When it came time for curators at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities to prepare for a new exhibit on Egyptian mummies, they pulled out an old classic: a three-metre-long crocodile mummy. When they scanned its inner contents, however, a surprise awaited. Inside, the team found a lot more crocodiles than they expected – almost 50 more, to be exact.

Details from a scan of some of the baby crocodiles found inside the mummy. Image: Dutch National Museum of Antiquities

This particular croc-mummy is about 2,500 years old, and has belonged to the museum since 1828. Researchers have actually known since the 1990s that it was not what it appeared to be: though it's shaped like a single large croc, early scans revealed it to contain two juvenile animals.

Now, the more advanced 3D scans have shown 47 tiny hatchling crocs inside, all wrapped as individual mini-mummies, placed alongside the larger bodies.

Scan showing the mummified hatchlings in blue. Image: Dutch National Museum of Antiquities

Why mummify a crocodile? Ancient Egyptians are famous for mummifying people, but this was a highly involved and expensive process with a very human-centric purpose. According to the Smithsonian Institute, priests would perform special prayers and rituals, and tombs would be decked out with special furniture, paintings, and more, all with the goal of preparing the spirit of the deceased (usually a pharaoh or a noble) for the afterlife.

Non-human animals didn't typically have to worry about an afterlife. Instead, they were usually mummified as offerings to the gods, and in this case, the bounty of crocs was probably intended for the god Sobek, perhaps to encourage the deity to answer specific prayers. Many Egyptian gods were related to animals, and were thought to manifest in animal forms. 

And crocodiles weren't the only ones to get this treatment. The feline-faced goddess Bastet would receive mummified cats, while ibises and baboons were offered to Thoth, the god of wisdom. The practice eventually became so popular that mass animal mummification became a thriving industry. In one particular catacomb complex, Egyptologists suspect there to be as many as 70 million mummified animals crammed into 30 rooms. Evidence indicates they were bred specifically to be sacrificed and mummified.

Why so many little crocodiles? The museum's researchers suggest the inclusion of animals of different ages may be a reference to the Egyptian belief in new life after death, though it's also possible that a large croc was simply not available, so a big croc-shaped mummy was crammed with lots of little ones instead.

The scanning process. Image: Dutch National Museum of Antiquities

"This is an exceptional discovery: there are only a few known crocodile mummies of this kind anywhere in the world," says the museum team. Another mummy at the British Museum in London – a big four-metre croc – had 20 hatchlings mummified along with it, and those crammed catacombs mentioned earlier also contained at least one croc-shaped mummy that held eight baby animals inside.

Using lots of little crocs to forge a bigger mummy may seem deceptive, but according to Lidija McKnight of the University of Manchester, it was actually quite common for mummies to be shaped like an animal but include only partial remains inside. The important thing, it seems, was that the essence of the creature was represented.

For modern-day researchers, these preserved animals can hold lots of fascinating information. Some of the crocodile mummies, for example, preserved remains of their food (such as cattle bones), and in 2013, scientists revealed a mummified dog preserved along with its own mummified ticks!

Beyond being mummified as sacrifices, animals were also sometimes wrapped up to accompany humans into the afterlife, placed in the tomb either to serve as eternal companions or post-mortem meals. And if the idea of mummifying your pet to preserve it eternally after death appeals to you, you'll be happy to know that some people still do it today.

The mummy-full-of-crocs is on display now at the Dutch Museum, where visitors can perform a virtual autopsy of the specimen. "What was intended as a tool for museum visitors, has yet produced new scientific insights," notes the team. "It was a big surprise that so many baby crocodiles could be detected with high-tech 3D scans and this interactive visualization."


Top header image: MTSOftan, Flickr