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Ten mummified crocodiles emerge in Egyptian tomb


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At first glance, you might think the image is of live crocodiles slinking through the mud. But the animals are mummies, possibly killed more than 2,500 years ago and preserved in a ritual, probably in honor of Sobek, the fertility deity worshiped in ancient Egypt.

The mummies were among 10 adult crocodiles, probably two different species, whose remains were recently unearthed from a tomb at Qubbat al-Hawa, on the west bank of the Nile River. The discovery was detailed in the journal PLoS ONE last Wednesday (18).

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The crocodile played an important role in Egyptian culture for thousands of years. In addition to being linked to a deity, it was a source of food, and parts of the animal, such as its fat, were used as a medicine to treat body aches, stiffness and even baldness.

Mummified animals, including ibises, cats and baboons, are often found in Egyptian tombs. Other remains of mummified crocodiles were unearthed, but most were young or young; moreover, the discoveries in this new study were in great shape.

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“I mostly deal with fragments, broken things,” said Bea De Cupere, an archaeozoologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and a co-author of the study. “Knowing you have ten crocodiles in a tomb is special.”

She was called to Qubbat al-Hawa by a team of researchers led by Alejandro Jiménez Serrano, an Egyptologist at the University of Jaén in Spain. In 2018, researchers discovered seven small tombs beneath a Byzantine-era garbage dump. In one of the tombs — wedged between the dumping site and four human burials believed to date back to around 2100 BC — were the mummified crocodiles.

De Cupere studies everything, including bones, teeth and shells, as well as coprolites, or fossilized feces, and animal tracks. “Archaeologists do an excavation and if they find remains of animals that they consider worth examining, we step in,” said De Cupere.

Of the ten mummified adult crocodile remains found, five were just heads and the other five were in various states of completion, but one, over 2.1 meters long, was nearly complete.

Animal and human mummies are often found wrapped in linen bandages fixed with resin, prompting scientists to use CT scans or X-rays to see through the material. The Qubbat al-Hawa crocodiles did not contain resin, and the only flax fragments present were almost entirely consumed by insects, allowing researchers to study the mummies at the excavation site.

Based on the shape of the skull and how the animals’ bony plates, or shields, were arranged, the team hypothesized that most of the crocodiles in the tomb appeared to be the species Crocodylus suchus, while others were Crocodylus niloticus. Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo who was not involved in the study, said that collecting this type of information made it clear that the ancient Egyptians understood the different behaviors of the two species they wanted to interact with, “because the niloticus will eat it, while with the suchus you can swim in the same pond and come out alive,” Ikram said.

The lack of resin also indicated that the crocodiles were likely mummified by being buried in the hot, sandy soil, where they naturally dried out before being buried, which the researchers proposed to have happened before the Ptolemaic period, which lasted from 332 BC to 30 BC.

“From the Ptolemaic period onwards, they used large amounts of resin,” said De Cupere.

The team hypothesized that crocodile mummies were buried around the 5th centuryth BC, when animal mummification became more common in Egypt. But it will take radiocarbon dating to know for sure. The researchers hope that, in the near future, they will be able to perform this dating, as well as DNA analyzes to verify the two species.

“The discovery of these mummies offers us new insights into ancient Egyptian religion and the treatment of these animals as an offering,” said Jiménez Serrano.

Ikram also sees these discoveries as an important window into the relationship between people and the Qubbat al-Hawa necropolis, from the earliest burials more than 4,000 years ago to the present day. “Within the community, how were these tombs viewed? What were their uses?” said Ikram.

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