Scientists discovered 2,500-year-old crocodile mummies

Yes, crocodile mummies exist, and they are pretty cool.
Rupendra Brahambhatt

Apart from turning dead human beings into mummies, ancient Egyptians also used to mummify different kinds of animals, including cats, ibises, baboons, dogs, and even crocodiles. 

The animal mummies were used as votive offerings to the worshipped gods or considered physical manifestations of the gods. Recently, a team of researchers unearthed crocodile mummies at Qubbat al-Hawā, a historical site in Egypt. 

About 2,500 years ago, crocodiles were sacrificed to be the intermediaries between humans and the god Sobek — a deity associated with fertility and often depicted as a crocodile or as a human with a crocodile head.

The researchers claim that the crocodile mummies found at Qubbat al-Hawā are different than any other previously discovered animal mummies, but how?

Natural mummification process

Before you know why the crocodile mummies are different, you need to understand how animals and humans were normally mummified. Ancient Egyptians strongly believed in afterlife (life after death). 

So before burying a deceased being, they used to apply chemicals and preservatives such as resin on the body to keep it dry. Certain organs were also removed from the body (such as intestines) and were preserved separately as a part of the mummification process

Once the dead person or animal’s flesh was free from moisture, it was finally covered in layers of linen cloth. The mummy was then placed in a coffin and buried.

Differently preserved crocodile mummies 

Scientists discovered 2,500-year-old crocodile mummies
Researchers examining the crocodile mummy.

Surprisingly, in the case of the crocodile mummies of Qubbat al-Hawā, “There was no evidence of any special preparation technique. There are no indications that the intestines were removed, and there is no trace of the use of bitumen or resin,” one of the study authors and a researcher at Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Bea De Cupere told IE.  

A total of ten crocodile mummies were discovered; five partial skeletons and five heads. They are possibly 5th-century BC Nile crocodile and West-African crocodile species. The researchers assume that these animals were first, elsewhere, laid on the surface or buried in a sandy environment that allowed the bodies to dry out naturally. 

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The orientation of the limbs (hind limbs folded forwards and fore limb folded lateral) witnesses a quite natural position of the crocodile bodies. When desiccated, the bodies were wrapped in linen bandages and mats of palm leaves and brought to the tomb, where they were deposited. 

During the mummification, process damage occurred to some of the crocodiles, while others remained well preserved. In the case of the five isolated skulls, the heads were removed when the crocodiles were already desiccated.

Scientists discovered 2,500-year-old crocodile mummies
A crocodile mummy.

The absence of linen bandages and resin allowed the researchers to carry out a detailed study of the preserved tissues and bones in all individuals. In the closest-to-complete body, no cut marks or other traces of human modifications of the skin were observed, and gastroliths (naturally occurring stones that grind food inside the stomach of some animals) were found in situ, indicating that the animal was not eviscerated. 

Similarly, in the other mummies where the ventral ribs were preserved, no cut marks were observed on these ribs, suggesting that also these animals were not cut open. However, the incompleteness of the crocodiles indicates that some of the dried crocodile carcasses were already of poor quality, disarticulated, or decomposed when they were wrapped and disposed of in the tomb.

This different mummification process highlights the unique preservation method ancient Egyptians employed during the pre-Ptolemaic era, i.e., before 305 to 330 BC.

Why do crocodile mummies matter?

Scientists discovered 2,500-year-old crocodile mummies
Crocodile mummies.

The numerous crocodile mummies stored in museums across the globe were collected in the late 19th or early 20th century. They are covered with large amounts of bitumen and/or wrapped in linen bandages and can only be studied using special techniques. 

Bea De Cupere and her team also examined the crocodile mummies through radiography and CT scans. These technologies allowed them to study the animals without unwrapping them. They highlighted that animal mummies are rarely studied, and detailed morphological observations of the crocodiles themselves are scarce.

“Almost no osteomorphological or osteometric work has been done in the past on crocodiles. In recent times, crocodiles of funerary contexts are quite rare and consist only of scattered remains from disturbed contexts,” said Bea De Cupere

The crocodiles of Qubbet al-Hawa are sources of ample information on osteomorphology (bone structure) and osteometry (study of skeletons), including species identification, of the crocodiles used in ancient times for mummification. 

Therefore, the data collected from these animal mummies are of great significance. The researchers will now perform DNA analysis to identify the crocodile species and confirm whether or not the mummies belong to the Nile and West African crocodiles.

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.