History Files


Ancient Egypt

Tutankhamun's Mummified Lion

by Paul Rincon, BBC News, 14 January 2004

Archaeologists have uncovered the first example of a lion mummified by the ancient Egyptians, in the tomb of the woman who helped rear the Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Although the breeding and burial of lions as sacred animals in Egypt is mentioned by ancient sources, to date no one had found a mummified specimen.

The male lion is amongst the largest known to science and its bones show it lived to an old age in captivity.

Details of the discovery are published in the scientific journal Nature.

The lion was found in a tomb at Saqqara in northern Egypt belonging to Maia, wet nurse to Tutankhamun, who was buried in about 1430 BC

However, in the last centuries BC, the tomb was re-used for the burial of humans and then animals - mostly mummified cats.

French archaeologists Alain Zivie, Cecile Callou, and Anaick Samzun unearthed the remains of the big cat in November 2001.

It comprises the virtually complete skeleton of a lion (Panthera leo) which was once mummified.

Bred for mummification

Analysis of the teeth, particularly the wear on them, show that the lion lived to be very old and must have been kept in captivity.

Alan Lloyd, professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Wales, Swansea, said: "The lion is a creature that has a long association with the king [of Egypt].

Mummified lion

The mummified lion

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"The king was thought of as a lion and as having the qualities of a lion. The qualities the Egyptians were interested in, of course, were martial."

In the last few centuries BC, Egypt was under invasion by waves of outsiders, from Persia, Nubia (which today comprises parts of Sudan and Egypt) and Greece.

The surge of interest in animal cults may be the ancient Egyptians' way of asserting their identity in the presence of these newcomers.

"I think this should be regarded as an expression of Egyptian nationalism," said Professor Lloyd.

Cats and dogs

  I think this should be regarded as an expression of Egyptian nationalism

Prof Alan Lloyd, University of Wales  

Inscriptions suggest that lions were bred in special animal precincts and buried in sacred cemeteries. But so far none have been found.

Professor Lloyd said he had heard rumours in the early 1970s of a mummified lion being found in Egypt. However, the person excavating the lion apparently was not interested in it and the location of the find was lost.

During the last few centuries BC, the site at Saqqara where the lion was buried was dedicated to the feline goddess Bastet.

The lion was found lying on a rock with its head turned north and its body orientated toward the east. Its bone measurements are amongst the largest ever recorded for a male lion.

In addition to cats, the Egyptians also mummified dogs, birds, snakes and monkeys.

The archaeological team

The archaeological team

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