Archaeologists Find Mummified Sacred Beetles and Cats in Ancient Egyptian Tombs

Crocodiles also found among the animals embalmed to gratify the gods of the Fifth Dynasty 4,500 years ago

Mummified scarabs on display in a glass case found in a newly discovered tomb, at an ancient necropolis near Egypt's famed pyramids in Saqqara, Giza, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. A top Egyptian antiquities official says local archaeologists have discovered seven Pharaonic Age tombs near the capital Cairo containing dozens of cat mummies along with wooden statues depicting other animals.
Mummified scarabs on display in a glass case found in a newly discovered tomb, at an ancient necropolis near Egypt's famed pyramids in Saqqara, Giza, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. Credit: Nariman El-Mofty,AP
Ruth Schuster
Reuters
Ruth Schuster
Reuters

Rare mummies of scarab beetles were among the grave goods found in the Fifth Dynasty necropolis of Saqqara in ancient Egypt, archaeologists in Egypt said Saturday.

Head of Fifth Dynasty founder Userkaf, who ruled in the early 25th century B.C.E., recovered from his temple to Ra; Egyptian Museum
Head of Fifth Dynasty founder Userkaf, found in a sun templeCredit: Oved Cohen
Tourists are seen around Saqqara pyramid at Saqqara area near Egypt's Saqqara necropolis, in Giza, Egypt September 8, 2018.
Saqqara pyramidCredit: \ MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/ REUTERS

The excavators also said they have found what may be a pristine tomb from the time – around 4,500 years ago – that remained undetected and untouched by grave-robbers all these thousands of years.

The tomb dates from the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom and is unusual because the facade and door are intact, meaning its contents may still be untouched, said Mohamed Youssef, director of the Saqqara area. He said experts plan to open the tomb in the coming weeks.

The archaeologists noticed the unknown tomb’s door as they were preparing the site to present the latest discoveries, Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told reporters, Reuters reports.

A mummified scarab inside the tomb of Khufu-Imhat on display, at the Saqqara area near its necropolis, in Giza, Egypt November 10, 2018.
A mummified scarab inside the tomb of Khufu-Imhat on display, at the Saqqara area near its necropolis, in Giza, Egypt November 10, 2018. Credit: \ MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/ REUTERS

As for scarabs, the real ones exist on all continents except Antarctica, and beetles made of stone have been crawling all over the Middle East for millennia. Numerous ones have been found in Israel, too – for instance, at the biblical cities of Gezer and in Shimron.

But finding carefully preserved beetle corpses from 4,500 years ago is something else entirely.

Ra ascendant

The mummified beetles, crocodiles, cats and other sacred animals were among the discoveries in seven tombs discovered over the past six months on the edge of the pyramid complex dedicated to King Userkaf at the necropolis of Saqqara, south of Cairo.

Mummified cats are seen at a new discovery made by an Egyptian archaeological mission during the demonstration of a new discovery made by an Egyptian archaeological mission through excavation work at the area located on the stony edge of King Userkaf pyramid complex in Saqqara Necropolis, south of the capital Cairo on November 10, 2018.
Mummified catsCredit: AFP

Little is known about the pharaoh Userkaf (also known in Greek as Usercherês), who, according to ancient records, founded the Fifth Dynasty – which is thought to have stretched between 150 to 250 years, depending on which ancient historian one favors.

The Fifth Dynasty seems to have begun in roughly the 26th or 25th century B.C.E., around 4,500 years ago. It was part of what historians call Egypt’s “Old Kingdom,” though it was so long ago that even in antiquity, historians argued about who ruled when.

The mysteries surrounding King Userkaf himself are legion, including who exactly his parents and queen were. It isn’t even clear where he ruled from. Ancient sources refer to the island of Elephantine as the center of rule, but archaeologists have found palatial ruins in ancient Memphis, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Giza.

It is clearer that it was under Userkaf’s scepter that the god Ra rose ascendant.

Mummified cats inside a tomb, at an ancient necropolis near Egypt's famed pyramids in Saqqara, Giza, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. A top Egyptian antiquities official says local archaeologists have discovered seven Pharaonic Age tombs near the capital Cairo containing dozens of cat mummies along with wooden statues depicting other animals.
Mummified cats inside a tomb, at an ancient necropolis near Egypt's famed pyramids in Saqqara, Giza, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. Credit: Nariman El-Mofty,AP
A worker carries an artifact out of a tomb, at an ancient necropolis near Egypt's famed pyramids in Saqqara, Giza, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. A top Egyptian antiquities official says local archaeologists have discovered seven Pharaonic Age tombs near the capital Cairo containing dozens of cat mummies along with wooden statues depicting other animals.
A worker carries an artifact out of a tomb, at an ancient necropolis near Egypt's famed pyramids in Saqqara, Giza, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. Credit: Nariman El-Mofty,AP

The pharaoh had temples built to this solar deity and it was during the Fifth Dynasty that he became Egypt’s “official” god. And when this short-reigning pharaoh died – apparently leaving behind at least the son who would succeed him, Sahure – Userkaf received the respect due to the deceased king in the form of a pyramid complex in Saqqara.

Further strengthening Memphis’ case as the hub of rule, Saqqara was its grand necropolis.

That is where the mummified scarabs and other animals were found.

Embalming Mittens

Why did the ancient Egyptians mummify anything? Regarding their own bodies, they believed in an afterlife, though the details of how they thought the embalmed body would serve them remain opaque.

However, the mummification of animals is more arcane and apparently stemmed from a wider range of motives – the simplest one being to preserve, cherish and honor the memory of a beloved pet.

An employee of Lille's natural history museum installs an Egyptian mummified crocodile dating from the 3rd century BC, before it is scanned at the Roger Salengro hospital by the taphonomy unit on June 14, 2014 in Lille, northern France. Found among the tombstones of Thebes, and now being taken care of by the natural history museum of Lille, the mummy will be scanned thanks to new technologies helping scientists bring new interesting elements in their paleontological research.
Scanning a crocodile mummy in LilleCredit: AFP

More were offerings to the gods, though. In fact, far from necessarily adoring the animals, tens of millions, at the very least, were killed and preserved to be offered to deities. Some eight million dogs were discovered in a catacomb near Memphis, to give just one example.

Going by the sheer numbers of preserved animal corpses in over 30 Egyptian catacombs, estimated at over 70 million, packed like library books floor to ceiling, it seems the embalming of Animalia was a vast industry.

So, rare this discovery at Saqqara was not. But mummified beetles were unusual.

Two large scarabs wrapped in linen and in very good condition were found inside a limestone sarcophagus with a vaulted, decorated lid, the antiquities ministry stated. Another collection of scarab mummies was found inside a smaller sarcophagus.

A species of South African dung beetle is seen in this undated handout photo from University of the Witwatersrand released January 25, 2013. The species has been shown to use the Milky Way to navigate, making it the only known animal that turns to the galactic spray of stars across the night sky for direction.Researchers have known for several years that the inch-long insects use the sun or moon as fixed points to ensure they keep rolling dung balls in a straight line - the quickest way of getting away from other beetles at the dung heap.
Dung beetle, a type of scarab, wearing a hat rolling a ball of dungCredit: REUTERS/Marcus Byrne/University of the Witwatersrand/Handout
An archeologist and workers from Upper Egypt carry artifacts found in newly discovered tomb, at an ancient necropolis near Egypt's famed pyramids in Saqqara, Giza, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. A top Egyptian antiquities official says local archaeologists have discovered seven Pharaonic Age tombs near the capital Cairo containing dozens of cat mummies along with wooden statues depicting other animals.
An archeologist and workers from Upper Egypt carry artifacts found in newly discovered tomb, at an ancient necropolis near Egypt's famed pyramids in Saqqara, Giza, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. Credit: Nariman El-Mofty,AP

“The [mummified] scarab is something really unique. It is something really a bit rare,” Waziri said. “A couple of days ago, when we discovered those coffins, they were sealed coffins with drawings of scarabs. I never heard about them before.”

Like many of its insect brethren, scarabs are quite revolting according to modern mores. Dung beetles are one subset of scarabs; Tel Aviv throngs with them everywhere street cats do their business. National Geographic describes another type that subsists on snail slime. Though some scarab beetles are quite beautiful in life, with iridescent chitin, their lifestyle is less attractive as most are scavengers.

Yet the ancient Egyptians venerated the insect for centuries on end – as early as the Fifth Dynasty, it now appears. The esteem apparently spread around the region: Scarabs carved of stone have been found wherever the ancient Egyptians conquered.

A brilliantly colored mummy dating back more than 2,300 years seen on its wooden coffin  Tuesday May 3, 2005,  at Egypt's Saqqara Pyramids complex south of Cairo. The unidentified mummy, from the 30th pharaonic dynasty, had been buried by sand in a 6 meter (20 feet) shaft. Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said the mummy will undergo CT scanning before being put on display at a Saqqara museum.
A brilliantly colored mummy dating back more than 2,300 years seen on its wooden coffin Tuesday May 3, 2005, at Egypt's Saqqara Pyramids complex south of Cairo. Credit: AP

The Saqqara tomb also yielded dozens of cat mummies and gilded statues of cats, as well as a bronze statue dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet, as well as painted wooden cobra and crocodile sarcophagi, a collection of gilded statues depicting animal features, as well as objects including amulets, canopic jars, writing tools and papyri baskets.

Apropos the crocodiles, last year archaeologists found mummified cats and crocodiles at another remarkable site, Gebel el Silsila – a site on the Nile 65 kilometers north of Aswan. The site had a great many stone scarabs, which is very much the norm, but there is a question about the crocodiles.

Thing is, this site is right on the mighty river, which is famously thronged with the great reptiles. It is entirely possible that the crocodile remains found there were not deliberately buried with great honor, but ended up there with seasonal flooding of the Nile and died, to be found 3,500 years later and, possibly, misinterpreted. 

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