Lion skeleton found in Egyptian tomb

Archaeologists have discovered the skeleton of a once-mummified male lion at an Egyptian site dating to more than 2,000 years ago. This unexpected find confirms classical scholars’ suspicions, based on ancient inscriptions, that lions were revered as sacred animals in the latter stages of ancient Egyptian civilization, according to a report in the Jan. 15 Nature.

A team led by Alain Zivie of the French Archaeological Mission of the Bubasteion in Saqqara, Egypt, retrieved the lion’s remains in the tomb of Maa, wet nurse to King Tutankhamen. Maa died around 1430 B.C. About 1,000 years later, Egyptians began reusing the tomb, this time as a cemetery for mummified cats, including the lion, the researchers say.

The lion’s skeleton, far larger than those of any cats previously found at the site, lay on the floor of a room in the tomb’s main section.

Although no linen bandages remained from mummification, the animal’s bones contained deposits and discolorations similar to those of other mummified cats at the site, Zivie and his coworkers note. The lion appears to have died of natural causes.

Inscriptions at several Egyptian sites suggest that lions were once bred in sanctuaries and buried in sacred cemeteries. Archaeologists had never found any evidence of such practices, but they would be consistent with the ancient Egyptian belief that lions were incarnations of powerful gods, the investigators say.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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