Ancient Egyptian Leopard Painting on 2,000-Year-Old Sarcophagus Reconstructed

Archaeologists have unveiled a digital reconstruction of a brightly-colored fragment from a sarcophagus in Aswan, Egypt, thought to be around 2,000 years old.

The fragment depicts the face of a leopard—an ancient Egyptian symbol for strength and determination.

The discovery was made more than a year ago in a necropolis half-buried in Egypt's Aswan desert near the Mausoleum of Aga Khan on the western bank of the Nile, which dates back to the seventh century BCE. More recent additions were made to the site up until the third century CE.

Archeologists say the face of the leopard would have sat in front of the head of the deceased, acting as a talisman to imbue its owner with the strength to pass into the afterlife or Land of the Dead.

Animals like this were a frequent motif in Egyptian death rites and featured frequently on coffins and other funerary objects. In the past, scientists have used animalistic depictions (in combination with paleontological and archeological evidence) to track the rise and fall of animals in Egypt over a 6,000-year timespan. They found elephants, oryx and other large-bodied herbivores were the earliest to go extinct. While lions, once common, were rare by Aristotle's time.

To prevent this particular ornament from being lost, the team involved in its discovery have taken efforts to reconstruct the fragment, using digital technique to bolster the color—and provide a peek at what it might have looked like all those years ago, Live Science reports.

But the leopard was not the only find announced at an international exhibition of archeology in Florence last month. The team revealed a rare collection of pine nuts placed in a small bowl. This is incredibly unusual, they say, because pine nuts had to be imported to Egypt.

"We like to imagine that the people buried in the tomb of Aswan loved this rare seed so much so that their relatives placed a bowl next to the deceased that contained them so that they could feed on them for eternity," Patrizia Piacentini, who led the excavation. Piacentini is a professor of Egyptology at the State University of Milan in Italy, said in a statement.

Through the existence of a collection of Roman recipes, called Apicius, we know that despite their exoticness, pine nuts were used in Ancient Egypt.

Leopard fragment from Egyptian tomb
A digital reconstruction of a 2,000-year-old sarcophagus fragment shows what it would may have looked like when it was first made. © University of Milan

The leopard-painted sarcophagus and pine nuts were found during the Egyptian-Italian Mission at West Aswan, which is being led by Piacentini with the Egyptian ministry of Antiquities.

Last April, the team announced the discovery of a tomb that contained 35 mummies and several objects associated with funerary practices—despite it having been plundered by thieves in ancient times.

leopard on the lid of a sarcophagus
The leopard as it was found, on the lid of a sarcophagus. © University of Milan