The ancient Egyptians had a definite thing for cats. In addition to the domestic felines that dominated many households, big cats like leopards got their fair share of reverence, too—or so a new digital reconstruction suggests. Compiled from an analysis of a 2,000-year-old sarcophagus fragment unearthed last year, the image showcases the majestic head of an animal that, to the ancient residents of Aswan, Egypt, once represented great determination and power, reports Mindy Weisberger for Live Science.
Originally part of the coffin’s lid, the leopard’s face would have aligned with the head of the mummy inside, according to a statement. The cat likely acted as a guardian, imbuing the spirit of the deceased with strength on their journey to the land of the dead.
A team led by Egyptologist Patrizia Piacentini of Italy’s Milan State University uncovered the sarcophagus in a necropolis, or city of the dead, that lay more than 15 feet beneath the desert. More than 300 tombs—the product of centuries of Aswan burials that date to as recently as the fourth century A.D.—exist within its boundaries, according to a report from Italy’s ANSA wire service. While some of the necropolis’ residents were entombed in single-occupancy sarcophagi, others were crowded into large rooms such as the one where the leopard sarcophagus was found. In total, the leopard room housed about 30 bodies.
Though lacking in privacy, the packed chamber wasn’t devoid of respect. Surrounding the bodies was a bevy of artistic accoutrement that dated to around the second century B.C. But even among an array of pottery, body covers and other sarcophagi, the leopard-themed coffin was something of a standout because the big cat had been painted on—a rarity for these types of symbols, Piacentini tells ANSA.
After millennia underground, what remained of the feline sarcophagus was very fragile.
“We decided to detach the stucco to save the design,” says Piacentini. “It was a very delicate operation that had us holding our breath … we had tears in our eyes.”
Leopards appear as hieroglyphs and statues in many Egyptian artworks. Some pharaohs kept the felines as exotic pets; others shelled out vast riches for their rosette-dappled pelts, shipped in from afar. Regarded as fearsome and powerful, the great cats were, in many ways, reminiscent of the gods.
To ensure the funerary leopard wouldn’t be lost again, Piacentini and her team decided to reconstruct the design, beginning with a digital workup of what it might have looked like when freshly painted.
“We made the [initial] discovery at the end of January 2019,” the Egyptologist tells Live Science, “but just finished the ‘virtual’ restoration of the fragment.”
Rounding out the team’s fauna find was the unexpected discovery of some very ancient flora: roughly 2,000-year-old pine nuts in the room next door. A non-native plant product that had to be imported by chefs, the seeds were considered a luxury item, underscoring the high status of the tomb’s inhabitants, according to Piacentini. The precious product was so coveted in life, it seems, that it was optioned as an ideal snack for what came after life, too.
“We like to imagine that the people buried in the tomb of Aswan loved this rare seed so much,” says Piacentini in the statement, that their relatives made sure they “could feed on them for eternity.”