Crocodiles were uniquely mummified at the Egyptian site of Qubbat al-Hawa during the 5th century BC, according to a study published January 18, 2023 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Bea De Cupere of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Belgium, and the University of Jaén, Spain, and colleagues.

Mummified animals, including crocodiles, are common finds at Egyptian archaeological sites. Despite several hundred mummified crocodiles available in museum collections around the world, they are not often thoroughly examined. In this study, the authors provide a detailed analysis of the morphology and preservation of ten crocodile mummies found in rock tombs at the site of Qubbat al-Hawa on the west bank of the Nile.

The mummies included five isolated skulls and five partial skeletons, which the researchers were able to examine without unwrapping or using CT scanning and radiography. Based on the morphology of the crocodiles, two species were identified: West African crocodiles and Nile crocodiles, with specimens ranging from 1.5 to 3.5 meters in length. The mummies’ preservation style differs from that at other sites, most notably the lack of evidence of resin use or evisceration as part of the mummification process. The style of preservation suggests a pre-Ptolemaic era, which is consistent with the final phase of Qubbat al-Hawa burial use during the 5th century BCE.

Comparing mummies between archaeological sites is useful for identifying trends in animal use and mummification practices over time. The limitations of this study include the lack of available ancient DNA and radiocarbon, which would be useful for refining the identification and dating of the remains. Future studies using these techniques will further advance scientific understanding of ancient Egyptian cultural practices.

Dorsal view of the complete crocodile #5.
Dorsal view of the complete crocodile #5. Credit: De Cupere et al., 2023, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

The authors add: “Ten crocodile mummies, including five more or less complete bodies and five heads, were found in an undisturbed tomb at Qubbat al-Hawa (Aswan, Egypt). The mummies were in various states of preservation and completeness.”

Magazine reference

  1. De Cupere B, Van Neer W, Barba Colmenero V, Jiménez Serrano A (2023) Newly discovered crocodile mummies of variable quality from an undisturbed tomb at Qubbat al-Hawa (Aswan, Egypt). PLOS ONE 18(1): e0279137. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0279137