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The Catacombs of Anubis

Paul Nicholson, Sabine Harding and Delyth Hurley in the catacombs

Paul Nicholson, Sabine Harding and Delyth Hurley in the catacombs

The site of Saqqara is well known as the location of Egypt’s earliest pyramid, but few visitors are aware that deep below the desert surface lies a lost world of catacombs provided for the burial of sacred animals.

The catacombs mainly belong to the Late- (747-332 B.C.) and Ptolemaic (332-30 B.C.) Periods. As well as serving a religious purpose seem to have been a mark of national identity, separating the Egyptians from the peoples of the Mediterranean with whom they had ever more contact at this time.  They were also important economically - pilgrims to Saqqara would purchase votive bronzes including statuettes of deities and situlae (miniature ritual ‘buckets’ or vases), and present these at the various shrines and temples at the site, often in fulfilment of a vow.  More spectacular, however, because of their sheer numbers, were the animal mummies which the pilgrims purchased and dedicated to the gods, and which were interred in the vast catacombs as mediators between the donor and the gods.

The Catacombs of the canine god Anubis are located to the north-east of the Step Pyramid and although they, like the other animal catacombs, are largely unknown to visitors to Saqqara they have been well known to our Egyptian colleagues and to foreign Egyptologists since at least the 19th Century.  However, because of their relatively poor condition they have never been investigated using modern archaeological techniques.  A plan of the catacomb, dating from 1897, exists but survives only at a tiny scale as part of a larger map.  A new project directed by Dr. Paul Nicholson of Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion in association with the Egypt Exploration Society is making a new, large scale, plan of the monument and work so far has shown that the original plan has major inaccuracies.

Steve Mills surveying

Steve Mills surveying

Like its earlier counterpart, the new survey is undertaken in very difficult conditions but the laser Total Station survey instrument allows precise 3D measurements to be made in the darkness and lets us avoid areas of the catacomb which we consider potentially unsafe. The survey, which is being carried out by  Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion staff member Dr. Steve Mills, along with Scott Williams and Hendrikje Nouwens, is allowing us to reconstruct the development of the monument and – to our surprise – its later use.  We believe that in the late 19th and perhaps early 20th centuries the site was exploited for its mummies which were taken away and probably used for fertiliser manufacture.

Our work also involves careful examination of the geology of the Catacomb, work carried out in 2010 by Professor John Harrison of the University of Toronto.  Not only will this help us understand how the monument might best be preserved but is assisting in our understanding of ancient mining techniques.

Equally significant is the work on the mummies themselves.  We estimate that some 8,000,000 animals – mostly canids – were interred at the site.  Our bone team, led by Professor Ikram of the American University in Cairo, is examining the age profiles of these animals and are finding that many were very young, perhaps newly born, at the time of their death and mummification.  A new picture of how the Egyptians may have treated the animals in their care is emerging and suggests that breeding centres must have existed in the region around the necropolis; it would not have been possible to breed sufficient dogs within the temple compounds.

Salima Ikram examining bones

Salima Ikram examining bones

Although animal catacombs are quite common in Egypt there have been no large scale studies of canid remains from such sites.  We are only now beginning to realise that these venerated animals often met early deaths in the service of the cult.  We are also finding that not all of the dogs are in fact dogs – jackals, foxes, ichneumon, falcons and even cats are all present though canids make up the greatest number.

At present we are not able to date the phases in the development of the monument but believe that radiocarbon would help us to do this and we hope to be permitted to take samples for this purpose in future.  The Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities, who kindly permit our work, have an approved laboratory in Cairo and hope to submit samples for dating there.  Knowing the date range of the catacomb would help us enormously in estimating how many animals were needed each year.

So, although the site is well known to Egyptologists and is not architecturally spectacular or richly decorated (it is in fact completely plain) careful study of its construction, layout and animal inhabitants is yielding new and exciting results.

We are grateful to the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities for permitting our work at Saqqara and for the assistance give to us by their officials at Saqqara.  We are indebted to National Geographic for their generous support of our work in 2010 and to the School of History Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff, and the Thames Valley Ancient Egypt Society for support in 2009.

The Catacombs of Anubis project was awarded Archaeological Project of the Year 2011 by Andante Travels,  a specialist archaeological tour operator.  The award was made at the Current Archaeology conference held at the British Museum in 2011.   The team are indebted to Andante for their generous award.