Mummified dogs, cats and other animals – over 8 million of them – have been unearthed in what may be the largest discovery of entombed animals ever found inside of a mass catacomb. Digs in Saqqara, one of Egypt’s most historic sites, have revealed the role that animals played in Egyptian life, but especially after death.
Writes CNN: “For centuries, dogs have been humans’ loyal, domesticated companions. They’ve been wild animals, doing what’s needed to survive. And in ancient Egypt, they served as bridges to the afterlife, with the hope that they’d intercede with the god Anubis on their owner’s behalf.”
Paul Nicholson, from the Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion in Wales, UK, is overseeing the project. “We’re very pleased and somewhat surprised by the results,” Nicholson said. “We hadn’t expected that there would be so many animals, and it opens up a new series of questions.”
Egyptians had an extensive belief system governing what happened to an individual in the afterlife. They believed that each person humans possessed a ka – a sort of life-force that the physical body released at death.
The ka however still needed physical assistance. For that reason, offerings of food and drink were often made to the deceased, and mummified bodies were entombed with common items needed and used throughout one’s day.
Animal cults and worship dominated Egyptian culture. Temples were established for worship of various Egyptian deities, who were said to be represented by different animals. The god Anubis portrayed a canine head on a human form. The goddess Bastet was a cat-headed woman. Horus, one of the earliest gods worshiped in Egyptian theology, was represented by a falcon-headed man. Mummified cats, birds, dogs and other animals were buried at the temples honoring these gods.
“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,” Nicholson said, adding that the animal’s owner would likely hope that the act of ceremonial pet and animal burial would lead to “some good” to the owner or relative. “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),” he said.
Adds CNN: “The catacombs are believed to date from between roughly 750 to 30 B.C., up to the time Egypt’s society was interacting more and more with those of Europe, including ancient Greece and Rome. To estimate how many there are, the team took a sample and extrapolated from there how many likely filled up the catacomb. One reason the number is so high is because many of the animals were very small; while there some were mature and likely had full lives, Nicholson speculated that some were ‘being especially bred for the cult.’”
Nicholson’s full findings were published in the Cambridge research journal Antiquities.