As It Happens5:53These ancient crocodile mummies are so well-preserved, they almost look alive
Bea De Cupere was blown away the first time she laid eyes on the 10 mummified crocodiles recently discovered in an ancient Egyptian tomb.
But it isn’t the fact that someone took the time to preserve and entomb the reptiles that has scientists buzzing with excitement. That’s already a well-established ancient Egyptian practice.
Rather, it’s that the creatures — likely dead for more than 2,300 years — are remarkably well-preserved. You can see the shape, and in some cases colour, of their scales. Their teeth are protruding from their long snouts. One is so intact, even the skin remains.
“It’s like almost a real crocodile just lying there in front of you,” De Cupere, a researcher at Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science who’s been studying the remains, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.
De Cupere is an archaeozoologist, which means it’s her job is to study animal remains found in archaeological sites. But when it comes to dead critters of the distant past, she says these crocs take the cake.
“This is about the most impressive thing that I have ever seen,” she said.
De Cupere and her colleagues described the findings in detail in a new study published in the journal PLoS ONE. Archaeologists say getting this kind of up-close look at mummified crocodiles could shed new light on the reptiles’ role in ancient Egyptian society.
What did they learn?
Archaeologists from the University of Jaén in Spain first discovered the crocodile mummies in 2019 in a tomb in Qubbat al-Hawā, a site near the city of Aswan in southern Egypt. There were five skulls, and five bodies — all of them nearly intact.
“Normally, I’m used to working with fragments,” De Cupere said.
Most mummified crocodiles found in Egypt have been juveniles or hatchling, but these were all adults.
What’s more, they’re extremely old — even by mummy standards. Carbon dating will be required to determine their precise age, but the scientists say are from pre-Ptolemaic era, more than two millennia ago.
They know this because whoever prepared the corpses didn’t use any resin, which became standard practice for mummification later in Egyptian history.
Instead, the researchers posit the crocodiles were mummified in the old-school way — by being buried in the hot sand and dried out naturally before being entombed.
Without resin, the linens that once wrapped the crocodiles have largely been eaten by insects. That means the researchers were able examine the remains up close without having to use CT scans, which offer only a limited glimpse at what lies beneath.
The team identified two species among the remains — Nile crocodiles and West African crocodiles, the latter of which are no longer found in Egypt, De Cupere said.
They were even able to examine the contents of the crocodiles’ bellies, where they found the remains of eggshells, possibly belonging to snakes and lizards, and small stones known as gastroliths, which some scientists suspect crocodiles swallow to stay underwater longer while hunting
An offering to the god Sobek
De Cupere says the crocodiles were likely sacrificed as an offering for Sobek, a ancient god with a crocodile head.
They found no wounds marks on the bodies. They did, however, find remnants of rope.
Alejandro Jiménez-Serrano, an Egyptologist from the University of Jaén and co-author of the study, told Business Insider that suggests “the crocodiles were tied up, probably until their death by dehydration.”
University of Saskatchewan archaeologist Caroline Arbuckle MacLeod, who was not involved in the study, says scientists have found entire crocodile cemeteries at sites where Sobek was worshipped — though none in the kind of condition as this latest discovery.
“Sobek was worshipped and respected as a fierce, powerful and fertile god — and was also associated with kingship,” she said in an email.
But it wasn’t Sobek alone that made crocodiles so important to ancient Egyptians. Parts of their bodies, including their dung, were used in remedies. They also showed up in stories and folklore.
“There is a literary tale from ancient Egypt that describes a magician bringing a wax crocodile to life as part of a plot to reveal and punish a cheating wife and her lover — whom is then dragged down under the water by the crocodile never to be seen again,” Arbuckle MacLeod said.
“So we have known about the importance of crocodiles to the Egyptians for some time, but the current find still adds considerably to our knowledge.”
The Canadian archaeologist says her scholarly circles have been buzzing with news of the discovery, which she says opens up whole new avenues of exploration.
“The different approaches to mummification, and the selection in some cases of just the skulls, suggests that they were put into the tomb in different states of preservation, and based on different approaches to mummification, which may suggest differences in beliefs and traditions,” she said.
“These types of discoveries, which are so different from what we are used to finding, are always wonderful, because they make us question what we know, or think we know, about the ancient Egyptians and their relationship with the natural world. I love it when new discoveries bring more questions than answers, and no doubt this find will be inspiring new discussions for quite some time.”