Egyptian Lion Mummy Found in Ancient Tomb

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
January 14, 2004
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.

Worshipping Lions

Pharaonic inscriptions have shown that lions were bred and buried in Egypt during the time of the pharaohs. But while archaeologists knew of cemeteries for baboons, ibis, fish, cats, dogs, and crocodiles, they had never found lions buried, though some bones were found in the city of Abydos.

The lions were worshiped by the ancient Egyptians and associated with certain divine powers. There are numerous descriptions of lions in ancient Egyptian art. The lions are thought to have been bred in sanctuary precincts, where they were ritually fed and buried in a sacred animal necropolis.

"The lion is full of symbolism," said Zivie. "It represents strength and fierceness. The lion is the king of the animals, but he's also the animal of the kings of Egypt and he's connected, in particular, to the goddesses, many of whom are depicted with lion faces."

In fact, above the tomb where the lion was found is a sanctuary dedicated to the feline goddess Bastet. A beloved goddess, Bastet is depicted as having the body of a woman and the head of a lion and of a domestic cat. Bastet also has an alter ego, Sekhmet, a woman with the head of a lioness, who represents the darker side of the goddess. Together, they're believed to represent the two-faced nature of women.

However, since the lion was a male, Zivie does not think it was dedicated to Bastet or Sekhmet, but instead could have been the incarnation of Sekhmet's son, the god Mahes.

"This is logical," Zivie said. "Mahes was very much revered in the city of Leontopolis, which is known as the city of the lion. We know he bred lions in this city, near a farm there."

The animal belongs to the later Bubasteion catacombs connected to the cult of animals that was particularly important in Late and Hellenistic Egypt.

"This was not the time of Tutankhamen, and not the lion of Tutankhamen. It's much later," said Zivie. "We're sure the lion is connected to the late burials of cats. But the fact that the discovery is in the tomb of Maïa gives it a touch of beauty and excitement."

Full of Surprises

In the November 2003 issue of National Geographic magazine, Zivie wrote about his recent discovery of a 3,300-year-old tomb belonging to a guardian of temple treasures under the reign of radical Pharaoh Akhenaten. (See excerpt and photos.)

Inscriptions on the tomb reveal the guardian owner had two names, Raiay and Hatiay, and that he built the tomb for himself and his wife, Maïa, though the two were never buried there. Zivie believes that Maïa may be the same woman who was the wet-nurse to Tutankhamen.

Zivie is now heading back to Egypt to work on the Saqqara site. But he's not looking for more discoveries.

"Our project now is to work more on the conservation of the tomb and the site," he said. "We have a great deal of discoveries, which we have to swallow before we move on. But I hope we will make new discoveries in the future. This is a fantastic site full of surprises."

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