Paul Nicholson, from Cardiff University in Britain, led a research team that recently made a huge discovery.
They were exploring the catacombs of Anubis near Saqqar and stumbled upon a grave with nearly eight million dog’s remains. The content of the grave wasn’t shocking to the researchers because animal cults were quite common in ancient Egypt but the sheer magnitude of the grave is what really had the scientific community amazed.
Saqqar is an iconic and historic site in Egypt and is often frequented by visitors. However, not many have the insight that Paul Nicholson and his team do. The catacomb measures 568 feet down the middle and is 459 feet wide. Every corner was surveyed and every rock turned since their exploration started in 2009.
When trying to approximate how many animals were in the catacomb they took a sample and calculated the amount of animals it would likely take to fill it. The number is high because some of the animals were quite young. Some of the mummified dogs were as young as a couple days or even hours old. Nicholas hypothesizes that the animals were “being especially bred for the cult”.
Ancient Egyptians were loyal to Anubis, a God that was the gatekeeper to the afterlife. Anubis had the head of the dog and the body of a man. Nicholson explains that the mummified dogs were to act as a bridge for deceased humans. That by having a dog mummified they can interact with Anubis on behalf of your deceased love one and look after them. Nicholson asserts:
“The important thing was to provide a representation of the god with a fitting burial. (…) It’s not some sort of blood sacrifice. It’s a religious act that’s done for the best possible motive. (…) Maybe you’re hoping that the animal will help someone in your family who has died recently (so that) Anubis will take care of that (relative).”
While approximately 92% of the unearthed animals were dogs, there were still other mummified species like jackals, foxes, falcons, cats and mongoose. It is thought that there are other types of animals present because “it is likely that all ‘doglike’ creatures were interchangeable”. So a fox would provide the same passage into the afterlife as a dog would.
Discovering the mass grave of animals was interesting for the group and now Nicholson and partners, Salima Ikram and Steve Mills, are going to complete a more comprehensive study. Their hopes are that finding out more can help scientists better appreciate Egyptian culture in relation to animals.
Antiquity journal published this study.