Nine crocodile heads buried for millennia in an ancient Egyptian tomb have come into the light.
The discovery was made by a team from the Center of Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Warsaw during excavations of the Theban Necropolis, an ancient burial site in Upper Egypt. The animals’ remains were hidden inside two tombs belonging to high-ranking officials who lived during Egypt’s New Kingdom, which spanned between 16th century BCE and the 11th century BCE.
The archaeologists, working under the supervision of Patryk Chudzik, shared the strange circumstances of this “one of a kind” find in the Journal of African Archaeology.
Since 2013, Chudzik’s team has been examining two tombs in the necropolis. One belonged to Cheti, a dignitary during the rule of Pharaoh Nebhepetra Mentuhotep II (2055 BCE–2002 BCE), the other to an anonymous servant of the royal court who held relatively a high status. Together, the tombs contained nine crocodile skulls—of the large variant native to Egypt’s freshwater habitats—that were wrapped in linen and, most notably, lacking any form of preservation.
“This is a completely unusual discovery and the first of its kind in the history of research in Egypt,” Chudzik told Arkeonews. “We know of many crocodile mummies that have been found along the Nile. They are all mummies of whole crocodiles that have been deposited in specially prepared catacombs of sacred animals, in this case, crocodiles or sacred animals of the god Sobek.”
Chudzik added that it is unprecedented that only the heads, not the entire crocodile, was deposited in the tomb, and without first being mummified. Additionally, it is unusual to find crocodiles buried with humans, rather than in the catacombs of sacred animals.
Crocodiles were sacred in ancient Egypt as vessels of the god Sobek, a deity whose associations included the Nile, fertility, and military might. Sobek had a cult following throughout Pharaonic Egypt’s three periods but reached the peak of his prestige during the Middle Kingdom (2055 BCE–1650 BCE). The Twelfth Dynasty pharaoh Amenemhat III commissioned the building of dedicated cultic sites to Sobek, and his likeness is prominent in reliefs throughout the necropolis.
According to Chudzik, more research is needed to unravel the mystery of the buried crocodile heads.