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Fossils of ancient animals have fascinated humanity through most of our history, from sometimes being considered ‘dragon bones’ in ancient China, through to modern scientific analyses of them opening up new understanding of evolution and the ancient Earth.

And it turns out that, thousands of years ago, the ancient Egyptians also shared this fascination:

Ancient Egyptian worshippers of Set, god of darkness and chaos, collected fossils of extinct beasts by the thousands. From 1300 and 1200 BC, nearly three tons of heavy, black fossils, polished by river sands, were brought to Set shrines on the Nile. Many of the bones were wrapped in linen and placed in rock‑cut tombs.

The immense troves of fossils heaped at Qau el-Kebir and Matmar were discovered in 1922-24 by archaeologists Guy Brunton and Sir Flinders Petrie, stunning evidence that Egyptians revered large stone bones as sacred relics of Set.

Sounds fascinating, and worthy of much more investigation, right? Flinders Petrie – one of the great Egyptologists – thought so. Petrie’s wife said that he regarded the fossil trove “among the most important things we have ever found”. Co-discoverer Brunton wrote that the discovery would be “the subject of a special memoir”, but it never eventuated…and amazingly, the fossils, forgotten by the scientific community, slipped back into the mist of history.

That was, until 1998, when – intrigued by this historical footnote – Adrienne Mayor, author of The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myths in Greek and Roman Times, contacted paleontologist Andrew Currant of the Natural History Museum in London, to inquire whether there were any records of what happened to the fossils:

Currant learned that a large “undocumented collection” of fossils from Qau were stored in a warehouse in Wandsworth. They were still in the original crates that Brunton and Petrie had shipped from Egypt. As I pointed out in The First Fossil Hunters, the fossils gathered by ancient Egyptians more than 3,000 years ago – languishing in unopened crates in South London since 1920s – surely deserved scientific study by paleontologists and Egyptologists.

My book also described some Qau fossils wrapped in linen located in 1999 by archaeologist David Reese–who also tried in vain to convince the National Museum to open their crates of fossils. Reese learned that a collection of ancient Egyptian textiles from the Petrie Museum had been de-acquisitioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum and then acquired by the Bolton Museum (Manchester). In response to our queries, Angela Thomas, senior keeper at the Bolton, realized that some very ancient linen items of peculiar bulk had been inadvertently included with the textiles from the V&A. Labels scrawled on the backs of envelopes in Petrie’s handwriting confirmed that these bundles were some of the long‑lost linen‑wrapped fossil bones discovered at Qau in 1923.

Almost two decades on – and ninety years after the original discovery – the Egypt Exploration Society has this year awarded a grant to finally open the ‘lost’ crates of fossils shipped back from Egypt by Brunton and Petrie. Interestingly, that grant seems to be under the umbrella of a project researching the use of iron – in particular iron from meteorites – in ancient Egypt.

I say interesting, because when reading about the animal fossils collected by the Egyptians, I was struck by the thought that there might be a link between that topic and the many mentions in the Pyramid Texts of the bones of the resurrected pharaohs being made of iron. For example, one passage reads “My bones are iron (bja) and my limbs are the imperishable stars.” Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert, in The Orion Mystery, note that such phrases show “there was a belief that when the departed kings became stars, their bones became iron, the heavenly material (meteorites) of which the star gods were made.”

And sure enough, upon reading through the website of the ‘Iron From the Sky’ project, it appears their researchers have made that same connection:

The Pyramid texts are considered to be the earliest theological Egyptian text. They contain references to iron in numerous places, mainly featuring in funerary ceremonies, the reception of deceased kings to heaven and their subsequent life in heaven, as well as a specific association with the god Seth.

Excavations during 1923-24 revealed that during the 19th Dynasty, heavily mineralised mammal fossil bones were incorporated into burial shafts at Qau el-Kebir, in addition to similar fossil bone fragments wrapped in two linen bundles placed within a near-by rock-cut tomb [6]. Many of the bones were reported to be hippopotamus and this location was known as a cult centre of the god Seth who was frequently depicted in artwork as a hippopotamus. These dark, heavy, fossilised bones share strong visual similarity with desert-weathered iron meteorites; as such, they could be the source of inspiration for the Pyramid texts reference to the ‘iron bones of gods’. [my emphasis]

Very interesting indeed! And, if we were to follow that (admittedly tenuous) link a little further…might the ancient Egyptians have believed the fossilised animal bones were the mortal remains of the gods fallen to Earth? That is, were the ‘ancient aliens’ really….space hippos?

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