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Set of 10 crocodile mummies found in abandoned tomb in Egypt

Archaeologists in Aswan have uncovered a tomb with mummified skulls and the remains of 10 crocodiles that are at least 2,300 years old, photos from the study show.

Archaeologists in Aswan have uncovered a tomb with mummified skulls and the remains of 10 crocodiles that are at least 2,300 years old, photos from the study show.

Photo by Patri Mora Riudavets via EurekAlert

As researchers sifted through a pile of centuries-old rubbish, seven tombs emerged from the bronzed sands of Egypt, undisturbed for centuries — perhaps millennia. Removing the roof of a burial chamber, archaeologists came face to face with a very different type of mummy.

Archaeologists have begun excavating the Qubbat al-Hawā cemetery along the Nile River in Aswan, according to a study published Wednesday, January 18, in the journal PLOS One. The burial site contained a series of rock-cut tombs where dignitaries were interred.

The researchers noticed a thick pile of rubbish from the Byzantine Empire, which ruled from 330 to 1453 AD. Beneath this pile of rubbish, they found seven small stone tombs, plain and undecorated.

Looking into a small tomb, archaeologists found a cache of 10 crocodile mummies.

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The tomb area at Qubbat al-Hawā. A red arrow points to the tomb where the crocodile mummies were found. Photo by De Cupere at al.

The chamber contained five “more or less complete bodies” and five crocodile heads, the study said. The discovery was “unlike any other crocodile material described so far”.

The largest crocodile had an estimated length of 11.5 feet, and the smallest had an estimated length of 6 feet, according to the study. Based on the type of preservation and the lack of resin and pitch, archaeologists estimated that the mummies were at least 2,300 years old. The crocodiles were buried before the Ptolemaic period, which began around 330 BC, the researchers said.

The most complete crocodile mummy – called crocodile #5 – was about 2.1 meters long and wrapped in palm leaves. Inside the crocodile’s stomach, the researchers found stones called gastroliths, remains of eggshells from small lizards or snakes that the reptile may have eaten, and insects that likely invaded the corpse.

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A photo looking at crocodile #5, the most complete mummy. Photo by De Cupere at al.

The second most complete mummy, crocodile #4, was so well preserved that its snout still had scales, the photos show. The crocodile’s eye sockets still had soft tissue.

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Crocodile No. 4’s snout and scales preserved. Photo by De Cupere at al.

The five skulls varied in integrity and preservation quality, the researchers said. The best-preserved skull still had skin on the nostrils and muzzle. Another skull showed signs of cutting and beating, likely due to the mummification process.

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The skulls of crocodiles #4, #11 and #1. Photo by De Cupere at al.

The researchers were unable to figure out how the crocodiles died, the study said. Most of the mummies showed no signs of having been cut, possibly implying that the reptiles died from drowning or suffocation.

Based on variations in mummy quality, the archaeologists concluded that the crocodiles were likely preserved through “deliberate natural mummification,” the study said. For this process, the animals were buried in the ground at different depths, time periods or soil types. As the ancient Egyptians dug up the reptiles and placed them in the tomb, the mummies were likely damaged.

The collection of crocodile mummies showed a “unique way” of mummification in ancient Egypt, according to a EurekAlert press release.

The crocodiles are being stored at the Qubbat al-Hawā site, the study said. Excavations at the Aswan site began in 2018, but the findings were not announced until the study was published.

Aswan is about 510 miles south of Cairo and along the Nile River.

This story was originally published January 19, 2023 10:44 am.

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Aspen Pflughoeft covers real-time news for McClatchy. She graduated from Minerva University, where she studied communication, history and international politics. Previously, she reported for Deseret News.