What's more mystifying than an ancient mummy? Well, what about an ancient mummy with an assembly of sharp, snaggled teeth on the inside of its mouth?
According to a paper published in PLOS ONE, researchers recently found 10 crocodile mummies, interred in a tomb at the Qubbat al-Hawā archaeological site in Aswān, Egypt. Preserved around 2,500 years ago, these mummies are all adult crocodiles and unlike any ancient remains yet found from the region, revealing new insights into the process of Egyptian mummy-making over time.
The Crocodile's Tomb
Many Egyptian tombs contain mummified animals, and mummified crocodiles in particular, thanks to the creature’s central role in the religion and ritual of ancient Egypt. Revered for their strength and agility, these animals were also associated with an array of gods and goddesses, including Sobek, the “lord of the crocodiles” and the picture of pharaonic power.
Read More: The Animal Mummy Business
Acting as votive offerings, many crocodile mummies were made in an attempt to gain the favor of these crocodile gods and goddesses. And ancient Egyptians prepared the majority of them with the same simple processes. They removed moisture from the body with agents such as natron and the coated the corpse with resin and bandage wrappings.
But one team of researchers recently discovered a set of crocodile mummies unlike anything that they'd previously seen. Not only were these animal mummies bigger and better preserved than the average, they were also made using a unique preservation style, which omitted the resin and the wrappings that are traditionally associated with mummified crocs.
“The mummified crocodiles from Qubbat al-Hawā differ from mummies thus far recorded from other localities,” the researchers state in their study. “The manner in which these specimens were prepared, as well as the variation observed in the type of ‘final product,’ are unlike any other crocodile material described so far.”
A Multiplicity of Mummified Crocs
In 2018, researchers uncovered seven small tombs at the Qubbat al-Hawā site near the Nile, one of which contained the 10 mummified crocs.
According to the researchers, while most mummified crocodiles are hatchlings or juveniles, all 10 of the new mummies, which went undisturbed for thousands of years, are adults. Including five skulls and five partial skeletons, they vary in the state of their preservation, though they’re all better preserved than the average, which is usually a pile of fragments.
In fact, the crocodiles look almost like they’re alive from afar, with their thick, scaly skin and their sharp teeth intact. And part of that illusion is thanks to the absence of resin and wrappings, which were omitted or mostly omitted from the preparation of these mummies around 2,500 years ago.
“None of the crocodiles found at Qubbat al-Hawā showed evidence of the use of resin,” the study authors state in their study, “and in only a few cases were small pieces of linen found.”
Instead, they say, “it is very likely that the crocodiles were desiccated by ‘deliberate natural mummification,’” where the bodies were buried in the dry sand before being placed, unwrapped or only minimally wrapped, into the tomb.
Read More: The Mummification Process: How Ancient Egyptians Preserved Bodies for the Afterlife
The shape of the crocodiles’ skulls and the arrangement of the bony armor on the crocodiles’ backs allowed the researchers to surmise that the animals represented two separate species, Crocodylus suchus and Crocodylus niloticus.
According to the team, the animals were probably buried before the Ptolemaic Period, when resin became a particularly prominent part of the mummification process. That said, the researchers add that additional research and radiocarbon dating are needed to truly nail this approximate date down.