A bird of prey’s last meal may offer us some insight into how Ancient Egyptians handled their feathered offerings to the gods – also, hinting at the possibility that Egyptians may have bred them in large numbers.
The mummified kestrel in question, a raptor, was kept in captivity and is believed to have been forcefully fed as a votive, according to new research published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The bird was previously kept in the Iziko Museums of South Africa in Cape Town’s Social History collection.
Macroscopic study and 3D digital imaging have allowed the research to lift the veil on the “unusual” circumstances surrounding this particular bird’s death: SACHM 2575 was not deliberately killed, as far as appearances go, but it clearly died due to overeating.
SACHM 2575’s last supper
When it died, the scans reveal, the kestrel was full of at least one or two digested mice and a partially digested sparrow, in addition to a mouse whose tail got stuck in the kestrel’s gullet – the meal that finally killed it.
It’s unusual for this type of raptor to devour its food in this manner; generally, it tears its food to pieces, and if the bird catches too much food for a single meal, it stores the rest for later consumption. It regurgitates whatever it fails to digest – like teeth for instance.
The kestrel’s gizzard, however, contained a mass of bones and numerous, unattached teeth of mice – the whole affair strongly suggesting it was force-fed. The kestrel was probably a male, and for it to be chosen for mummification – essentially compromised – could mean that the females were saved for breeding purposes.
It’s not a first that mummified birds of prey were found in Ancient Egypt, in fact numerous numbers of votive mummies have been discovered in catacombs throughout Egypt.
Researchers often wondered about the sheer numbers of captured raptor birds that ended up being mummified and how the Ancient Egyptians did it. “Did they catch or trap them and kill them, raid nests or find them dead?” says Salima Ikram, Professor of Egyptology at The American University in Cairo and lead author of the study. “We now think it was because of active breeding.”
She adds: “The idea of birds of prey being bred to the extent of being kept and force-fed is new.”
Faces of Gods
At this point, the research is still largely speculative, Ikram explains to Nature Middle East. “We’re going to see if we can CT other raptors, to see if this has cropped up in other places as well.”
Killing an animal, like this, was not seen as a form of cruelty at the time. Animals were avatars of the gods, seen as closer to the deities than humans and speaking their language. “You’re giving a sacrifice for gods. When the animal dies, it becomes one with God. It’s united with God for eternity.”
In addition to clarifying how Egyptians might have been able to mummify so many raptors, the research has implications about wild animal husbandry and the possibility of falconry being practiced in ancient Egypt, says Ikram.
“We know raptors were religiously important but it’s interesting to think about the role they may have had in falconry. It’s also interesting that Egyptians were exerting so much thought and control over nature and that their aptitude with wild animals is considerable.”