What’s inside a 2,500-year-old miniature coffin? Well, now the researchers at the British Museum know. A team of scientists used a non-invasive technique called neutron tomography to peer inside six Egyptian animal coffins that have been sealed for more than two millennia. The contents are described in a study published on April 20 in the journal scientific reports.
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Neutron tomography allows researchers to look inside without disturbing the coffins. It creates images based on the way neurons emitted by a source pass through it. Neutron tomography is more effective than X-rays at seeing through metal. The team developed this technique after other non-invasive methods of examining coffins, such as traditional X-rays, failed to work on coffins.
The coffins in the study range from approximately two to 12 inches long and date to sometime between 664 B.C. C. and 250 a. C., during the late period of Egypt. The decorative coffins are made of copper compounds and are covered with images of eels, cobras and lizards. Three were found in the ancient city of Naukratis and two at Tell el-Yehudiya in 1885, but the other two have mysterious origins, currently unknown.
Inside three of the coffins, the authors identified bones, including an intact skull that has dimensions similar to those of a group of lizards endemic to North Africa. Two of the coffins have evidence of more broken bones.
“In the first millennium BC, lizards were commonly mummified in ancient Egypt, as were other
reptiles, cats, dogs, hawks, ibis, shrews, fish… Lizards, like snakes and eels, were especially associated with ancient Egyptian sun gods and creators such as Atum and perhaps, in the case of Naukratis, with Amun- Ra Shena,” Aurélia Masson-Berghoff, co-author and curator of the project at the British Museum, said in a statement. “With the help of neutron imaging, we have the potential to learn more about the ritual and votive practices surrounding these once impenetrable animal coffins, the ways in which they were made, used and displayed.”
They also found textile fragments that may be made of linen, which was a common fabric used in Ancient Egypt for mummification. The team believes that the clothing from these coffins may have been wrapped around the animals before they were buried in the coffins.
The lead found in three of the coffins may also have been a way to help distribute the weight of two coffins, as well as fix a hole in the other. Lead may have been the metal of choice due to its status as a “magical material”. Previous studies found that lead was used in both love spells and curses. They did not identify any additional clues in three of the coffins secured by two suspension loops.
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The ties may have been there to suspend these lighter coffins from the walls of a shrine or temple. Additionally, miniature coffins could be hung from ships or even from statues used in religious processions.
The study offers more insight into how animal coffins were built and used in ancient Egypt. Animal mummification was widespread and some mummified animals were believed to be physical incarnations of gods. Others may have represented offerings to these deities or were used in ritual performances.
“Neutron imaging has many important applications in 21st-century science,” Anna Fedrigo, a co-author and a researcher at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said in a statement. “This study shows that it can also shed light on the internal structure of complex archaeological objects, including their fabrication techniques and content.”