10 crocodile mummies from ancient Egypt are rewriting what we know about mummifying animals

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The discovery of 10 mummified crocodiles at a historic site in Egypt may rewrite what we know about the ancient process of mummification. Archaeologists say the reptile mummies are in an undisturbed tomb on the west bank of the Nile River, dating back to the 5th Century BC.

Although mummifying crocodiles was actually a common practice in ancient Egypt, researchers say these animals were embalmed in a unique manner. Study leader Dr. Bea De Cupere from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences adds several hundred mummified crocodiles are available for study in museum collections worldwide, but few people examine them thoroughly.

In this case, the team conducted a detailed analysis of the preservation of the mummified crocodiles found in rock tombs.

“Ten crocodile mummies, including five more or less complete bodies and five heads, were found in an undisturbed tomb at Qubbat al-Hawā (Aswan, Egypt). The mummies were in varying states of preservation and completeness,” the study authors write in a media release.

These mummies included five isolated skulls and five partial skeletons.

An overhead view of a fossilized crocodile
Dorsal view of the complete crocodile #5. CREDIT: De Cupere et al., 2023, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Study authors were able to examine the crocodiles without taking off their coverings using CT-scanning and radiography. Based on the morphology of the crocodiles, the researchers discovered two different species at the dig site, West African and Nile crocodiles. These specimens range in length from 1.5 to 3.5 meters.

Interestingly, researchers found that the ancient Egyptians preserved the mummies in a much different style than studies have found at other sites. Most notably, these reptiles appear to lack any resin and did not have their organs removed (evisceration) during the mummification process. This style of preservation suggests that Egyptians mummified them in the pre-Ptolemaic age, which aligns with the final phase of funerary use of Qubbat al-Hawā during the 5th Century BC.

The team says comparing mummies across archaeological sites is useful in identifying different trends in animal use and mummification practices over time. Researchers note that their study did not have available ancient DNA and radiocarbon, which would be helpful for confirming the age of the remains.

“Future studies incorporating these techniques will further inform scientific understanding of ancient Egyptian cultural practices,” the researchers conclude.

The findings are published in the journal PLoS ONE.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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