Wednesday June 24, 2015

Nearly 8 million dog mummies found in Egyptian catacomb

Paul Nicholson, professor of archaeology at Cardiff University, photographing dog mummies in the burial ground catacombs called Saqqara.

Paul Nicholson, professor of archaeology at Cardiff University, photographing dog mummies in the burial ground catacombs called Saqqara. (Courtesy of Salima Ikram)

Listen 6:23

Just a few miles south of Cairo, held deep in an Egyptian catacomb that hadn't been explored in hundreds of years, there are dog mummies. And not just a few — millions of them.

Salima Ikram

Salima Ikram

"It's a catacomb dedicated to the canine god Anubis," says Salima Ikram, project lead archaeozoologist and professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, "We were expecting to find a few mummified dogs, but we really didn't expect the proportions of the catacombs to be as huge as they were. Parts of these catacombs are filled up to the roofs, and in other places, they were [stacked] between 1.2 and 1.5 metres high."

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Head and neck of adult dog mummy. (Courtesy of Paul Nicholson)

The catacomb, which sits next to the Temple of the Anubis, is more than 2,500 years old and is estimated to contain around 7.8 million mummified dogs and puppies. While the catacomb was discovered in the 19th century, Ikram, along with researchers from the University of Cardiff, was the first to uncover the extent of the artifacts within.

"As far as we can tell, there was a concentrated breeding program going on." she says. "You can't get 7.8 million dogs without some kind of breeding program... I think it's a bit like ancient puppy mills, and it would've been the same for some of the cat catacombs."

But what was the point of sacrificing all these animals to Anubis?

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Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the Egyptian afterlife, attending to one of the mummified dead. (Wikimedia Commons)

"Nowadays if you go to church, you light a candle so that God hears your prayer," Ikram explains to As It Happens host Carol Off. "The Egyptians believed in long-term, more permanent sort of prayers. Each god has an animal associated with him or her. If you give the god an offering of that animal, it is more likely that the god will pay more attention to you and your offering than if you were to give a lighted candle, or a lamp, or even a statue. A living creature has more potency and is, of course, a greater sacrifice."

Anubis was considered to be the protector of the dead — and also of travelers. Pilgrims would offer mummified dogs to priests, usually to gain favour with Anubis before a long journey. The priest would then place the offering in the catacomb.

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X-ray of a dog mummy from the burial ground catacombs called Saqqara. (Courtesy of Salima Ikram)

"You can't analyze all 7.8 million animals, so what we've done is we've taken samples and we are studying these samples," she says. "We found that not everything is a dog or a puppy. We have a few cats, we have foxes, jackals, and potentially one wolf."

"We're trying to figure out what the range of species is, the number of animals, what kind of diseases they might have suffered from, what sex they were, how they were prepared, mummified and then we're going to put it all together."

Ikram and her colleagues are hoping to publish their results by the end of the year.

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An example of one of the dog mummies found inside the catacomb. (Courtesy of Salima Ikram)

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A look inside the deep catacombs. (Courtesy of Paul Nicholson)