Surprising Discovery Shows Dozens of Mummified Baby Crocodiles

Nearly 50 tiny crocodiles were found inside an ancient Egyptian mummy’s wrapping.

While preparing for a new exhibit that will allow visitors to virtually dissect a crocodile mummy, museum curators in the Netherlands were met with a surprise: What they had thought were two crocodiles wrapped up together turned out to be nearly 50.

An earlier scan, carried out in the 1990s, had already shown evidence that the nearly 10-foot-long specimen was in fact two smaller adolescent crocodiles, as opposed to one longer one. But the older scan did not clearly show any additional animals.

This scan shows a close-up glimpse of how the wrapping containing the hatchling crocodiles appears on the inside.
INTERSPECTRAL

The larger crocodile is seen with the smaller ones, in blue, fitted around it.
INTERSPECTRAL

This visualization shows the fully wrapped mummy.
INTERSPECTRAL


Visitors to the museum will be able to 'virtually dissect' the crocodile mummy, removing layers of wrapping as shown in
thisvisualization. INTERSPECTRAL

This scan shows the two adolescent crocodiles with the wrapping around them. Previously, this was all that could be seen of the mummy. However, new scans have shown dozens of tiny crocodiles embedded in the wrapping. INTERSPECTRAL.

In a shock for the curators, the advanced 3D scans used for the new exhibit revealed 47 additional baby crocodiles, all individually wrapped and mummified along with the two original animals. 

CT scans offer a "really detailed" and noninvasive look at "what's going on inside" the mummies, says museum conservator Allison Lewis.

The 2,500-year-old specimen was likely a sacrifice to the crocodile god Sobek, according to Laura Weiss, a curator at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, which has housed the crocodile mummy since 1828.

Ancient Egyptians believed in life after death, which could explain the sacrifice and mummification of both baby and adolescent crocodiles, Weiss added.

There is precedent for mummifying multiple crocodiles as an offering to the gods. One crocodile, probably worshipped in life as a living incarnation of Sobek (as opposed to being raised as a sacrifice), was mummified after death with 20 hatchlings and was exhibited in 2015 at the British Museum in London, and two more were studied at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology in California (see images below).

HOW TO MAKE A MUMMY Visiting anthropologists are finally let in on the secrets of mummification in a New Guinea village.

In the upcoming exhibit in Leiden, museum-goers will have the opportunity to virtually remove layer upon layer of mummification materials, exposing the 49 crocodiles beneath. The display will also let people digitally unwrap an Egyptian priest and examine that mummy’s decorations in detail.

SEE PHOTOGRAPHS AND SCANS OF TWO SIMILAR MUMMIES AT THE HEARST MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY IN BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA.

MASK OF THE MUMMY: There's a real crocodile behind that mask, according to computed tomography (CT) scans of a 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummy (pictured). The eight-foot-long artifact—wrapped in once colorful linen and outfitted with a stylized mask—is one of two crocodile mummy bundles scanned in 2010 at the Stanford School of Medicine in California.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY JOHN STAFFORD, STANFORD SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

CROCODILE BALLAST?Another crocodile mummy bundle, pictured in a low-resolution scan, also contained surprises. The scan revealed strange white objects (lower right). These may be rocks, which crocodiles will swallow as a type of ballast to keep them steady in the water, according to Jane Williams, an associate conservator at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, where the mummies are kept. IMAGE COURTESY STANFORD MEDICINE; MUMMY FROM PHOEBE A. HEARST MUSEUM, RENDERED BY EHUMAN USING ANATOMAGE.

BABY CROCODILE MUMMIES"Riding" atop the 5.5-foot-long unwrapped adult-crocodile mummy were more than 30 mummified babies. Riding a parent's back is a common form of locomotion for young Nile crocodiles, experts say.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY STANFORD SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

3-D CROCODILE MUMMY: Both of the crocodile mummy bundles at the Hearst Museum were scanned twice at the Stanford University lab—once with a low-resolution clinical scanner and again with a time-consuming high-resolution scanner, which can tease out more nuanced details of a subject in 3D. Only in this 3D image can you see the babies on the crocodile's back. IMAGE COURTESY STANFORD MEDICINE; MUMMY FROM PHOEBE A. HEARST MUSEUM, RENDERED BY EHUMAN USING ANATOMAGE

SACRIFICIAL CROCODILE? High-resolution scans of the wrapped mummy bundle (pictured) showed that the body parts inside had been covered with papyrus stems before wrapping, which helped to reinforce the assemblage's positioning, according to Hearst Museum conservator Williams.PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY JOHN STAFFORD, STANFORD SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

FISHHOOK FOUND IN MUMMY: In low-resolution scans of the unwrapped crocodile mummy (such as the lower scan pictured), many details remained hidden. But high-resolution scans (such as the one at top) captured some "exciting" new details, like the fish hook found in the scan above, according to Hearst Museum conservator Lewis.
IMAGES COURTESY STANFORD MEDICINE; MUMMY FROM PHOEBE A. HEARST MUSEUM, RENDERED USING EHUMAN ANATOMAGE


CROCODILE, HEAD-ON:Used extensively in the medical world, CT scans (pictured, a head-on view of the unwrapped crocodile mummy) are becoming a "powerful tool" for studying mummies, according to the Hearst Museum's conservation blog. IMAGE COURTESY STANFORD MEDICINE; MUMMY FROM PHOEBE A. HEARST MUSEUM, RENDERED
USINGEHUMAN ANATOMAGE

Delaney Chambers is a senior digital producer at National Geographic.
FOLLOW DELANEY: TWITTER

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit