Discoveries at Saqqara

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 26 Nov 2019

Rare discoveries at the Saqqara Necropolis including mummified lion cubs and statuettes of crocodiles, cobras, mongooses, and dozens of cats shed light on the ancient Egyptian use of animals in worship, reports Nevine El-Aref

Discoveries at Saqqara
Faience ushabti (photos: Ahmed Romeih)

The Saqqara Necropolis continues to reveal its secrets, as two mummified lion cubs and a large collection of mummified animals along with the statuettes of dozens of cats, falcons, mongooses and scarabs have been recently unearthed there by archaeologists.

Discoveries at Saqqara
god Neith

The discoveries were made in the sacred animals necropolis at Saqqara by an Egyptian archaeological mission led by Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), who described the finds as “rare”. They were found in the same location where last year the mission unearthed dozens of mummified cats, scarab beetles, cobras and crocodiles, along with the exceptionally well-preserved tomb of the Fifth-Dynasty priest Wahtye.

Discoveries at Saqqara
statues of cats

The newly discovered objects include a large collection of 75 wooden and bronze cat statues of different shapes and sizes, most of them painted and decorated and some inlaid with gold. A group of mummified cats found inside 25 wooden boxes with lids decorated with hieroglyphic texts and wooden statues of animals and birds including the Apis bull, the mongoose, the Ibis, the falcon and the ancient Egyptian god Anubis in animal form, were also unearthed. 

Discoveries at Saqqara

A large scarab 30cm in diameter carved in stone, two small scarabs made of wood and sandstone, and three statues of crocodiles inside which were found the remains of the mummies of smaller crocodile were also found.

A collection belonging to ancient Egyptian deities was unearthed, including 73 bronze statuettes depicting the god Osiris, six wooden statues of the god Ptah-Soker, 11 wooden and faience statues of the lioness god Sekhmet, and a beautifully carved statue of the goddess Neith wearing the crown of Lower Egypt.

Discoveries at Saqqara
El-Enany with ambassadors admiring the newly discovered artefacts

A relief bearing the name of king Psamtik I was discovered, along with a collection of statues of cobras, amulets, faience amulets of different shapes and sizes, and wooden and clay masks of mummies, together with a collection of papyri decorated with drawings showing the goddess Tawert.

“We have found hundreds of objects,” Antiquities Minister Khaled El-Enany told reporters at a press conference held at the site on Saturday, where the uncovered artefacts were showcased at an event attended by many foreign and Arab ambassadors and Egyptian MPs.

El-Enany described the discovery as “a museum in and of itself. The objects are very interesting from an Egyptological point of view, and they enable us to know more about this ancient Egyptian necropolis.”

Discoveries at Saqqara
painted mummy mask

The small bronze statue of the goddess Neith is one masterpiece of the discoveries, and it has helped Egyptologists to determine the exact dating of the objects, El-Enany said, explaining that Neith was the goddess of the city of Sais, the capital of Egypt during the 26th Dynasty in the seventh century BCE, regarded as a renaissance era in ancient Egypt.

Among the objects unearthed are five mummies of big cats, two of which seem to be lion cubs. “Studies and X-rays carried out on these two mummies show that they belong to eight-month-old lion cubs, according to the length and shape of their bones, but more studies will be carried out to be 100 per cent sure of the results,” El-Enany said.

He added that the other three mummies of big cats would also be subjected to X-rays to determine their species. Around 10 years ago, he said, French archaeologist Alain Zivie had found a lion skeleton at Saqqara but not a mummy.


ANIMAL MUMMIES: Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo and an expert on the mummies of animals, carried out the X-ray analysis along with archaeologist Richard Gel.

She described the discoveries as among the most exciting in the world of animal mummies. Unlike mummified cats, which are frequently found by archaeologists, the discovery of intact lions was rare, she said.

 “People in ancient Egypt would make devotional offerings in the form of animals as mummies. This would have more potency as a blood sacrifice, compared to stone or wooden images,” Ikram commented in an interview with the UK Guardian newspaper.

“It is quite possible that as the Saqqara excavation continues more lion mummies will come to light,” she said. “Classical writers spoke of lions [being] mummified in Egypt, and some scholars, including myself, have been looking for a cemetery of lions,” Ikram told the US magazine National Geographic.

The only difference in mummifying a lion, compared to other animals, is that organ removal would be smellier since lions are carnivores, she said. She added that the significance of the finds was “extremely important” as they would give researchers new insights into how lions were captured in ancient Egypt and whether they were bred or traded.

Waziri said that the large scarab was one of the most significant discoveries. “It is one of a kind in the whole world,” he asserted, adding that the lions were fairly small, about 95cm tall, a fact suggesting that they were not fully grown when they died.

The three other mummies that belong to large cats, whose exact species is unclear, were found neighbouring the two lions, and they may be leopards, cheetahs or wild big cats.

About 20 mummies of smaller cats were also found, and the excavation work will continue with a view to revealing more secrets of the sacred animals at the Saqqara Necropolis which has recently witnessed major discoveries. An Egyptian archaeological mission uncovered the exceptionally well-preserved tomb belonging to a Fifth-Dynasty priest at Saqqara named Wahtye, for example.

The tomb has painted walls decorated with colourful scenes depicting the owner of the tomb with his mother, wife, and family members, as well as a number of niches with large coloured statues of the deceased and his family. Scenes depicting the fabrication of pottery and wine, making religious offerings, musical performances, boats sailing, the manufacturing of funerary furniture, and hunting, are also shown.

Inside the tomb there are 18 niches displaying 24 large coloured statues carved in rock and depicting the owner of the tomb and his family. The lower part of the tomb contains 26 small niches with 31 statues of an unidentified person standing or in the seated scribal position.

The same Egyptian mission previously unearthed the first-ever scarab mummies found in the Necropolis, with two large mummies of scarabs found inside a rectangular limestone sarcophagus with a vaulted lid decorated with three scarabs painted in black.

Dozens of cat mummies were also unearthed, along with 100 wooden statues of cats and a bronze statue dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet. A collection of wooden gilded statues depicting the physical features of a lion, a cow, and a falcon was also unearthed.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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