In ancient Egypt, mummified animals were prized as votive offerings, intermediaries between mortals and the gods, and incarnations of different deities. To ensure a steady supply of creatures for embalming, mummy makers relied on an array of collecting strategies: among others, recovering the carcasses of wild animals or domesticated pets, breeding animals for the sole purpose of mummification, and trapping targets in their natural environment.
But a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences is the first to offer concrete evidence of hunting as a method of procurement. As researchers led by Stéphanie M. Porcier of France’s Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier III report, synchrotron scanning conducted on a roughly 2,000-year-old mummy suggests a supplier obtained the specimen by sneaking up on an unsuspecting crocodile and delivering a deadly blow to the head.
“The most probable cause of death is a serious skull fracture on the top of [the] skull that caused a direct trauma to the brain,” Porcier and her colleagues write in the paper. “The size of the fracture as well as its direction and shape suggest that it was made by a single blow presumably with a … thick wooden club, aimed at the posterior right side of the crocodile, probably when it was resting on the ground.”
According to the study, the supplier started the crocodile’s mummification process “very rapidly after the death,” masking the dent in its skull before treating the body with oil and resins and, finally, wrapping it in layers of linen. As Michael E. Ruane reports for the Washington Post, the animal’s last meal—featuring reptile eggs, insects, fish and a rodent—was still in its stomach at the time of embalming.
Per a press release, the team used advanced imaging technology to conduct a virtual autopsy of the mummy, which was discovered by archaeologists excavating the Upper Egyptian city of Kom Ombo during the early 20th century. Today, Ruane notes, the crocodile is one of some 2,500 animal mummies housed at the Musée des Confluences in Lyon, France. Based on the new analysis, the animal, a male juvenile measuring around 3.5 feet long, was 3 to 4 years old at the time of its death.
Although the scientists acknowledge that it is currently “impossible to establish” whether the hunted crocodile is an anomaly or the product of a widespread practice spurred by demand for votive mummies, they write that future studies yielding similar results could lead to a reconsideration of mummy suppliers’ animal procurement processes.
The ancient Egyptians mummified millions of animals, including dogs, cats, baboons, horses, goats and birds, between the 1st millennium B.C. and the 4th century A.D. As Edward Bleiberg, a curator at the Brooklyn Museum who was not involved in the study, tells the Post’s Ruane, these well-preserved specimens were revered as messengers capable of conveying requests to the gods.
“There are falcon mummies associated with the god Horus, cat mummies for Bastet, dog mummies for Anubis, ibis mummies for Thoth,” Bleiberg says.
Crocodiles, meanwhile, were commonly associated with Sobek, a powerful fertility god depicted as a deity with the head of a reptile and the body of a man.
“The requests that we have in writing are very standard,” Bleiberg concludes, “for health, for yourself, or for a relative, requests for intervention in business disputes.”