Animal mummies were sealed in their own coffins, now neutrons reveal their secrets

Egyptologists need not worry about hidden curses when handling ancient sarcophaguses – now they can perform their own magic to discover what lies within.

That ‘magic’ is neutron tomography.

This process – not unlike the use of x-rays in CT or computed tomography scans – creates images of a body based on how well neutrons can pass through it.

It was the process used by scientists from The British Museum to learn what was entombed within six copper coffins aged at least 2,200 years old.

Among the remains were intact skulls of what appear to be lizards of the Mesalina genus endemic to the region. Most of the other remains had decayed to the point of being indistinguishable, though traces of linen were detected, likely as the wrappings for the body.

Animal coffin surmounted by a lizard figure. Neutron imaging shows a lizard skull (inset).
Animal coffin surmounted by a lizard figure. Neutron imaging shows a lizard skull (inset). Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum and O’Flynn et al.

Large amounts of lead were found within three of the caskets, most of which was likely molten when cast inside the vessel. This, suggest the researchers, adds the base metal’s use in funerary practices to other functions in Ancient Egypt, including in love charms.

The most ornate of these caskets – or votive boxes – portray the long forms of a cobra with a human head. Others suggest legged lizards, or eels. The researchers, led by British Museum x-ray imaging scientist Dr Daniel O’Flynn, suggest this is the best indicator for the creature within, given the deterioration of the records.

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“This work provides further evidence for the use of copper alloy votive boxes in ancient Egypt, showing that animal remains were wrapped in linen and placed inside the boxes before they were sealed,” say the researchers.

“The cast animal figures upon the boxes were potentially intended to correspond to the remains within.”

Earlier this year, researchers from the Egyptian Museum performed a similar exercise to ‘digitally unwrap’ the remains of an Egyptian adolescent using conventional CT scanning, providing a glimpse into the body’s physiological and sociological profile.

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