Mummified Lion Discovered in Egypt

ByABC News
January 14, 2004, 1:18 PM

Jan. 15 -- Probing a tomb full of mummified cats, archaeologist Alain Zivie and his team recently came across a startling find: preserved bones from a much larger feline.

"It was a lion," Zivie recalled in a report from today's issue of Nature. The bones, he said, were carefully manipulated so "it was lying on a rock with its head turned northwards and its body oriented to the east."

One-of-a-Kind Find

Ancient inscriptions have long suggested that elite Egyptians once kept the regal animals captive and may have mummified them upon their death, but until this recent find, there was never any actual evidence of the practice. Now scientists can add lions to the long list of known animals, including cats, dogs, baboons, crocodiles and birds, whose bodies were embalmed and wrapped by the mysterious, reverential care of Egyptian mummification.

Zivie says the lion's remains were in "excellent" condition and deposits and coloration on the bones revealed they had been treated with mummification. The team found the bones in a tomb at the Saqqara cemetery, south of Cairo that was dedicated to the wet nurse of Tutankhamun, also known as "King Tut." The so-called "Boy King" ruled for 10 years before dying at age 17 or 18 in 1323 B.C.

While lions were often associated with Pharoahs, this lion was likely deposited in the wet nurse's tomb much later when the sanctuary was reused as a tribute to the cat-headed goddess, Bastet. The team found dozens of mummified cats and some human remains in the same tomb. The discovery of the lion's remains were a surprise to the team and to other ancient Egypt specialists.

"Hundreds of cats were treated in this way," said Elaine Evans, curator of the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "But I've not heard about any lion mummification before."

Pet Cemetaries

Evans explains that the ancient Egyptian's mummification methods varied, but likely involved softening the animal in sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate or burning the animals and then retrieving the skeletons to be carefully wrapped in linen.