Jan. 15, 2004 -- 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."
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."
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.
Pots of bitumen (a tar-like substance) would then be used to shape and support the linen-wrapped remains.
Some mummified animals were former pets, but others were animals that tradesmen had treated and prepared. The mummified cats, dogs, birds and oxen were then displayed near animal cemeteries for people to purchase and then deposit as an offering, the way that candles are sometimes sold at churches for worshipers to light and leave near icons.
"They really got into mummifying animals," said Richard Wilkinson, an Egyptologist based at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "It became a massive industry from about 300 B.C. on."
The male lion found at the Saqqara tomb showed signs of wear on its teeth, suggesting that it had been held captive and had lived into old age. Eventually, most lions in the region would not live so long.
The king of the beasts was once fairly common the region that included rolling hills of meadows, as well as deserts, but Pharoahs nearly hunted them to extinction by 1100 B.C. Ancient artwork reveal how on pharaoh, Amenhotep III, killed more than 100 lions in a single hunt. Today, only captive lions exist in the country.
In Egyptian mythology, the animals held a more sacred role. Lion statues were placed at the entrance of palaces to protect the Kings from evil spirits. The animals represented royalty, bravery and ferocity and were associated with many gods, including the cat-headed goddess Bastet, the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet and Nefertum, a god in full lion form.