggest such study ever done. Roughly a third did indeed contain well-preserved complete animals; another third contained some remains, though the amount could be as little as one bone, reports the Washington Post. But the biggest surprise was that about a third contained no remains at all.
So what was inside? "Basically, organic material such as mud, sticks, and reeds, that would have been lying around the embalmers' workshops, and also things like eggshells and feathers, which were associated with the animals," study leader Dr. Lidija McKnight tells the BBC. Though she explains to the Post that archaeologists who actually unwrapped some of these mummies realized decades ago that they weren't always what they seem, the "sheer volume" of what occurred is only more recently coming into focus. The use of animal mummies as a "votive" offering (which McKnight likens to lighting a candle in a church today) was a hugely popular one, but McKnight doesn't think the empty mummies represent a big con perpetrated by ancients looking to turn a profit: "They were using everything they could find." (Meanwhile, the world's oldest mummies are turning to jelly.)