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Those were the days of generously funded expeditions that dredged through acres of desert in their quest for royal tombs and for splendid gold and painted masks and coffins to adorn the estates and museums of Europe and America. The many thousands of mummified animals that turned up at sacred sites throughout Egypt were just things to be cleared away to get at the good stuff. Few people studied them, and their importance was generally unrecognized.

In the century since then, archaeology has become less of a trophy hunt and more of a science. Excavators now realize that much of their sites' wealth lies in the multitude of details about ordinary folks—what they did, what they thought, how they prayed. Animal mummies are a big part of that pay dirt.

"They're really manifestations of daily life," says Egyptologist Salima Ikram. "Pets, food, death, religion. They cover everything the Egyptians were concerned with." Specializing in zooarchaeology—the study of ancient animal remains—Ikram has helped launch a new line of research into the cats and other creatures that were preserved with great skill and care. As a professor at the American University in Cairo, she adopted the Egyptian Museum's languishing collection of animal mummies as a research project. After taking precise measurements, peering beneath linen bandages with x-rays, and cataloging her findings, she created a gallery for the collection—a bridge between people today and those of long ago. "You look at these animals, and suddenly you say, Oh, King So-and-So had a pet. I have a pet. And instead of being at a distance of 5,000-plus years, the ancient Egyptians become people."

Today the animal mummies are one of the most popular exhibits in the whole treasure-filled museum. Visitors of all ages, Egyptians and foreigners, press in shoulder to shoulder to get a look. Behind glass panels lie cats wrapped in strips of linen that form diamonds, stripes, squares, and crisscrosses. Shrews in boxes of carved limestone. Rams covered with gilded and beaded casings. A gazelle wrapped in a tattered mat of papyrus, so thoroughly flattened by mummification that Ikram named it Roadkill. A 17-foot, knobby-backed crocodile, buried with baby croc mummies in its mouth. Ibises in bundles with intricate appliqués. Hawks. Fish. Even tiny scarab beetles and the dung balls they ate.

Some were preserved so that the deceased would have companionship in eternity. Ancient Egyptians who could afford it prepared their tombs lavishly, hoping that their assembled personal items, and everything shown in specially commissioned works of art, would magically be available to them after death. Beginning in about 2950 B.C., kings of the 1st dynasty were buried at Abydos with dogs, lions, and donkeys in their funerary complexes. More than 2,500 years later, during the 30th dynasty, a commoner at Abydos named Hapi-men was laid to rest with his small dog curled at his feet.

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