for National Geographic News
French archaeologists have unearthed the first mummified lion ever found in an Egyptian tomb.
The spectacular discovery was made in the tomb of King Tutankhamen's wet-nurse, Maïa, at Saqqara, south of Cairo. Although the tomb dates from 1330 B.C., the researchers believe the lion was probably mummified and buried during a later Egyptian dynasty in the final centuries before Christ.
The discovery confirms the lion's sacred status in ancient Egypt. The archaeologists say the lion itself may have been a dedication to Mahes, the son of the lion goddess Sekhmet.
"This is very special," Alain Zivie, who led the team that made the discovery, said in a telephone interview from Paris. "We knew from pharaonic inscriptions that lions existed in ancient Egypt and were buried in these tombs, but we had never found one until now."
The research is published in tomorrow's issue of the science journal Nature.
In Excellent Condition
Supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and working under the supervision of the Supreme Council of Egyptian Antiquities, which is headed by National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Zahi Hawass, Zivie's team has been excavating Saqqara, the cemetery of the ancient city of Memphis, for 20 years.
In 1996, they discovered the tomb of Maïa, the wet-nurse to the famous pharaoh Tutankhamen. In addition to a chapel, the tomb has a level of funerary apartments, which have been used for burials of both humans and later animals, mainly cats.
While working in the main room of the funerary level in November 2001, Zivie and his team made their stunning discovery. Perched on a rock and surrounded by other animal bones lay a virtually complete skeleton of a feline creature.
"It was quite a shock," said Zivie. "It was a big skeleton, something completely unusual, big bones. My colleague, Cècile Callou, who is a zoo-archaeologist, could see immediately that it was a lion."
Anaïck Samzun, another member of the team, led much of the excavation.
The skeleton was in excellent condition, except that the skull had been partly crushed. The large size indicated it was a male, and researchers believe it was probably kept in captivity before dying of old age. Although no linen bandages were found, they believe the lion had been mummified.
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