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Millions Of Tiny Mummies Reveal Fascinating Truths About Ancient People

"Egyptians thought of animals, on some basic level, as being very similar to human beings."

It's common knowledge that ancient Egyptians would mummify the dead. They believed that the soul was connected to the body, so preserving the body would help preserve the soul for the afterlife.

Usually pharaohs and noble people received this treatment — but also some very special creatures.

Mummified ibis from ancient Egypt
Gavin Ashworth/Brooklyn Museum

Millions of little mummies have been discovered across 30 cemeteries in Egypt, and they show just how important animals were to ancient Egyptians. Just one cemetery devoted to dogs contained over 7 million mummies.

CT scan of ibis mummy
Many of the scans revealed mummified ibises. | Brooklyn Museum
CT scan of ibis mummy from ancient Egypt
Brooklyn Museum

"These mummies were made in a carefully controlled process that resembled human mummification," Edward Bleiberg, senior curator, said in a press release on "Soulful Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt," the first major exhibition on the topic, which is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, New York. "It just shows how Egyptians thought of animals, on some basic level, as being very similar to human beings. They regarded animals as creatures created by the gods and believed they possessed a soul, which was unusual for an ancient culture.” 

People are still studying the little mummies, some of which date back to 3000 BCE and were excavated in the 19th and 20th centuries. Researchers have identified several purposes the animal mummies served for the Egyptians. 

A baboon appliqué made of linen from an animal mummy that dates back to 305–30 BCE | Gavin Ashworth/Brooklyn Museum
Gold ibis coffin from ancient Egypt
Brooklyn Museum

Ancient Egyptians believed animals could communicate with gods, and so many of the animals were mummified so that people could send special messages to the gods using the souls of the animals as messengers. "These messages were often sent through accompanying handwritten letters that frequently requested good health for a sick relative," the Brooklyn Museum explains. 

Dog mummy from ancient Egypt
A mummified dog dating back to 510–230 BCE | Christine Gant/Brooklyn Museum
X-ray of dog mummy
X-ray of dog mummy | Brooklyn Museum

Animal mummies were so coveted by the ancient Egyptians that some people saw an opportunity to cheat the system, researchers have found. When using X-ray and CT scans to look inside some of the mummies, researchers were surprised to find some of the linen casings totally empty of animal remains, which means some of the ancient priests actually sold fake animal mummies to people hoping to communicate with the gods. 

Cat coffin with mummy from ancient Egypt
Cat coffin containing mummy dating back to 664–332 BCE. DNA tests revealed that the ancient cats are related to our common house cats today. | Sarah DeSantis/Brooklyn Museum
Cat mummy from ancient Egypt
Cat mummy found in Egypt dating back to 780–390 BCE. | Brooklyn Museum

This is perhaps not surprising, since it's pretty clear to many of us just how magical and soulful animals are — you don't need to look farther than your nearest bodega cat.

You can catch the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum until January 21, 2018.