05/20/2014 02:49 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

A Treasure Trove of Animal Mummies

The current issue of Archeology magazine includes the article "Messenger to the Gods: During a turbulent period in ancient Egypt, common people turned to animal mummies to petition the gods, inspiring the rise of a massive religious industry." It describes 30 boxes which lay for decades completely forgotten in storage at the Brooklyn Museum. Recently opened by a curious curator, the boxes contained elegantly wrapped and for the large part wonderfully intact mummies formed in the shapes of and assumedly containing the remains of animals: hawks, ibises, cats, dogs, snakes and even a tiny shrew.

This gift to the Museum from a wealthy New Yorker who collected this odd trove in the mid-19th century is a piece of the larger puzzle of ancient Egypt - a puzzle which includes cemeteries along the Nile where millions of similar animal mummies are buried, and mummified animals entombed alongside the pharaohs.

Many would describe ours as a culture which values animals. Is this indicative of something similar dating back millennium?

As we learn from that article, we know that ancient Egyptians (unlike Greeks and Romans of the same era, and also unlike most of the Judeo-Christian religious traditions of today) believed all animals, human and otherwise, possessed a soul (or "ba"). There was no single word like "animal" in their lexicon to distinguish them from us, and the gods sometimes took the form of all sorts of different animals.

That being said, one ancient text tells of 60,000 living ibises available and ready for mummification and the American University of Cairo reports that the combined number of animal mummies buried in necropolises is in excess of 20 million. What do we make of such numbers?

Only a handful of these mummies are found with written prayers and petitions to the gods, and those are not asking for the safe passage of their pet ibis' "ba" but are, instead, prayers asking for a solution to some human's woe. It's imagined that most of the mummies were set forth with spoken prayers to cure a person's illness or settle family disputes, prayers they would have been asked to whisper in the ears of the gods once they made it to that final destination.

Those thousands of ibises and other animals were likely a "product," not unlike what comes out of today's factory farms. "This was an extremely important economic phenomenon", the Museum's Egyptology curator, Edward Bleiberg, is quoted as saying in this fascinating article. "There was a lot of money being directed toward animal mummies in the first millennium."

And with money comes corruption, something that apparently hasn't changed much over the centuries. Written records of the time document efforts towards consumer reforms which would guarantee "one god in one jar", meaning a whole dead animal per mummy. Interestingly, x-rays show that some of the Museum's collection are either completely empty or simply hold feathers wrapped in the shape of an ibis. And we do know from similar records that six priests of the ancient Temple of Toth were convicted of selling bogus animal mummies. Well, at least someone took the "wrap" for that!