Archaeologists unearthed pieces of a 2,000-year-old sarcophagus lid featuring a colored leopard face in Aswan, Egypt (images courtesy of Patrizia Piacentini, the University of Milan)

Ancient Egyptians called her “Lady of the House of Life,” the “Slayer of Serpents,” and the “Great Cat.” She had the head of a leopard or a lynx and the body of a woman. She would keep you safe from snakes and scorpions and heal you from their venomous bites, but if you strayed from righteousness, she’d rip your heart out and personally deliver it to the pharaoh’s feet like a dutiful cat delivers its prey to its owners.

Her name is Mafdet (meaning, “she who runs”) and she was the first of the Egyptian cat goddesses, long before the more modish Bastet and Sekhmet appeared on the scene.

Traces of the glory of these feline goddesses were found in a 2019 excavation of a necropolis (city of the dead) in the deserts of Aswan in Egypt, where archaeologists unearthed pieces of a 2,000-year-old sarcophagus lid that had been decorated with the colorful face of a leopard.

A team of international Egyptologists, led by Patrizia Piacentini of the University of Milan in Italy and Abelmanaem Said of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, discovered the sarcophagus in a necropolis more than 15 feet below ground on the western bank of the Nile River.

The dig unearthed more than 300 tombs that were used between the seventh century BCE and the 3rd century CE. The room that housed the leopard sarcophagus held 30 mummies in total. In addition to the bodies, the archaeologists unearthed stuccoed body covers painted with gold, a funerary bed, a stretcher for the mummies, pottery vessels, and sarcophagi fragments.

A digital reconstruction of the leopard face

The unique sarcophagus featured the leopard’s face by the mummy’s head to protect the deceased during their journey through the afterlife. Although the leopard is a frequently used symbol of power and protection in ancient Egypt, the discovery is “extremely rare,” Piacentini told Hyperallergic in an email.

“We are now looking for parallels, but we have not found them yet,” Piacentini wrote.

“Leopard skins and heads were worn by some Egyptian priests during funerary ceremonies to give strength to the dead,” Piacentini explained. “They were also worn by the Pharaoh, who was the leader of the country and the chief priest. Many amulets or jewels represent the head of the leopard. Some models of funerary beds in painted wood are decorated with leopard skin.”

A view of Aswan from the Nile River

The discovery was made in 2019, but it was only recently that the team released a digital reconstruction of the leopard painting. The archaeologists will soon begin a physical reconstruction of the sarcophagus lid in their laboratories in Aswan.

“From the pictures and the drawings we took last year, we understood that a very fragile piece of wood we found depict[ing] a leopard’s head could be restored and that it could go back to its original splendor,” Piacentini wrote.

In a room next to the leopard tomb, the archaeologists dug another interesting find: a bowl containing remains of pine nuts that date back to the 1st century BCE.

Food offerings to ancestors were common in ancient Egypt, but this specific discovery is unusual because pine nuts were not native to the region.

“These seeds are very rare in Egypt, but some examples are preserved in the Agricultural Museum in Cairo,” Piacentini explained. “They were used in Roman times to prepare very special recipes and sauces, and were sometimes imported to Egypt.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...