A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The remains of thousands of dogs were discovered in the "Dog Catacombs" of Saqqara, Egypt. (© P.T. Nicholson)
In 1897, French Egyptologist Jacques De Morgan published a map of the necropolis of Saqqara, the burial place of Egypt's first capital city, Memphis. The map includes the only known plan of the "Dog Catacombs" at the site, but no information about the date or circumstances of their discovery. In fact, virtually nothing is known of these catacombs.
Last year, I began a Cardiff University-Egypt Exploration Society mission to the catacombs, which date from the Late and Ptolemiac Periods (747-30 B.C.), the last dynasties before the Romans conquered Egypt. We hope to learn if the De Morgan plan is accurate and see if we can find any clues to the early history of the catacombs' exploration. Right now we are completely remapping the catacombs and looking for clues to the circumstances of their discovery, such as travelers' graffiti and lamps from earlier explorers. The first catacomb, one of two main locations for dog burials at Saqqara, was the subterranean element of the Temple of Anubis—the jackal-headed god of the dead—a little to the south. According to the map, the temple had a long corridor that was probably a ceremonial route and numerous shorter tunnels on each side filled with thousands of mummified dogs and animal remains. The majority of these animals would have been votive offerings by pilgrims who hoped that the deceased animals would intercede with the deity on their behalf. Others, however, may have been representatives of the god and lived within the temple compound. Some of the dogs that were buried in special niches in the tunnel walls, rather than being piled in the great mass of remains, may be those animals. Many seem to have lived to considerable age, while other animals met their deaths after only a few months.
But the question remains—are they really all dogs, as the catacombs' name suggests? Preliminary examination by the American University in Cairo's Salima Ikram, the project's animal bone specialist, suggests that many of the mummified animals, now mostly lacking their wrappings, are indeed dogs. But according to Ikram, "Anubis was a kind of super-canid, so it is likely that jackals, foxes, and maybe even hyenas were mummified and given as offerings to Anubis." There is also still debate about exactly what kind of canid Anubis was meant to represent. Although the concept of dog breeds is a modern one, we hope to discover more information about the species, types, ages, and genders of the animals in the catacombs to understand how the god was perceived.
Paul Nicholson is Director, Cardiff University-Egypt Exploration Society Mission to the Dog Catacombs