Catacombs adjoining a temple in the ancient Egyptian capital Memphis once contained nearly eight million mummified dogs, according to a new study that was reported by the Discovery News website.
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The temple belonged to a cult that worshipped Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death. Pilgrims visiting the temple likely viewed the display of the mummies as expressions of gratitude to the gods, said the study’s lead researcher, Paul Nicholson, a professor of archaeology at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom.
The study was published in the June edition of the journal Antiquity.
The rock ceiling of the catacomb contains the fossil of a marine vertebrate – possibly a relative of modern-day manatees and dugongs – that's more than 48 million years old. Nicholson said it was unclear whether the Egyptians noticed the existence of the fossil when they built the tomb for the canine mummies.
Many of the mummies have since disintegrated or been disrupted by grave robbers and industrialists, who likely used the mummies for fertilizer. Even so, archaeologists have found enough evidence to suggest that the Anubis animal cult was a large part of the ancient Egyptian economy.
Many of the dogs were only hours or days old when they were mummified. Some older dogs had more elaborate burials, and may have lived at the temple, but the younger pups were likely “bred — farmed if you will — for the cult,” Nicholson said.
Previous researchers took only cursory looks at the dog catacombs; the new study is the first to analyze it in depth, the researchers said. Nicholson and his colleagues spent countless hours examining the larger catacomb, studying its rock walls and mummified contents.
“It’s a very long series of dark tunnels,” Nicholson said. “There is no natural light once you’ve gone into the forepart of the catacomb, and beyond that everything has to be lit with flashlights. It’s really quite a spectacular thing.”
In addition to canine mummies, the researchers found the mummies of jackals, foxes, falcons, cats and mongoose, although about 92 percent of the remains belonged to dogs, they found.
It’s unclear why these other animals were buried in the dog catacomb, “but it is likely that all ‘doglike’ creatures were interchangeable, and that mythological reasons probably underlie the choice of cats and raptors,” the researchers wrote in the study.