A CT scan revealed the remains of a child-like mummy were actually just mud and grain packed together and shaped to represent Osiris, the Egyptian god of death.
The 3,000-year-old mummy was one of two sent for a CT scan at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, Israel, by the city’s National Maritime Museum.
Both sarcophagi had long been part of the museum’s collection, but staff doubted the official record which suggested they contained mummified hearts.
Marcia Javitt, director of medical imaging at Rambam, initially thought the larger mummy might be human as it ‘looked like a small child’.
But what they discovered was a mummy made of plant matter, apparently meant to represent Osiris, the ancient Egyptian lord of the underworld and god of the dead.
Researchers holding two mummies ahead of a CT scan to find out if they contain any human remains
Photo shows a second bird-like mummy – one of two mummies studied by researchers. This likely represented the ancient Egyptian god Horus
Ron Hillel from Haifa Museums said: ‘It’s what is known as a ‘grain mummy’, also known as a ‘corn mummy’.
‘These contain mud and grains, and were shaped like a mummy, hence the name’, Hillel explained, adding ‘they were symbolic of the god Osiris’.
The other sarcophagus was revealed to contain a mummified bird, most likely a falcon – a creature closely associated with Horus, the god of kingship and the sky.
Dr Javitt said: ‘We could identify the shape, form and bones of what looks like a bird. I wasn’t expecting that.’
The circumstances in which the mummies were originally discovered before finding their way to the museum remains unclear.
Researchers say it is possible they were buried in a tomb, perhaps even a Pharaoh’s tomb, as an offering to the gods on behalf of the deceased.
‘In ancient Egypt, when there was a tomb created for a human being, they would place certain artefacts and even certain animals in with these mummified remains.
‘And birds in ancient Egypt had a very important role… because they were thought to be protectors, so they would often place them in the tombs with the Pharaohs.
‘I’m not saying this bird came from the tomb of a Pharaoh but it’s conceivable that it had something to do with that kind of story,’ Javitt said.
The mummies date back to between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago, the team said.
‘The ancient Egyptians mummified numerous animals – birds, cats, crocodiles, fish, and many others,’ said Hillel.
Photo shows a second bird-like mummy that contained the remains of a bird – possibly a falcon – placed to represent the god Horus
A mysterious child-like mummy has been unmasked as a grain and mud representation of the ancient Egyptian god of the dead after a CT scan
CT scans revealed that inside the sarcophagus were densely packed grain and mud shaped to represent the ancient Egyptian god Osiris
‘Their mummification served many purposes, such as votive offerings, food for the afterlife, and as protection in the afterlife.’
The true nature of the mummies was revealed by combining conventional CT scanning with cutting-edge dual energy CT scanning.
‘The conventional CT scan only shows you density,’ said Dr Javitt.
‘With mummies, the bones get less dense, the tissues get dehydrated, and it’s nothing like scanning a live animal, human or other creature, because the tissue relationships are much different.
‘The dual energy CT lets us actually measure the atomic number of the tissue and that is not dependent on hydration or condition – it’s elemental.’
Dr Javitt and her counterparts at the museum are now set to reconvene next week and probe the origins of the mummies further.
She said: ‘We can be the anatomic detectives and they can be the archaeological ones and we can put together an interesting story from that collaboration.’
Mr Hillel added: ‘We are very excited by the findings, and intend to continue looking into these items.’