Academic journal article Antiquity

The Catacombs of Anubis at North Saqqara

Academic journal article Antiquity

The Catacombs of Anubis at North Saqqara

Article excerpt

Who has not heard, Volusius, of the monstrous deities those crazy Egyptians worship ? One lot adores crocodiles, another worships the snake-gorged ibis ... you'll find whole cities devoted to cats, or to river-fish or dogs (Juvenal, Satires XV; Green 1974).


The fact that animals feature prominently in Egyptian religion is not revelatory; indeed, it was old news by the time Juvenal wrote his satire around AD 128-130 (Green 1974: 14); and the "snake-gorged ibis" is referenced by Herodotus (2.77, 1-4; de Selincourt 1954), writing in the fifth century BC. Egyptologists in their turn have examined the animal cults (e.g. Ray 1978; Martin 1981; Kessler 1989; Ikram 2005) but research has focused mainly on the temple structures relating to the cults and the literary evidence for them (e.g. Ray 1976). Whilst both of these research areas are invaluable, they omit one of the most substantial parts of the surviving evidence--the catacombs and their mummified inhabitants.

This paper reports on a Cardiff University project begun in 2009, and directed by one of the authors (Nicholson), with the aim of gaining a better understanding of the Dog Catacombs. We summarise the work of many individuals, including the survey and mapping team led by Steve Mills and the faunal team under Salima Ikram. The intention of this new work has been to investigate animal cults with a focus on the animals themselves, the individuals who operated aspects of the cult (e.g. animal breeders, priests) and the subterranean structures associated with them. The temples and shrines, though undeniably significant, are often only the tip of the iceberg; the greater part being below the waterline or, in this case, below ground.

In 1897, Jacques de Morgan (1857-1924) published his Carte de la Necropole Memphite (de Morgan 1897); map 10 of this collection shows two catacombs labelled 'T[ombe] des chiens (A) and (B)'. The key to the map dates them to the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC) (Figure 1).

De Morgan's map appears to be the first to show these catacombs, which are located on the east of the Saqqara plateau. However, he offered no information detailing who discovered them or when, nor his grounds for dating them to the New Kingdom. Following his publication, the existence of these underground catacombs became well known to generations of Egyptologists, although they were never the subject of detailed study. This lack of research is all the more surprising for the fact that the work of Walter Bryan Emery (1903-1971), at the Sacred Animal Necropolis on the west side of the Saqqara plateau, was widely reported during the 1960s (Emery 1965; Bacon 1967a & b; The Illustrated London News 1967) and might have been expected to make the animal cults a focus for research (for an excellent summary of Emery's work see Smith 1974).

Part of the reason for the 'Tombes des chiens' attracting so little attention may have been the media focus on Emery's quest to find the tomb of Imhotep, the architect of the Step Pyramid, rather than on the animal galleries, which he excavated. Emery's death in 1971 effectively ended the widespread interest in the Sacred Animal Necropolis, and any incentive for a new assessment of the Dog Catacombs (see Figure 2 for a map of Saqqara and its monuments).

The animal cults

Dog catacombs are the burial place of animals sacred to the dog- or jackal-headed Egyptian deity Anubis. They are, however, only one part of a wider phenomenon of sacred animal cults. Animal worship was already well established by the First Dynasty (3100-2890 BC), and the worship of the Apis bull is recorded from that time on the Palermo Stone (Simpson 1957; Hart 1986: 28; Dodson 2005: 72), although its origins lay deep in the Pre-dynastic era (5500-3100 BC). The sacred animals of the Dynastic period were the 'living image' or 'divine manifestation' (ba) of particular deities; thus, the Apis bull was the ba of Ptah, the creator god of Memphis. …

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