Six animal coffins from Egypt—impressively still sealed after about 2,500 years—have been opened virtually by a team of researchers using a unique imaging technology.
The coffins contained lizard remains, the scientists found, as well as textiles that may have once wrapped the small bodies and lead, which may have had magical connotations. The coffins’ insides were revealed using neutron tomography after several failed attempts to see inside the coffins with X-ray imaging. The team’s research is published today in Scientific Reports.
“The animal bones are consistent with small lizards extant in North Africa, which are often represented as figured atop the coffins,” said Daniel O’Flynn, an X-ray imaging scientist at the British Museum and the study’s lead author, in an email to Gizmodo. “This is the first time that such sealed boxes have been inspected with neutrons to confirm lizard remains inside.”
Scanning coffins and sarcophagi is a useful way to non-invasively learn about Egyptian mummification processes and cultural beliefs. In 2021, scans revealed mummies that had undergone a unique ‘mud ritual’ before their entombment, and earlier this year, researchers used scans to identify a trove of golden amulets hidden in the wrappings of a 2,300-year-old mummy.
Neutron imaging is a useful alternative to X-rays, the researchers wrote, because of its ability to image organic material while X-rays are attenuated by elements with greater atomic numbers.
Three of the boxes came from the ancient city of Naukratis, two were found in Tell el-Yehudiyeh, and the provenance of two is unknown. All six boxes arrived at the British Museum in the latter half of the 19th century.
The boxes are made of copper and topped with animal figures, including lizards, eels, and cobras. Some figures were a hodgepodge of eels and cobras, with human heads. Boxes adorned with eels and lizards were associated with Atum, the solar and creator deity.
The lizard remains were found to be of the genus Mesalina, a group of sand and desert lizards common in northern Africa. One specimen was specifically identified as M. rubropunctata, the red-spotted lizard. The lizard figure topping one votive box was decorated with spots and stripes, which are common in the genus.
Three of the boxes contained lead, which the researchers believe was put in the box while molten. A void in the lead in one box suggested something may have once been inside it, the researchers wrote.
“This may have served a practical purpose of repairs or for weight distribution, or may have been included due to its status in ancient Egypt as a magical material, as previous research has proposed that lead was used in the protection of mummified remains as well as in love charms and curses,” O’Flynn said.
Click through for images of the petite coffins and their contents.