The Lizard Mummies of Ancient Egypt

the lizard coffin
Animal coffin EA36151, surmounted by a human-headed part-eel, part-cobra creature wearing a double crown, associated with the ancient Egyptian god Atum; from Egypt.

The contents of six sealed ancient Egyptian animal coffins, imaged using a non-invasive technique, are enabling researchers to understand more about the process and practices as never before.

Increasingly researchers are working more and more with non invasive techniques to determine what is within containers – processes which before would have resulted in some destruction of the contents.

Archaeology is by its very nature a destructive process – to discover what lies beneath other upper layers have to be taken apart. Samples are skimmed off of artefacts , often miniscule in nature, to put under microscopic analysis.

In recent research Daniel O’Flynn (British Museum) and colleagues imaged the contents of six sealed ancient Egyptian animal coffins using neutron tomography — a technique that creates images of objects based on the extent to which neutrons emitted by a source can pass through them. Previous attempts to study the coffins with x-rays were unsuccessful.

Dr Daniel O’Flynn, X-ray Imaging Scientist at the British Museum explained :

“By utilising 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.”

All six of the coffins are made of copper compounds. It is rare for such coffins to still be sealed which makes this research important in the study of remains which have not been tampered with.

Three of the coffins, topped with lizard and eel figures as well as loops, have been dated to between 500 and 300 BCE and were discovered in the ancient city of Naukratis.

A fourth coffin, topped by a lizard figure, has been dated to between 664 and 332 BCE and was discovered in the ancient city of Tell el-Yehudiyeh.

The two other coffins, topped with part-eel, part-cobra figures with human heads, have been dated to between approximately 650 and 250 BCE and are of unknown origin.

two scientists using the imaging machine

Dr Aurélia Masson-Berghoff, Project Curator at the British Museum said :

“In the first millennium BC, lizards were commonly mummified in ancient Egypt, as were other reptiles, cats, dogs, falcons, ibises, shrews, fishes… 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. 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.”

The researchers were able to identify bones in three of the coffins, including an intact skull with dimensions similar to those of a group of wall lizards containing species that are endemic to North Africa, as well as evidence of broken-down bones in a further two coffins.

They also identified textile fragments within three coffins that were possibly made from linen, which was commonly used in Ancient Egyptian mummification. They suggest that linen may have been wrapped around the animals before they were placed in the coffins.

They also found lead within the three coffins without loops, which they suggest may have been used to aid weight distribution within two of them and to repair a hole found in the other. It could be that lead may have been selected due to its status in ancient Egypt as a magical material, as previous research has proposed that lead was used in love charms and curses. They did not identify additional lead within the three coffins topped with loops and suggest that the loops may have been used to suspend these lighter coffins from shrine or temple walls or from statues or boats. These would have been used during religious processions, while the heavier lead-containing coffins without loops may have been used for different purposes.

Click on this link to read more about this research, Neutron tomography of sealed copper alloy animal coffins from ancient Egypt, published in Nature – Scientific Reports

The research team was from the British Museum and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)

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