When archaeologists excavating an undisturbed tomb at Qubbat al-Hawā, a necropolis on the western bank of the Nile River, discovered a cache of mummified crocodiles in 2019, they weren’t entirely surprised. After all, such finds are common in Egypt, where ancient humans preserved dead animals as sacred offerings, food for the afterlife or incarnations of specific deities. Crocodiles, for instance, were associated with Sobek, creator of the Nile and a powerful fertility god.
Upon closer examination, the team realized that the reptiles were preserved in a different manner than most mummified crocodiles. As the authors write in the journal PLOS One, the ten crocodiles were mummified without resin or evisceration of the remains—two typical components of the process. Comprising five heads and five “more or less complete bodies,” according to the study, the animals exhibited varying levels of preservation.
“Most of the time I’m dealing with fragments, with broken things,” lead author Bea De Cupere, an archaeozoologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, tells the New York Times’ Sam Jones. “To hear you have ten crocodiles in a tomb—that’s special.”
The reptiles range in length from 6 to 11.5 feet. They appear to represent two different species: the Nile crocodile and the West African crocodile. As De Cupere explains in a statement, the animals may have been buried in sand pits elsewhere to undergo natural mummification before being exhumed and moved to Qubbat al-Hawā around the fifth century B.C.E.
Because the mummies contain neither resin nor linen (insects ate almost all of the bandages used to wrap the remains long ago), the researchers were able to study them in situ, without using special technology like radiographs and CT scans.
“The absence of linen bandages and resin allowed us to carry out directly a detailed study of the preserved tissues and bones in all individuals,” De Cupere tells Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou. “... In the case of the five isolated skulls, the heads were removed when the crocodiles were already [dried out].”
Identifying a mummified crocodile’s cause of death is easier for some specimens than others. In 2019, a separate group of archaeologists used synchrotron scanning to analyze the remains of a roughly 2,000-year-old mummy housed at the Musée des Confluences in Lyon, France. The animal sustained a skull fracture whose size, direction and shape indicated “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,” as the researchers wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The findings suggested that ancient Egyptians acquired crocodiles for mummification through hunting, in addition to previously known procurement methods like recovering carcasses or breeding animals for the sole purpose of sacrificing them.
Interestingly, none of the Qubbat al-Hawā crocodiles had injuries associated with violent death. Instead, the authors note, the reptiles may have been killed by drowning, suffocation or prolonged exposure to the sun. Traces of rope discovered on several of the mummies may indicate they were “tied up, probably until their death by dehydration,” co-author Alejandro Jiménez-Serrano, an Egyptologist at the University of Jaén in Spain, tells Insider’s Marianne Guenot.
Ranging from cats to birds to snakes, animal mummies “are probably the most numerous object to come from ancient Egypt,” Yekaterina Barbash, co-curator of a past exhibition on the topic at the Brooklyn Museum, told the Times’ Laurel Graeber in 2017. Though the mummies’ exact purpose remains mysterious, the exhibition argued that they sometimes served as requests for help from the gods.
“We think that if you had a particular request,” co-curator Edward Bleiberg explained to the Times, “you would arrange with the priests to have an animal mummy made of the proper type to approach the god you wanted to approach.”
Ancient Egyptians petitioned Sobek, who was typically depicted with the head of a crocodile, for fertile soil and protection from deadly reptiles.
“The crocodile was seen as a very powerful animal,” said Rita Lucarelli, an Egyptologist at the University of California, Berkeley, in a 2021 episode of the “Fiat Vox” podcast. “It could live on earth and in water. It could attack very quickly. It was very powerful and also unpredictable. It had much physical strength. … In the wild, [crocodiles’] diet consists of mostly fish, but they are really ready to attack anything that passes by.”
While De Cupere and her colleagues have tentatively dated the crocodiles and identified the species represented, they hope to confirm these findings in the near future through radiocarbon and DNA testing.
Overall, Jiménez-Serrano tells the Times, “The discovery of these mummies offers us new insights into ancient Egyptian religion and the treatment of these animals as an offering.”