Gone to the Dogs
As part of the first full excavation of Egypt's ancient Dog Catacombs, scientists examine 2,500-year-old animal remains—a small sample of the roughly eight million animal mummies in these tunnels.
Likely supplied by ancient puppy mills, most of the mummies are dogs, and many were just hours old when taken for mummification, according to new research based on the summer 2010 excavation.
Snaking beneath the desert at the ancient royal burial ground of Saqqara (map), the Dog Catacombs were discovered more than a century ago. But only now is research shedding light on the massive number of mummies found in this complex of tunnels and chambers dedicated to Anubis (picture)—jackal-headed god of the afterlife.
"It's not easy to identify individual mummies in the galleries or in the photographs," said Paul Nicholson of Cardiff University in the U.K. "We have piles of mummy remains just over a meter [three feet] high, on average, that just fill the side tunnels.
"Although the mummies are not well preserved or well decorated, unlike some museum specimens, they can still give us a great deal of scientific information," Nicholson added.
The mummies were stacked between about the late sixth century B.C. and the late first century B.C., Nicholson said.
Piled with decomposing animal mummies, a tunnel in the Dog Catacombs is evidence of ancient Egyptian pilgrims' fierce desire to be heard by the canine-headed god Anubis.
Today, "in some churches people light a candle, and their prayer is taken directly up to God in that smoke,” archaeologist Salima Ikram said. In much the same way, a mummified dog's spirit would carry a person's prayer to the afterlife, said Ikram, founder of the Animal Mummy Project at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Mummified dogs such as this aren't the only animals filling the Dog Catacombs.
"There are also some jackals, foxes, and, ichneumon [Egyptian mongooses]," said Cardiff's University's Nicholson. "But the overwhelming majority of animals here are dogs, so we believe this place was intended just for the cult of Anubis."
The mazelike Dog Catacombs hold dogs of "all shapes and sizes, all ages, from fetal to mature," the Egyptian Museum's Ikram said.
"Some are short-legged, more like dachshund types, while others are long-legged and more like golden retriever types. I think they [mummified] whatever was there at the time and whatever suited the pilgrim's pocket."
The Egyptian Museum's Ikram takes a close look at a mummified dog in a special niche in the catacombs—one likely commensurate with an honored role in real life.
A number of older, male dogs that might have lived in the nearby Temple of Anubis were mummified with far more care than the rest, Ikram speculated.
"We think that these might have been the actual sacred dogs that were the manifestation of Anubis on Earth," she added.
A worker tidies an entrance to the Dog Catacomb. With the permission of Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities and in association with the Egypt Exploration Society, archaeologists continue to sift sands at the site.
A queen’s pet gazelle was readied for eternity with the same lavish care as a member of the royal family. In fine, blue-trimmed bandages and a custom-made wooden coffin, it accompanied its owner to the grave in about 945 B.C.
Although humans have been the main subjects for mummification, animals were also mummified too. Many of the mummies found were animals that were cherished pets or mummies used as offerings to the gods. Such animals included cats, monkeys, hawks, and even small insects such as the praying mantis. Often times, animal mummies were overlooked when it came to deciphering the culture of the Ancient Egyptians.
This has proved to be a wrong tactic because many of the mummies unearthed are revealing a lot about the Egyptians. Scientists and Egyptologist are taking a second look at these mummies for that reason.
The Egyptians loved their pets and went to great lengths to keep them forever. Many of the common pets mummified were dogs, cats and monkeys. These animals were mummified and in most cases, careful effort was used to preserve them.
A sacred ram from Elephantine Island, in a casing detailed with gold and paint, is one of only seven such mummies that have survived the centuries and now reside in Egyptian museums. As the living embodiment of the creator god Khnum, the animal was kept at a temple and cared for by priests until its natural death in the second or third century A.D.