In a remarkable diversion from England’s grotesque fascination with mummified remains and ways to violate them, researchers were able to discern the species of animal remains that were preserved for over 2,500 years in Ancient Egyptian votive boxes (interchangeable with “animal coffins”) from the British Museum’s collection without even opening them. The research team from the British Museum and the Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) was able to identify mummified animals from six sealed votive boxes made from metal through the application of neutron tomography after a prior study yielded very murky X-ray results.
The process of neutron tomography is quite similar to that of X-ray radiography: A beam of neutrons is projected at the sample in question, dissipating as it passes through the materials of the sample’s composition to create two- and three-dimensional renderings of its interior. However, compared to X-ray radiography, neutron tomography is better implemented when the samples in question are made from metal — hence why it was employed for a secondary analysis of the six cast-copper alloy votive boxes from Ancient Egypt.
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The research team determined that three of the six votive boxes likely contained mummified lizards of the Mesalina variety endemic to North Africa. This wasn’t out of the ordinary — during the first millennium BCE “lizards were commonly mummified in ancient Egypt, as were other reptiles, cats, dogs, falcons, ibises, shrews, fishes,” British Museum curator and contributing researcher Aurélia Masson-Berghoff said in a statement. “Lizards, like snakes and eels, were particularly associated with ancient Egyptian solar and creator gods such as Atum and perhaps, in the case of Naukratis, with Amun-Ra Shena.”
Three of the votive boxes, likely dating to 500 to 300 BCE, were discovered in 1885 at Naukratis, an international harbor city within the western Nile Delta. Another box, topped with a lizard figure and likely dating back to 664–332 BCE, was discovered in Tell el-Yehudiyeh in the eastern Nile Delta and purchased by the British Museum in 1876. The remaining two boxes in the research study have unknown provenances but are potentially from the early Ptolemaic period. The other three boxes were found to be full of significant amounts of once-molten lead, prompting theories of functional use for maintaining the boxes’ interior structures, as lead has a much lower melting point than copper does. All six boxes were between two and 12 inches long.
“This is fascinating work, using neutron imaging to look inside sealed copper alloy animal containers and to study the manufacturing process without damaging the artefact,” STFC Director of ISIS Neutrons and Muon Source Roger Eccleston reiterated in the statement.