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Animal coffin EA36151, surmounted by a human-headed part-eel, part-cobra creature wearing a double crown, associated with the ancient Egyptian god Atum. Source: The Trustees of the British Museum/Nature

Hidden Contents of 6 Egyptian Animal Coffins Revealed After 2,000 Years

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Researchers from the British Museum have just completed a landmark study of animal coffins retrieved from various Egyptian excavation sites and held in their Egyptian collection. In a new article appearing in Scientific Reports, lead researcher Daniel O’Flynn and his colleagues introduce the results of their examination of six sealed ancient Egyptian animal coffins, all of which were dated to between 650 and 250 BC.

Using a non-invasive technology known as neutron tomography, the researchers scanned the interiors of the coffins, to see if they could find any remaining traces of the animals that were entombed inside them. Much to their delight, they were indeed able to detect actual biological materials in the coffins, which could be linked to specific animals known to have existed in first millennium BC Egypt.

The results of this study were significant for two reasons. First, because the research confirmed that the animal coffins were just that, actual coffins in which real animals were buried. The images of animals engraved on the top of the boxes actually did represent the animals sealed inside, as had been suspected but previously could not be proven.

Animal coffin EA27584, surmounted by two lizard figures (top and side view). Neutron imaging shows textile wrappings and an 8mm long bone (arrow). (The Trustees of the British Museum and O’Flynn et al./Nature)

The latter observation reveals the second reason why this study was so significant.

Neutron tomography is a procedure that allows scientists to examine the contents of sealed coffins without opening them or disturbing them in any way. The results obtained in this study prove that neutron tomography is an effective method for archaeological analysis when used in this manner, allowing scientists to protect beautifully preserved artifacts that should not be broken open or disturbed.

Neutron Tomography: A Powerful Tool for Archaeological Analysis

In neutron tomography, beams of penetrating neutrons are sent through a sealed container, and when they emerge out the other side an image is created that will reveal the precise shape of that container’s contents. X-rays can do the same thing, but they don’t work very well with ancient Egyptian animal coffins because the latter are often made from copper compounds and lead, which can scatter x-rays and compromise the quality of the x-ray image. Neutrons in contrast can penetrate and pass through just about anything, making them ideal for use with metal coffins.

For the purposes of the new study, the researchers used neutron tomography to analyze the contents of six sealed animal coffins in the British Museum’s existing collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. An earlier study had been done on these artifacts with x-rays, but the results were unsatisfying, as could be expected. In addition to the lead in the copper there were lead pieces placed inside some of the boxes, making them totally unsuitable for x-ray analysis.

Three of the six animal coffins examined in this study featured raised figures of lizards and eels. They were recovered from the ancient city of Naukratis and have been dated to between 500 and 300 BC. Two coffins were topped with figures of hybrid eel and cobra figures with human heads, and have been dated to approximately 650 to 250 BC. Their site of origin is currently unknown. The sixth coffin, which is topped with a lizard, was discovered in the ancient city of Tell el-Yehudiyeh and has been dated to between 664 and 332 BC.

Animal coffin EA36167, surmounted by a lizard figure. Neutron imaging shows a lizard skull (inset). (The Trustees of the British Museum and O’Flynn et al./Nature)

As hoped, neutron tomography produced detailed images of the contents of each of these coffins. The British Museum scientists were able to identify bones in three of the coffins, including the intact skull of a North African wall lizard. Remnants of broken and decayed bones were found in two other coffins as well.

The researchers were also able to identify textile fragments, likely made of linen, in three coffins. Linen wrappings were used in mummification procedures, so finding this material in the sealed boxes showed that mummified animals had been inside them.

Interestingly, three of the coffins had loops attached to the top, while the others did not have this additional feature. Lead had been placed inside the coffins without loops, possibly to make them heavier (coffins filled with small animals like lizards and eels would have been light). The British Museum researchers believe the loops may have been used to hang the lighter coffins from temple walls, from statues or from boats used during religious ceremonies.

The scientists were thrilled with the results of their studies, which exceeded their expectations.

“In this work we show that neutron CT is an effective alternative or complementary technique to X-ray CT for the non-destructive examination of ancient Egyptian copper alloy votive [religious offering] boxes, given their often high lead content, and the presence of lead and/or organic material contained within.” they wrote in the conclusion of their Scientific Reports paper.

They also credited their study with providing “further evidence for the use of copper alloy votive boxes in ancient Egypt`, showing that animal remains were wrapped in linen and placed inside the boxes before they were sealed, and that the cast animal figures upon the boxes were potentially intended to correspond to the remains within.”

Animal Mummies in Ancient Egyptian Ritual and Religion

The mummification of animals was a normal practice in ancient Egypt. It was especially common during the first millennium BC, when the animal coffins examined by the British Museum researchers in this study were constructed. The species of animals that were most frequently mummified and buried in the specially prepared miniature coffins included cats, snakes, eels, lizards, mongooses, falcons and shrews.

The societies of ancient Egypt revered these animals. In some instances they believed them to physical incarnations of their most cherished deities, and therefore deserving of a respectful burial in a stylish coffin. Their bodies would be mummified to make sure they were preserved in pristine condition, ensuring a smooth and peaceful transition to the afterlife.

In other instances, dead animals were killed and mummified and offered as sacrifices to the gods, once again inside coffins built to preserve their remains indefinitely.

Illustrating the commonness of this practice, a 2020 study that also appeared in Scientific Reports disclosed that ancient Egyptians hunted ibises in large numbers, and then offered the birds they killed as mummified sacrifices to their gods Horus, Ra and Thoth.

Countless numbers of animal coffins from ancient Egypt have been recovered from inside the ruins of excavated religious complexes. The coffins would generally be adorned with raised relief sculptures of the animals that were presumably buried inside, although these images are sometimes stylized and do not represent actual living creatures (i.e., the two coffins that featured the eel/snake hybrids with human heads examined). While many of the coffins were made from copper alloys, the ancient Egyptians also used limestone and wood to make boxes to hold animal remains.

A significant majority of these artifacts have been dated to the first millennium BC, when mummification was seemingly practiced at an industrial scale. Animal coffins like the ones studied at the British Museum reveal fascinating details about the metaphysical belief systems and artistic practices of ancient Egyptian society during this late period of its existence. The people took great care to make sure the animals they mummified and buried would be honored in life and have a safe passage to the next world after death, where they would be greeted by ancestral spirits and by deities that would appreciate the company of these sacred creatures.

Top image: Animal coffin EA36151, surmounted by a human-headed part-eel, part-cobra creature wearing a double crown, associated with the ancient Egyptian god Atum. Source: The Trustees of the British Museum/Nature

By Nathan Falde

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Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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