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Scanning Sobek: Mummy of the crocodile god on view at the British Museum in London
“Sharp of Teeth” and “Lord of Fear”. Sobek, a 2500-year old mummified crocodile worshipped in life by the ancient Egyptians as an incarnation of the crocodile god, and mummified with all due reverence after death. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

LONDON.- The ancient Egyptians worshipped this crocodile as the embodiment of Sobek, the crocodile god, and many were mummified after its death. This Asahi Shimbun display focuses on one example from the British Museum and presents new findings about the crocodile’s life and death. During the mummification process, it was dried in natron, a natural salt, covered with a mixture of beeswax and pitch, and wrapped in linen bandages. The mummy dates from 650 – 550 BC and is nearly 4 metres long with over 20 mummified crocodile hatchlings attached to its back.

This crocodile mummy and hatchlings were scanned at the Royal Veterinary College, London, using non-invasive, high-resolution computer tomography (CT) in order to reveal more about the life, death and mummification of this sacred animal. Using highly accurate visualisation software, the CT scan data was transformed into a 3D model to reveal very detailed images of the mummy’s internal features and evidence of the mummification process itself. Not all organs were removed by the embalmers and the stomach contents - the remains of the crocodile’s last meal – are still present. The crocodile appears to have been fed select cuts of meat prior to death including a cow’s shoulder bone and parts of a forelimb. Exact replicas of these bones – 3D printed from the scan data – are displayed next to 4 metre CT scan visualisation of the crocodile. The bones were found inside the stomach along with numerous small irregular-shaped stones, which the crocodile swallowed for ballast and to assist digestion, as well as several unidentified small metal objects.

The god Sobek symbolised the strength, power and potency of the pharaoh. The hatchlings riding on the mummy’s back imitate the behaviour of living crocodiles as seen by the ancient Egyptians, and emphasise Sobek’s relationship to fertility, the annual Nile flood, and to creation. The dangerous and unpredictable Nile crocodile was both an object of reverence and terror for the ancient Egyptians; something to be kept at bay and appeased with gifts and offerings. This species of crocodile is the largest in Africa and second largest in the world. The exhibition explores how the Egyptians represented the god Sobek through additional objects that depict the god both as a crocodile, and as a man with a crocodile head.

Such mummies provide unique insight into the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. Animals were mummified in a fashion similar to that used to create human mummies with slight differences, and almost every type of animal was mummified. These mummies could be votive offerings for the gods, beloved pets or like this mummy, sacred animals, worshipped in life as manifestations of the gods themselves. Sacred and votive mummies were buried in animal necropolises associated with a specific god’s cult. This practice peaked during the Greco-Roman period with large numbers of animals being mummified and buried.

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December 20, 2015

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