Ancient mummified crocodiles recovered from an undisturbed tomb in Egypt were preserved in a “unique” manner, scientists have found, and some of the bodies were even decapitated after being dried out.

A team of researchers have investigated ten crocodile mummies found at the site of Qubbat al-Hawā—located on the western bank of the River Nile—revealing new insights into ancient Egyptian burial practices. The findings of their research have been outlined in a paper published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

The ancient Egyptians mummified a huge variety of animals, and numerous specimens have been found at archaeological sites across the country.

Among the animals that they preserved were cats, ibises, birds of prey, baboons, dogs and crocodiles, among others. This practice had spiritual significance.

Crocodile mummies in Egypt
This picture shows mummified crocodiles found during excavations at Qubbat al-Hawā, Egypt. A study has found that the crocodiles were preserved in a unique way.
Patri Mora Riudavets, CC-BY 4.0

“The animal mummies were used as votive offerings to the worshipped gods, or were considered to be physical manifestations of the gods,” Bea De Cupere, an author of the study at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences told Newsweek.

“Killing an animal was not a problem if its mummification [allowed the connection of] the human world with the divine sphere.”

Crocodiles were sacrificed to act as intermediaries between humans and the ancient Egyptian deity Sobek. This god was associated with fertility and often depicted as a crocodile, or a human with a crocodile’s head.

Since 2008, a team from the University of Jaén in Spain has been conducting fieldwork in rock tombs at the archaeological site of Qubbat al-Hawā, which once served as the resting place for ancient nobles and priests.

The site—whose name translates as “Dome of the Wind”—consists of a mound composed of horizontal sandstone layers, creating terraces. Evidence suggests the necropolis was in use from around 2,500 years ago to the Roman and Byzantine period (30 B.C.–A.D. 642).

“It is one of the most densely occupied cemeteries of ancient Egypt,” De Cupere said. “Dignitaries of the region were buried here in the tombs cut out of the rocks.”

During excavations conducted in an undisturbed tomb, the University of Jaén team uncovered a collection of crocodile remains in 2019, consisting of five more or less complete bodies and five heads in varying states of preservation and completeness, some with skin still attached to them.

For the PLOS ONE study, the authors examined these crocodile mummies in an attempt to learn more about them.

Many museums worldwide have Egyptian animal mummies in their collections and among them are numerous crocodiles. These specimens were collected in large numbers, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But they are rarely examined thoroughly—which was one of the main aims behind the latest research.

“Crocodiles from more recent excavations of funerary contexts are quite rare and consist mainly of scattered remains from disturbed contexts,” De Cupere said. “The undisturbed tomb of Qubbat al-Hawā is therefore unique, presenting a collection of crocodile mummies which can easily be studied.”

Many of the crocodile mummies stored in museums are covered with large amounts of bitumen and/or wrapped in linen bandages and can only be studied using special techniques such as radiographs and CT scans.

“In the case of the crocodiles of Qubbat al-Hawā, 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 said.

The team’s examinations of the remains yielded insights into the mummification of these “exceptional” specimens. The manner in which the specimens were prepared is unlike those found at any other ancient Egyptian site to date, the researchers concluded.

An ancient Egyptian crocodile mummy
A view from from above of one of the complete crocodile specimens. Five of the crocodile mummies found at Qubbat al-Hawā were more or less complete, while others consisted of the heads alone.
De Cupere et al., 2023, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

The team found that there was no evidence of the special preparation techniques seen at other sites—namely, no indications that the intestines were removed and no signs of the use of bitumen.

“It is assumed that the animals were first laid on the surface or buried in a sandy environment that allowed the bodies to dry out naturally,” De Cupere said. “The bodies were then wrapped in linen and mats of palm leaves and brought to the tomb where they were deposited.”

“During the process of mummification, damage occurred to some of the crocodiles, while others were well preserved. In the case of the five isolated skulls, the heads were removed when the crocodiles were already [dried out].”

The experts also measured the specimen’s bones, estimating that they came from animals ranging in length from 5.9 feet to 11.5 feet.

The team even determined that the bones seem to represent two different crocodile species—the Nile crocodile (C. niloticus) and the West African crocodile (C. suchus), which in the case of the latter is no longer found in Egypt.

The team were not able to find any evidence pertaining to how the animals were killed or where they may have been caught. No marks associated with the killing of the crocodiles could be identified. The only chop marks that could be seen all seem to be related to the decapitation of the already dried crocodile mummies and not to the cutting of the necks of living or freshly killed animals.

But there are several methods that could have been used to dispatch them that would not have left clear traces, the authors said. These include drowning, suffocation and exposing the animals to the sun for a prolonged period.

Based on the archaeological context in which the crocodile tomb was found and the fact that no bitumen was used during the mummification process, the researchers estimated that the animals can be dated to the pre-Ptolemaic period, prior to around 300 B.C.

The findings indicating that the preservation of the crocodiles was quite basic in the techniques and materials used compared to specimens seen in later periods—such as those found at sites like Kom Ombo—could help archaeologists to identify trends in animal use and mummification practices over time in ancient Egypt.