Mummifying Millions: Operation of the Animal Cult Industry of Ancient Egypt
Millions of animal mummies have been found in the dark, carved stone tunnels beneath the location of Egypt’s earliest pyramid, in the Catacombs of Anubis in North Saqqara. The astounding piles of preserved animal remains speak to the mammoth industry that operated to maintain a source of constant tributes to the gods.
The catacombs were initially mapped in 1897 by French engineer, archaeologist and director of antiquities in Egypt during the 19 th century, Jacques de Morgan. A project begun in 2009 and “directed by Dr. Paul Nicholson of Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion in association with the Egypt Exploration Society [has made] a new, large scale, plan of the monument and work so far has shown that the original plan has major inaccuracies,” reports a Cardiff University press release .
Jacques Jean Marie de Morgan, archaeologist, engineer, geologist, director of antiquities in Egypt. (1892) Public Domain
The Dog Catacombs are located on the eastern side of the Saqqara plateau and to the north of the Step Pyramid. The earliest references to the catacombs come from the de Morgan map. While the locations were documented more than one hundred years ago, it is not known who discovered the subterranean channels or when, nor why the French archaeologist believed the catacombs dated to the New Kingdom. While the location was well known to Egyptologists, little attention was paid to the finds and no detailed studies were performed, until recently.
Detail, Jacques de Morgan’s map “Carte de la Nécropole Memphite” showing the two Dog Catacombs, “Tombe des chiens”, A and B (center left). The map dates them to the New Kingdom (1550 – 1069 BC).
In a surprise to researchers, some of the tunnels showed evidence of at one time having been piled high with bodies, but at a point in relatively recent history they were inexplicably emptied. Investigations by mining geologists and engineers revealed that those tunnels which were empty also happened to contain the best rock. The conclusion was that the valuable stone was identified by past miners, the bodies were completely removed to be used as resources (for paper making or fertilizer), and the tunnels were further mined for stone. The chambers and passages which were weak or a danger to workers have remained sealed with mummies intact.
In this way, the catacombs served a threefold purpose. They were initially mined, then they were filled with votives to the gods, and finally they were quarried again as a source of both fertilizer and stone. Excavation of the mummy fertilizer eventually stopped and it’s believed this was due to the rise in availability of chemical fertilizers and guano.
A mummified cat ( Wikimedia Commons )
Rock collapses, earthquake damage, unstable tunnels, and sand drifts made some of the tunnels and chambers off-limits to researchers.
In 2011, Smithsonian curator Melinda Zeder spoke of the phenomenally large animal offering industry to the BBC, saying: “The ancient Egyptians weren't obsessed with death - they were obsessed with life. And everything they did to prepare for mummification was really looking at life after death and a way of perpetuating oneself forever.”
“The priests would sacrifice the animal for you, mummify it and then place it in a catacomb in your name. So this was a way of obtaining good standing in the eyes of whatever god it was,” she noted.
It is thought that pilgrims who wished to leave votive or tribute mummies may have approached priests at temples. The study explains:
It is entirely possible that pilgrims visiting the Anubieion Temple would have seen the healthy adult dogs kept there and assumed that a payment made for the burial of one of the god’s representatives would secure the burial of one of these animals in due course, rather than the funds being used for a representative neonate burial. It is equally possible that pilgrims arrived at Saqqara with the tiny mummy of a neonate, having purchased it from a farm in the vicinity, and that this was entirely acceptable, regardless of its age, since the point of the exercise was to secure fitting burial for the god’s representative. Its life may have been extremely short but its journey to the afterlife was to be a good one and the afterlife was forever; the animal cults cannot be interpreted within a framework of twenty-first-century sensibilities.
Ancient Egyptian relief carving of a dog. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Researchers estimate the total number of animal mummies in the Dog Catacombs would have reached approximately 7,723,000, but the tiny size of neonates accounts for the incredibly high body count.
- Modern version of ancient Egyptian practice of mummification now available
- Ancient pet cemetery and ship hull uncovered at Red Sea port
- The Veneration and Worship of Felines in Ancient Egypt
Various animal mummies from other ancient catacombs have been examined during a different study through the University of Manchester. The animals included wading birds, cats, falcons and shrews, and a five foot long crocodile. Scans revealed that the mummified crocodile contained eight baby crocodiles which had been carefully prepared and bound together, and wrapped with the mother in one big crocodile-shaped mummy .
In all, the Dog Catacombs of Saqqara provide researchers a better idea of what society must have looked like with such a system in place. The cult of Anubis required an expansive and interwoven infrastructure to operate, involving animal breeders, priests, embalmers, artisans and pilgrims, creating a “very significant economic force in Late Period Egypt.”
That the catacombs served different purposes throughout time is of note, as it sheds light on the shifting priorities of Egyptian culture, religion, and society from ancient times till present day.
Featured image: The head of a mummified cat ( Wikimedia Commons )
Journal Cited: Paul T. Nicholson, Salima Ikram and Steve Mills (2015). The Catacombs of Anubis at North Saqqara. Antiquity, 89, pp 645-661. doi:10.15184/aqy.2014.53.
By Liz Leafloor