In 2019, Spanish archaeologists excavating in Qubbat al-Haw in southern Egypt discovered a tomb containing the remains of ten mummified crocodiles, which once swam in large numbers in the Nile during the time of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs.
The crocodiles may have been used in rites for the Egyptian deity Sobek, who is often depicted with a crocodile head.
Qubbat al-Haw is located on the western bank of the Nile and serves as a resting place for nobles and priests from Ancient Egypt’s Old and Middle Kingdoms.
Archaeologists have previously discovered approximately 100 tombs at the necropolis, which was active from the Fourth Dynasty through the Roman Period. The latest tomb was unearthed by archaeologists from the University of Jaén.
Two Spanish archaeologists collaborated with two Belgian scientists to produce a complete analysis of the bones of these mummified crocodiles and their tombs, which was published in the journal PLOS One.
The studies revealed that the reptiles were preserved in a different manner than most mummified crocodiles. The ten crocodiles were mummified without the use of resin or evisceration of the remains, as the scientists explain in the journal.
The researchers also discovered evidence of linen, palm leaves, and rope, associated with some of the crocodiles, indicating that they were originally wrapped. The linen bandages, however, must have rotted away, and the crocodiles were not covered with large amounts of pitch or bitumen, as was common in more recent times. This allowed the researchers to measure and study these specimens thoroughly.
“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.”
“More than 20 burial sites with crocodile mummies are known in Egypt, but to find 10 well-preserved crocodile mummies together in an undisturbed tomb is extraordinary,” she says. “Of most mummies collected by museums in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, often hatchlings, we don’t know exactly where they come from.”
“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].”
The smallest crocodile is 1.8 metres long, while the largest is 3.5 metres long. They are two separate species: the Nile crocodiles and West African crocodiles. Three of the skeletons were almost complete, with the other two missing a few parts. According to De Cupere, the crocodiles were first buried elsewhere, probably in sand pits. ‘This allowed the crocodiles to naturally dry out. The remains were then unearthed, wrapped, and relocated to the tomb at Qubbat al-Haw. Body parts have to be lost during wrapping and transport.’
One crocodile was so perfectly preserved that the gastroliths were still visible.These are intestinal stones that help crocodiles stay balanced in the water. The presence of stones indicates that the crocodile was not cut open to take out the intestines.
“The discovery of these mummies offers us new insights into ancient Egyptian religion and the treatment of these animals as an offering,” said co-author Alejandro Jiménez-Serrano, an Egyptologist at the University of Jaén in Spain.