First-ever look inside sealed coffins reveals secrets of lizard mummies
In a thrilling discovery for Egyptologists and ancient history buffs, the contents of six ancient animal sarcophagi have been examined, all without a single scientists opening a coffin lid, thanks to groundbreaking neutron tomography.
The method was used by scientists from the British Museum and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) not to avoid any fabled curses linked with disturbing mummified remains, but to preserve the artifacts in their natural, whole state while being able to sneak a peek at their incredible, ancient contents.
“By utilizing the capabilities of neutron imaging we were able to study the sealed animal coffins non-invasively and further our knowledge on the fascinating world of animal mummification in ancient Egypt,” said Dr Daniel O’Flynn, X-ray Imaging Scientist at the British Museum.
Neutron imaging, which can effectively ‘see’ through metal, allowed the scientists to examine the six first-millennium BCE animal coffins made out of bronze or leaded copper alloy, hailing from ancient sites including Naukratis and Tell el-Yehudiyeh in the Nile Delta. Three of the coffins are dated 500-300 BCE, and the others 664-332 BCE.
The imaging process is similar to an X-ray, except this radiographic method uses neutrons to create images of objects in its path.
Inside the coffins, the scientists uncovered new knowledge about the types of animals that were mummified and buried in ancient Egypt, most likely through rituals rather than burial for companion animals.
While the species of lizard couldn’t be identified because of size variability, the researchers were confident that they found bones belong to reptiles of the Mesalina genus. Several species of these lizards are endemic to northern Africa.
The images also revealed remnants of a textile, suggesting that the lizards had been wrapped, most likely in linen. This was a common fabric for mummification of humans and animals at the time.
These mummified lizards, scientists predict, were tied to the cult of Egyptian creator and sun gods like Atum, whose part-cobra part-eel imagery adorned two of these coffins. Most mummified animals were also bred in big numbers, often to be sacrificed while young as part of offerings during religious ceremonies.
“In the first millennium BC, lizards were commonly mummified in ancient Egypt, as were other reptiles, cats, dogs, falcons, ibises, shrews, fishes,” said Aurélia Masson-Berghoff, Project Curator at the British Museum. “Lizards, like snakes and eels, were particularly associated with ancient Egyptian solar and creator gods such as Atum and perhaps, in the case of Naukratis, with Amun-Ra Shena.”
It's estimated that some underground burial sites from ancient Egypt contain hundreds of thousands of mummified animals, but not all were preserved so carefully in metal cases, potentially because of the cost of the precious metals at the time. But the three Naukratis coffins analyzed came from a discovery that also featured more than 100 animal sarcophagi adorned with ornate figures of lizards, eels and snakes.
Aside from the interesting contents, the neutron imaging also allowed scientists to observe the coffin structures, some featuring hooks suggesting they were once hanging graves, and others with patches of lead potentially used for support. The researchers also speculate that lead may have been chosen because of its ‘magical’ properties, with Egyptians at the time using it in love charms.
“Neutron imaging has many important applications in 21st-century science,” said Anna Fedrigo, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at STFC. “This study shows that it can also shed light on the inner structure of complex archaeological objects, including their manufacturing techniques and contents.
“With the help of neutron imaging, we have the potential to learn more about the ritual and votive practices surrounding these once impenetrable animal coffins, the ways they were made, used and displayed,” added Masson-Berghoff.
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Check out the videos below for a look at the neutron imagery that enabled both a look inside the sealed coffins and unpacked what materials they were made from.
Source: British Museum
Please keep comments to less than 150 words. No abusive material or spam will be published.