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Breeding Gods: A New View of Ancient Egypt

10 March 2011

Dr Paul Nicholson accepting the Andante Award

Dr Paul Nicholson accepting the Andante Award

An archaeological project The Catacombs of Anubis has been awarded the Andante Travels Archaeological Award for 2011.

Andante Travels is a British company specialising in archaeological tourism and owned by an archaeologist, and their award is designed to provide support for a project which has both archaeological significance and public appeal.  The £2000 award presented to the project director is to be used to support the work of the project.

The Catacombs of Anubis project, directed by Dr. Paul Nicholson of the School of History, Archaeology and Religion (SHARE) is examining a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the desert at Saqqara in Egypt.  These tunnels make up the Catacomb for the burial of animals sacred to the Dog-, or Jackal-headed god Anubis and the latest estimate by the team suggests that some 8,000,000 animals – most of them dogs or jackals were interred there.  The so-called ‘Dog Catacomb’ has been known since the 19th Century but has never been properly excavated and Nicholson and his team were keen to find out more about its contents and construction.

Delyth Hurley and Sabine Harding examining animal remains

Delyth Hurley and Sabine Harding examining animal remains

Work on the animal bones has been conducted under the supervision of Dr. Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo and suggests that many of the animals were only a matter of hours or days old when they were killed and mummified.  The animals were not ‘sacrificial’, rather the dedication of an animal mummy was seen as a pious act and the animal would serve as an intermediary between the donor and the gods.  It does, however, represent a rather different form of reverence toward animals than that which is normally associated with the ancient Egyptians.  With the need to mummify so many animals, perhaps thousands each year, it is likely that the dogs were bred in puppy farms dotted around the ancient capital of Memphis.

Paul Nicholson, Sabine Harding and Delyth Hurley in the catacombs

Paul Nicholson, Sabine Harding and Delyth Hurley in the catacombs

The project is examining not only the mummies but the catacomb itself.  Dr. Steve Mills and Scott Williams, also of SHARE, have been overseeing this work along with Hendrikje Nouwens, an independent Egyptologist from the Netherlands.  They are preparing a new survey of the catacomb since the only existing plan, from 1897, is reproduced at a tiny scale and is also inaccurate.  This new plan is helping to determine likely construction phases within the site.  The Andante Travels award will help to pay for radiocarbon dates which will help to more closely date some of the phases of the monument.

Mining geologist, Professor John Harrison of Toronto University is examining the way in which the tunnels were excavated, as well as checking them for safety.  His work has helped to suggest that one rather small tunnel may have been constructed in modern times to help in the removal of some of the mummies, probably for use as fertiliser.

It is hoped that the geological work on the catacomb will help the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, who have generously permitted the work, in monitoring the site for its long term preservation.

The work in 2009 was funded in part by SHARE and in 2010 by National Geographic to both of which the team are indebted. The work was carried out in association with the Egypt Exploration Society.