The search at North Saqqara for the great architect Imhotep led instead to the discovery of a massive animal necropolis containing millions of mummies, as Paul T Nicholson explains.

Beneath the sands of North Saqqara is a wide network of catacombs, crammed with the remains of millions of mummified animals. Our subterranean investigations are shedding much new light on the remarkable, yet sometimes shady, cultic activities of the Egyptians of the 1st millennium BC, as I shall explain.

However, our project finds its origins with the search for a much earlier tomb: that of Imhotep – the great architect of King Djoser’s Step Pyramid (c.2650 BC), Egypt’s oldest pyramid. Imhotep was consequently regarded as a person of such wisdom that he was deified in later times, while the Greeks identified him with their god of medicine Asklepios.

The idea of finding Imhotep was hatched by the Egyptologist, W B Emery (1902-1971), while working in Saqqara in the 1930s. Emery had noticed an area covered in pottery, including the remains of large tapering jars that would once have contained the mummies of the sacred ibis bird. The latter was regarded as the living image – or ba – of the lunar deity Thoth, also the god of writing, learning, and wisdom. All of these qualities were shared with Imhotep and both cults were closely related. But, this surface votive pottery dated from the Late Period (747-332 BC) and after. Emery reasoned it could have been left by later pilgrims to Imhotep’s tomb – and thus his tomb should lie nearby.

In pursuit of Imhotep

Emery’s search would begin in earnest between 1964 and 1971, when he returned to work in North Saqqara on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society, and with the permission of the Egyptian Antiquities Service (now the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities).

Almost immediately, Emery’s team began unearthing hundreds of Late Period pots – containing mummified ibises. They came from the shafts of much earlier mastaba tombs, the kind of 3rd Dynasty tomb in which Imhotep would have been buried. However, it gradually became clear that the shafts had been reused specifically to hold these bird burials. Not only that, but the burial chambers themselves had been altered so that they became part of a series of long and interconnected tunnels.

Emery had found a catacomb of the sacred ibis that had been built among, and from, earlier tombs during the Late Period. Its builders had even re-sanctified the area by placing cow burials in the tops of some of the shafts, and between the mastaba tombs themselves. There had clearly been a major re-modelling of the earlier landscape during the Late Period, and although the motive for this development was unknown, Emery believed it may have something to do with Imhotep’s tomb.

Continuing on, his team moved slightly to the north-east where they came upon the ‘Temple Terrace’. Work here led to the discovery of an impressive limestone doorway with cavetto cornice. On entering, the excavators found a series of small niches. Each originally contained a wooden shrine housing the mummified remains of a sacred baboon encased in a block of plaster. These animals, like the ibises, were regarded as a manifestation of Thoth (the god associated with Imhotep). But baboons were much rarer: typically imported all the way from tropical Africa, they lived a good life at the temple of Ptah in the capital city of Memphis.

In December 1968, a break was noticed leading from the baboon catacomb into another monument, and exactly one year later the team entered to find themselves in a tunnel which they at first took to be another ibis catacomb. Subsequent investigation of the contents of the vessels, however, revealed that this was in fact a labyrinth of sacred falcons or hawks, which are associated with the god Horus.

The following season led to the discovery of the burial place of the Mothers of Apis, the sacred cows whose offspring – the Apis Bulls – occupied the Serapeum, the great vaults at Saqqara (discovered by Auguste Mariette in 1851, and one of the most celebrated discoveries of the 19th century). As at the Serapeum, the burials were made in arched vaults, each lined with finely cut limestone blocks – most of them now robbed away – and each containing a huge stone sarcophagus in which would have rested the mummy of the cow. The site had been much damaged in later times, perhaps by the Coptic villagers, and had also suffered from a roof collapse, but still preserved much important evidence, including stele set up by the masons recording their labours at the site.

The Tomb of the Birds?

The 1970-1971 season saw the team focussing some of their attention on an east-west ridge at the very north end of the Saqqara escarpment. Like other parts of North Saqqara, this had been the site of mastaba tombs and a number of tomb shafts were cleared. One of these led the excavators into yet another catacomb and this, too, proved to be a burial place for ibises – probably the site of the ‘Tomb of the Birds’, as recorded on a Napoleonic expedition plan of the Saqqara area from the end of the 18th century.

Eventually, the team located its original entrance, covered by a mud-brick vault and leading down from a courtyard with a garden. However, during the discovery of this new and extensive monument, Emery collapsed on site. Two days later he died in Cairo.

Despite Emery’s remarkable work in the area, he died without locating the tomb of Imhotep, and without being able to publish his finds. Over the following years, Professor G T Martin published the South Ibis catacomb and Professor H S Smith finished aspects of the work at the Temple Terrace and elsewhere, with a view to completing the publication. But otherwise, work at the site was halted. An archaeological story that had so grabbed the attention of the world’s press had suddenly ended, and almost slipped into obscurity.

New discoveries at Saqqara

The site was left until Professor Smith (who succeeded Emery at University College London in 1970) returned to work at the Animal Necropolis after retirement in 1986. But Egyptology and Archaeology had moved on since Emery’s time, so Professor Smith and I decided a fresh approach was needed to update the project. In the 1990s we began new work at North Saqqara, no longer searching for the illusive Imhotep, but with a view to learning more about this important site.

This work, which is still ongoing, began with a new survey of the Falcon Catacomb and that of the Mothers of Apis. Thereafter, Professor Smith and colleagues examined the ‘ Temple Terrace’ afresh. In so doing they unearthed the largest cache of votive bronze objects from the Sacred Animal Necropolis.

The bronzes and associated objects were found as a corroded mass in a partly collapsed, but nonetheless reused, tomb whose original occupant remains unknown. These bronzes were skillfully separated, stabilised and in some cases cleaned by an EES team (largely drawn from Conservation graduates of the School of History and Archaeology at Cardiff University). The bronzes mostly comprise small votive buckets known as situlae, some decorated with scenes showing deities. These vessels, along with figures of gods, were deposited at the animal shrines in fulfilment of vows – or as incentives for the god to grant favour to the petitioner.

But why so many mummified animals? Sacred animals were an important focus of popular worship in the Late Period because they were believed to give oracles to those who paid homage to them. Thus, it was the pilgrims who paid for the mummification and burial of ibises and falcons. This was big business since we estimate the combined total for these birds to be in excess of 2.25 million, and perhaps as many as 4 million.

Such a great quantity of birds begs the question of how they were obtained and mummified. To find answers, a team examined the bird remains, sometimes by unwrapping selected mummies and sometimes by x-raying.

Mummy monkey-business?

The results showed some surprises. For, while most ibis mummies are complete specimens, those of the falcons are much more varied. Not only do they contain a wide variety of birds of prey, but in many cases these are incomplete – represented by a single feather or body part only! In some cases the falcon mummies are made up by pieces of ibis wrapped in falcon form. Clearly it was much more difficult to obtain falcons than ibises, as the latter were probably bred on the nearby Lake of Abusir.

However, whether the incomplete mummies were intended to deceive pilgrims, or whether it was sufficient to bury only a part of a sacred bird is an open question. We do, however, know that deceit was not beyond those who operated the cults of the ibis and falcon.

Thus, during Emery’s work he unearthed a series of potsherds bearing texts. These ostraca have come to be known as the ‘Archive of Hor’ after the priest who wrote them between about 172 and 162 BC and have since been translated by Professor John Ray. We know from these texts that the practice of putting the regulation ‘one god in one vessel’ had not been adhered to, and that pilgrims were presumably being charged for a vessel and mummy when in fact more than one mummy had been crammed into a single pot, or a pot buried empty!

Examination of the mummy jars both during Emery’s work and that of the 1990s, showed that often several birds were indeed placed in a single jar. Other abuses dealing with the food of the ibises are also recorded in the texts and one must wonder, against this background, about the practice of burying incomplete birds of prey. How such falcons were obtained is still a matter of research, some may have been found dead and brought to the temples, others may have been deliberately caught. The killing of a sacred animal may seem unlikely, but it is known from the cat cemetery that many had their necks broken, and we must imagine that not all the millions of ibises can have died of natural causes.

Catacomb catastrophe

As well as work on the temple terrace and in the Falcon Catacomb, we also returned to the North Ibis Catacomb. In the 1990s many metres of sand now covered the original entrance to the monument. However, my colleague Ken Fraser recalled that it was possible to enter via a rock-cut tomb on the north side of the escarpment, and this provided our entry. Once inside, we reeled at the condition of the catacomb.

A large area, the meeting point of several axial tunnels through the site, had clearly been a popular place for early travellers from at least the 18th century AD. At some point, it had been set on fire. The intense heat from the combustion of animal mummies, which are sometimes covered in highly flammable resin, had both fired areas of brickwork in situ, and de-hydrated bands of calcite running through the soft rock. As the calcite re-hydrated, it expanded and caused large areas of the roof and walls to collapse. Despite the perilous state of the monument, we were able to explore the site, making measurements of some of the vessels and supplementing Fraser’s original map. Given more time and better lighting than was available in 1971, we even located several unknown areas of the catacomb and so extended the plan.

Our exploration also revealed a new and formerly unknown burial rite. We found two galleries containing ibis birds buried without their usual pottery jars. In one of the galleries I saw the trail of footprints left by a tomb robber in the deposit of fragile mummies. I was clearly only the second person to enter this catacomb in modern times. Yet the material was a conundrum: what do these un-potted birds represent? Were they buried at some specific period of the monument’s use, perhaps near its beginning or end? Were they simply a cheaper form of mummification open to poorer pilgrims?

We know from the Archive of Hor that birds were buried annually en masse and presumably in only one gallery at a time. That being so, the un-potted birds might represent a lean period for the cult. It may, of course, simply be that we are placing too much reliance on textual evidence and the un-potted burials were simply not recorded in the surviving written evidence. What we do know is that these birds, just like some of the examples in pots, were wrapped in linen and then, it seems, coated with some kind of resin which has left them black and friable. Where the bandages have deteriorated, it is obvious that the parcels contain complete ibis birds.

While Emery’s work at Saqqara has almost been forgotten by the public, and though his quest for the tomb of Imhotep still remains unfulfilled, it is thanks to his early quest that we now have a much greater understanding of the animal cults at Saqqara.

Emery’s contribution, combined with our new work for the EES – from the dubious activities of the priests to the possible new rite of the Ibis cult – is casting new light on the workings of the animal cults and the secret lives of those who served them.


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 36. Click here to subscribe

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