• On Saturday, a team of archaeologists unveiled an unprecedented finding from an ancient city of the dead in Saqqara, Egypt.
• The researchers uncovered a 2,600-year-old cache of mummified animals, including cats, cobras, crocodiles, and the first-ever lion cubs.
• While ancient Egyptians were well known for worshipping and mummifying animals, especially cats, mummified lions are extremely rare in the archaeological record.
About 2,600 years ago, two lion cubs were mummified and buried in an ancient city of the dead.
The cats' organs were removed, and the cubs' tiny, 3-foot-long bodies were dried out and wrapped in linens before being placed inside hieroglyph-laden wooden boxes.
These mummified cubs — the first ones ever found in the archaeological record — were part of an unprecedented finding in the necropolis of Saqqara, Egypt, south of modern-day Cairo. A team of archaeologists, led by Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, unveiled the discovery on November 23.
"This is the first time [that a] complete mummy of a lion or lion cub" has been found in Egypt, Mostafa Waziri, the general secretary of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and leader of the team that made the discovery, said in a press conference.
The finding also included 75 decorated wooden and bronze cat statues, mummified birds, crocodiles, cats, and cobras, as well as a mammoth mummified scarab beetle.
The lion cubs were only eight months old when they were mummified and buried in the Saqqara necropolis. Some 20 smaller cats were also discovered at the site.
Alongside the two cubs were three other mummified wildcats. The archaeologists used CT scans to analyze the size and shape of the mummified animals' bones, according to the Ministry of Antiquities Facebook page, but the identity of the other wildcats remains a mystery.
"If it's a cheetah, a leopard, a lioness, a panther — whatever, it will be one of its kind," Waziri said. He added that the findings were likely dated to Egypt's 26th Dynasty, between 664 and 525 B.C.
While mummified cats are common in the archaeological record — the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats, and kept them as pets that were later mummified and entombed with their owners — mummified lions are far rarer.
Only one other lion mummy has ever been found, according to Egypt's Antiquities Minister Khaled El-Enany. A French archaeological team discovered an adult lion skeleton in 2004, not far from the location of the two lion cubs in Saqqara.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago, lions roamed the wilds of Egypt and were even kept as pets in the palaces of Pharaohs like Ramesses II and Tutankhamun. Eventually, the climate got hotter and drier and lions migrated southward beyond the Nile River.
Crocodiles, cobras, and scarabs
The archaeologists' recent findings include other mummified animals too.
The team discovered three statues of crocodiles with the remains of small mummified crocodiles inside, mummies of cobras and birds, as well as "meticulously mummified" scarab beetles.
The tomb also included a massive scarab-shaped stone artifact more than a foot in diameter. According to Waziri, this particular stone scarab might be the largest ever found in Egypt.
Why the Egyptians mummified animals
Ancient Egyptians mummified and buried millions of animals, often treating creatures like hawks, cats, and crocs with the same reverence that they would a human corpse.
That's because the Egyptians believed animals were reincarnations of gods. By mummifying them and worshipping these animals in sacred temples, the Egyptians honored their deities.
Mummified animals could also serve as offerings to those same gods.
"People would make devotional offerings in the form of animals as mummies," Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist and mummy expert at the American University of Cairo, told The Guardian. "This would have more potency as a blood sacrifice, compared to stone or wooden images."
The lion, in particular, was a potent animal figure in ancient Egypt and viewed as a symbol of both danger and protection. According to National Geographic, pharaohs took part in lion hunts to demonstrate their own power and supremacy. Amenhotep III claimed to have killed 102 lions in the first decade of his reign.
Archaeologists still aren't sure as to why more mummified lions haven't been uncovered in the archaeological record, despite the fact that the predator features so prominently in Egyptian artwork and architecture.
"There are really no practical reasons for the lack of lion mummies," Conni Lord, an Egyptologist with the Animal Mummy Research Project at the Nicholson Museum of Sydney University, told National Geographic.
"The ancient Egyptians were perfectly able to mummify a creature of this size," she added.