Scanning Sobek: A challenge for Room 3

Julie Anderson

On Thursday 8 December 2015, the British Museum opened an exhibition in Room 3 entitled Scanning Sobek, mummy of the crocodile god. The object in focus is a huge 2500 year-old Egyptian crocodile mummy with over 25 mummified crocodile hatchlings on its back. Being nearly 4 metres in length, it’s the largest mummy in the British Museum’s collection. Arranging an exhibit of such a large, fragile, organic object posed many challenges – such as ‘Would it fit in Room 3?’ and ‘How do you make a climate-controlled case large enough to house it?’– Such challenges and considerations are well known to those who have participated in the ITP’s Room 3 Proposal Project.

The mummy was excavated at Kom Ombo, Egypt in 1893 and presented to the British Museum by the Egyptian Government in 1895. It was exhibited shortly after it arrived in the Museum, but removed from display in the 1930s during gallery renovations. It had not been on display for over 75 years. Room 3 provided a good opportunity to showcase an object that has seldom been seen in recent times, yet was of great interest and fascination.

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Preparing the crocodile mummy (EA 38562) for transport.

We chose to tell the crocodile’s story in two ways: The first was through the Egyptian crocodile god Sobek. Our mummy is of an adult Nile crocodile. The living animal would have been raised and kept in captivity in Sobek’s temple at Kom Ombo and worshipped as a manifestation of the god Sobek – it was a sacred animal. When it died it was mummified and buried with all due ceremony. Sobek had many qualities of a living crocodile and was represented either as a crocodile or as a crocodile-headed man. The Nile crocodile is an aggressive, unpredictable, man-eating predator. The ancient Egyptians lived in close proximity to crocodiles and feared and respected them. Sobek was feared for his insatiable appetites, called upon for protection from evil, but also honoured for his fertility and association with the annual river Nile flood that made the Egyptian land productive.

The second theme explored was the process of mummification. To learn more about the life, death and mummification of these large sacred reptiles, without damaging or endangering the crocodile mummy, we decided to CT-scan it. The major problem was to locate a CT-scanner that could accommodate such a big object. The crocodile doesn’t fit in most lifts and cannot bend to go around corners.

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The British Museum’s crocodile mummy enters the CT-scanner at the Royal Veterinary College.

The Diagnostic Imaging Unit of the Royal Veterinary College London’s Equine Hospital had such a scanner. The crocodile just fit in the scanner room. The scans provided detailed images of the mummy’s internal features. Data from the scans were used to create a full scale computer 3D model of the mummy that can be seen in the exhibition onscreen, beside the mummy itself. By separating the layers within this model, the mummy’s skin, organs, last meal and skeleton can be seen and studied individually revealing the secrets of the mummy for all to see and be captivated by.

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3D image of the crocodile mummy’s internal features with textile packing in the upper torso (coloured red) and irregular stones in the stomach (coloured blue) visible.

All images © Trustees of the British Museum

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