2,500-Year-Old Mummified Crocodile Yields Surprises

The ancient Egyptians mummified not only people, but also their animals. Even huge crocodiles became a part of this process. One of them was examined recently in the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden) and scientists were surprised by what they saw.

According to a Rijksmuseum van Oudheden press release, the three-meter-long (9.84ft.) mummy was examined with a new 3D CT scanner. It was first examined in 1996 with an older type of CT scanner and this earlier scan revealed that the mummy, which was believed to belong to one crocodile, was in fact two large crocodiles wrapped-up together.

However, the new 3D CT scan results showed another surprise, that apart from the “two crocodiles previously spotted inside the wrappings, the mummy also contains dozens of individually wrapped baby crocodiles.”

The discovery is a huge surprise to the museum, especially since these mummies are very rare examples of the mastery of crocodile mummification. Moreover, the scans showed amulets placed inside the linen wrappings and helped the researchers understand more about the mummified animals – like their physical features, ages, and the process of drying their bodies and covering them in linen.

The modern 3D CT scanner allowed the researchers to examine every single detail of the mummies.

The museum decided to take advantage of this discovery, and from November 18, 2016, visitors can now experience an interactive virtual autopsy on the crocodile(s) mummy and an ancient Egyptian priest too. As the curator stated in the museum’s press release:

“What was intended as a tool for museum visitors, has yet produced new scientific insights. When we started work on this project, we weren’t really expecting any new discoveries. After all, the mummy had already been scanned. It was a big surprise that so many baby crocodiles could be detected with high-tech 3D scans and this interactive visualization.”

Egyptologists who work at the museum suppose that the crocodiles were mummified together due to an ancient Egyptian religious tradition connected to rejuvenation and life after death. Another possible explanation could be that when ancient Egyptians needed to give an offering to the god Sobek there was no giant crocodile available, so they decided to create the expected form using two animals, bits of wood, plants, rope, and wads of linen.

The cult of Sobek, the god of the Nile, army, crocodiles, and fertility, was popular since the Old Kingdom period. He was a patron of the city Crocodilopolis, known in Egyptian as “Shedet.” Sobek was described as an aggressive and violent deity, whose personality was like the biggest Nile crocodiles during ancient times.

One of the most magnificent centers of his cult was located in Kom Ombo, in southern Egypt. The temple was built during the Ptolemaic Period and stayed active until the end of the Roman period.

Animal mummies are a fascinating part of the history of ancient Egypt. In 2015, a team of researchers discovered an unbelievably large animal cemetery. As Liz Leafloor reported in May 2015 for Ancient Origins:

“In what is described as Egypt’s “dark secret,” a staggering 70 million mummified animals have been found in underground catacombs across Egypt, including cats, birds, rodents, and even crocodiles. But surprises awaited a research team when they scanned the animal-shaped mummies and found many of them empty!”

Leafloor writes that the team of radiographers and Egyptologists from the University of Manchester used “the latest medical imaging technology to scan hundreds of elaborately-prepared animal mummies which were collected from over thirty sites across Egypt during the 19th and 20th centuries […] The University of Manchester program used CT scans and X-rays to look into 800 mummies, dating between 1000 B.C. and 400 A.D.”

The survey was featured in a BBC program by Horizon entitled “70 Million Animal Mummies: Egypt’s Dark Secret.” Leafloor explained that the documentary examines “the practices of animal mummification in ancient Egypt, and how so many creatures ended up bound and buried in catacombs.”