Published: November 2009

Animal Mummies

Animal Mummies Gazelle

Animals Everlasting

Wrapped in linen and reverently laid to rest, animal mummies hold intriguing clues to life and death in ancient Egypt.

By A. R. Williams
Photograph by Richard Barnes

In 1888 an Egyptian farmer digging in the sand near the village of Istabl Antar uncovered a mass grave. The bodies weren't human. They were feline—ancient cats that had been mummified and buried in pits in staggering numbers. "Not one or two here and there," reported the English Illustrated Magazine, "but dozens, hundreds, hundreds of thousands, a layer of them, a stratum thicker than most coal seams, ten to twenty cats deep." Some of the linen-wrapped cats still looked presentable, and a few even had gilded faces. Village children peddled the best specimens to tourists for change; the rest were sold in bulk as fertilizer. One ship hauled about 180,000, weighing some 38,000 pounds, to Liverpool to be spread on the fields of England.

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