8 million mummified animals, mostly dogs, in catacombs at Egypt site

Archaeologist Salima Ikram examines the mummified remains of an adult dog in a wall niche.

Story highlights

  • Archaeologists explore the catacombs of Anubis, an Egyptian god that's half-dog, half-human
  • They estimate more than 8 million animals, mostly dogs, were stacked there wrapped in bandages
  • "We hadn't expected that there would be so many animals," lead Egyptologist says

(CNN)For centuries, dogs have been humans' loyal, domesticated companions. They've been wild animals, doing what's needed to survive. And in ancient Egypt, they served as bridges to the afterlife, with the hope that they'd intercede with the god Anubis on their owner's behalf.

But only now is it becoming known the extent to which dogs served this latter role -- 8 million times over.
That is the number of dead animals, most of them dogs, estimated to have laid in the catacombs of Anubis around Saqqara, one of Egypt's most historic and oft-visited sites, according to a group of British researchers. While such mass burials aren't unprecedented, given the numerous animal cults of ancient Egypt, this one's scale makes it unique.
"We're very pleased and somewhat surprised by the results," the project's director Paul Nicholson from Cardiff University's School of History, Archaeology and Religion said Saturday. "We hadn't expected that there would be so many animals, and it opens up a new series of questions."
One question that experts can at least partially answer is why an Egyptian might have brought an animal, dead or alive, to such a place.
Nicholson, who has been studying animal cults since the 1990s, explains that people wouldn't have come simply to kill or even bury an animal so much as allow it to move onto a different plane. A dog, especially, would be a good fit because it might then interact with Anubis, an ancient Egyptian god of the dead depicted with the body of a man and head of a dog or, its close relative, a jackal.
"The important thing was to provide a representation of the god with a fitting burial," Nicholson said. "It's not some sort of blood sacrifice. It's a religious act that's done for the best possible motive."
The animal's owner would hope that, by doing this, "some good will come to you," the Wales-based Egyptologist noted. "Maybe you're hoping that the animal will help someone in your family who has died recently (so that) Anubis will take care of that (relative)."