Animal mummies in ancient Egypt may have been used for magic, study suggests

Lead may have been chosen in the burial as it was believed to be a magical substance, possibly utilized in curses and love charms.
Nergis Firtina
Animal coffin EA36151, surmounted by a human-headed part-eel, part-cobra creature wearing a double crown, associated with the ancient Egyptian god Atum.
Animal coffin EA36151, surmounted by a human-headed part-eel, part-cobra creature wearing a double crown, associated with the ancient Egyptian god Atum.

The Trustees of the British Museum. 

Six sealed ancient Egyptian animal coffins have been found recently.

As stated in the release, animal mummification was a common technique in ancient Egypt, and prior study has revealed that certain mummified animals may have represented presents to deities or been employed in ritual acts, while others may have been thought to be physical manifestations of deities.

Neutron tomography, a method that generates images of objects based on the extent to which neutrons emitted by a source can pass through them, was used to capture an image of the contents of six sealed animal coffins after previous attempts to study the coffins with X-rays failed.

The six coffins are all composed of copper-based materials. According to the authors, it is unusual for such coffins to still remain sealed. Three of the coffins, which feature loops and representations of lizards and eels on top, were found in the historic city of Naukratis.

Animal mummies in ancient Egypt may have been used for magic, study suggests
Animal coffin EA27584, surmounted by two lizard figures.

They have been dated between 500 and 300 BCE. In the historic city of Tell el-Yehudiyeh, a fourth coffin was topped with a lizard figure and has been dated to anywhere between 664 and 332 BCE.

The two more coffins, which depict human heads on part-cobra and part-eel figures, date between 650 and 250 BCE, are of uncertain provenance.

In three of the graves, the scientists found bones, including an entire cranium with measurements resembling those of a group of wall lizards that includes species native to North Africa, as well as signs of fractured bones in two further coffins.

Additionally, they discovered textile fragments in three coffins that may have been made of linen, a material that was frequently employed in Ancient Egyptian mummification.

They suggest that the animals may have been covered with linen before being buried in the coffins. The three coffins without loops were all found to contain lead, which the authors speculate may have been used to help two of them distribute weight and patch a hole in the third.

They could have been used for magic

They hypothesize that lead may have been chosen due to its reputation in ancient Egypt as a magical substance, as other studies have suggested that lead was utilized in curses and love charms.

The three coffins with loop tops contained no additional lead, according to the authors. They contend that the lighter coffins with loops may have been suspended from a shrine or temple walls, sculptures, or boats used in religious processions, as opposed to the heavier coffins made of lead, which may have had other functions.

The study was published in Scientific Reports.

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