As researchers dug through a centuries-old trash heap, seven tombs emerged from the tan sands of Egypt, undisturbed for centuries — perhaps millennia. Removing the ceiling of one burial chamber, archaeologists came face to face with a very different kind of mummy.
Archaeologists began excavating the Qubbat al-Hawā burial site along the Nile River in Aswan, according to a study published Wednesday, Jan. 18, in the journal PLOS One. The burial site contained a number of known rock-cut tombs where dignitaries were buried.
The researchers noticed a thick pile of trash from the Byzantine empire, which ruled from 330 until 1453 A.D. Beneath this trash pile, they found seven small rock tombs, simple and undecorated.
Looking into one small tomb, archaeologists found a cache of 10 crocodile mummies.
The chamber contained five “more or less complete bodies” and five crocodile heads, the study said. The find 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 the mummies were at least 2,300 years old. The crocodiles were buried before the Ptolemaic period, which began around 330 B.C., researchers said.
The most complete crocodile mummy — named crocodile #5 — was about 7 feet long and wrapped in palm leaves. Inside the crocodile’s stomach, researchers found stones called gastroliths, eggshell remains from small lizards or snakes the reptile may have eaten and insects that likely invaded the corpse.
The second most complete mummy, crocodile #4, was so well-preserved its snout still had scales, photos show. The crocodile’s eye sockets still had soft tissue in them.
The five skulls varied in completeness and quality of preservation, researchers said. The best-preserved skull still had skin on the nostrils and snout. Another skull showed signs of being cut and bludgeoned, likely from the mummification process.
Researchers could not figure out how the crocodiles died, the study said. Most mummies did not show signs of being chopped, possibly implying the reptiles died from drowning or suffocation.
Based on the variations in mummy quality, the archaeologists concluded 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 ancient Egyptians dug the reptiles back up 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 news release from EurekAlert.
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 weren’t announced until the study was published.
Aswan is about 510 miles south of Cairo and along the Nile River.