In the first full excavation of the dog catacombs at Saqqara, Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at The American University in Cairo (AUC), along with an international team of researchers led by Paul Nicholson of Cardiff University, has estimated that approximately 8 million animal mummies are present at the burial site and is working to establish whether different breeds are represented there. “We are recording the animal bones and the mummification techniques used to prepare the animals,” said Ikram. “In doing so, we hope to identify the dog breeds present at the site. Thus far, our bone measurements indicate that there are different breeds that were mummified there.” The mummified animals at Saqqara are not limited to canines. “There are cat and mongoose remains in the deposit,” explained Ikram. “We are trying to understand how this fits religiously with the cult of Anubis, to whom the catacomb is dedicated.”
For Ikram, one of the world’s preeminent scholars in the field of mummification with a specialization in archaeozoology, the study of animal mummies offers deep insights into ancient Egyptian culture. “Animal mummies are really manifestations of daily life –– pets, food, death, religion and technology. They cover everything the Egyptians were concerned with,” said Ikram, adding that when Egyptology was becoming established as an academic discipline in the 19th century, archaeologists pushed past hundreds of thousands of animal mummies in their haste to uncover the human ones and, more significantly, their grave goods.
Salima Ikram on site at Saqqara
The dog catacombs research at Saqqara, funded by National Geographic, is one of several archaeological field projects in which Ikram is involved. She directed the Animal Mummy Project at the Egyptian Museum, resurrecting a neglected exhibition that first caught her attention when she visited the museum as a child. In addition, in Project Djehuty, directed by Jose Galan and which focuses on the excavation and restoration of tombs T11 and T12 in the Dra’ Abu el-Naga necropolis in Thebes, Ikram sees great potential for her work with animal mummies, combined with the efforts of other specialists, to yield revelations about ancient Egyptian life. “This project is the first time that an area like this has been examined so holistically,” she said. “While I study the animal mummies, there are others in the group studying the texts written on the walls by the same people who embalmed them. By studying everything from textiles to text to animal remains, we can elucidate quite a bit about what these people thought, their religion and the economic effects of mummifying hundreds of thousands of animals.”
Discoveries have shown that there are four main reasons ancient Egyptians mummified animals. “They were mummified as sacred creatures that were representative of the gods, as beloved pets, as gifts to the gods and as food for the afterlife,” said Ikram, explaining that these varying motives reveal much about the behavioral patterns of the ancient Egyptians. She added, “Using DNA testing of mummified ibis remains found in geographically different locations, we hope to establish isolated breeding groups. An abundance of recessive genes showing, for example, would indicate interbreeding of animals in captivity. This also signifies something of an economy of breeding animals for mummification.”
For Egyptologists, mummies reflect everything, from the sacred to the suspicious. “Animal mummies were a very visceral and organic way for people to communicate with the gods,” Ikram said. “At the same time, they were also a business, and many of the mummies I’ve studied are ancient false mummies -– a fragment of an animal wrapped as if it were a whole one, or an interior containing nothing but mud. Maybe the Egyptians thought that the intention was sufficient for divine communication.”
Whether it is dogs in Saqqara or ibises in Thebes, Ikram sees familiar human motives at the heart of animal mummification. “You look at these animals, and suddenly you say, Oh, King so-and-so had a pet. I have a pet. And instead of being at a distance of 5,000-plus years, the ancient Egyptians become people,” she said.