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Tomb Full of Sacred Cats and Beetles Found in Egypt

The recently opened tomb in the Saqqara necropolis included gilded feline statues and extremely rare mummified scarab beetles

(Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)
smithsonian.com

As if there wasn’t enough evidence to show that ancient Egyptians are history’s most enthusiastic cat lovers, a feline frenzy was found inside a 4,500-year-old tomb recently discovered in the Saqqara necropolis on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities announced on Saturday.

Inside the tomb, archaeologists found dozens of mummified cats, 100 gilded wooden cat statues, and a bronze statue representing the goddess of cats, Bastet, reports Laurel Wamsley at NPR. While the cats are the crowd-pleasers from the haul, the real treasure found inside the tomb were mummified scarab beetles, also sacred to the ancient Egyptians, and a potentially untouched Fifth Dynasty tomb that archaeologists soon plan to open, reports Reuters.

Two large, meticulously mummified scarabs were found in a limestone sarcophagus and another held a larger collection of the beloved beetles. Additional finds include statues of a cow, falcon and lion, as well as sarcophagi with mummified cobras and crocodiles. There were also 1,000 ceramic amulets and jars full of writing utensils as well as several human burials.

“The (mummified) scarab is something really unique. It is something really a bit rare,” Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, tells Reuters. “A couple of days ago, when we discovered those coffins, they were sealed coffins with drawings of scarabs. I never heard about them before.”

The tomb is one in a series of seven tombs discovered over the last six months along the King Userkaf pyramid complex. According to a statement from the ministry, excavations in the area stopped in 2013, but recently began again. When excavating the tomb of the cats, archaeologists also found the door to another tomb, which appears to have been untouched by looters. They hope to explore that site in the coming weeks.

Ruth Shuster at Haaretz reports that King Userkaf is something of a mystery. A king in the Fifth Dynasty, which lasted 150 to 250 years, researchers don’t know who Userkaf’s parents were, who his queen was or even where his seat of power was located. Some sources say he was based on Elephantine Island in the Nile while others say he was based in Memphis, south of the Giza pyramids. It’s hoped the excavations may begin to reveal the pharaohs’ secrets.

As for the cats and beetles, even though they are sacred, it’s unlikely they lived the good life. Jacob Brogan at Smithsonian reports that Egyptians didn’t really worship cats. Instead, they associated them with certain deities. Cats and other animals were captured or bred so that they could be mummified and sold to worshippers who offered them as sacrifices or buried the with their dead. Rossella Lorenzi at Seeker reports that so many baboons and ibises were mummified for the trade it probably drove them to extinction in Egypt.

At the height of the kitty craze in ancient Egypt, millions of cats were mummified, especially kittens, which could more easily fit in small mummy containers. Cat mummies were so plentiful in Egypt that, in the 1800s, an English company bought a load of 180,000, pulverized them and spread them on farm fields as fertilizer. Exactly how these cats and other animals were bred and killed is not known. Dogs also didn't get off easy. In 2015, researchers found a site where 8 million dogs, mostly puppies, had been mummified and sold to worshipper of Anubis.

But not all animals were simply bred by ancient Egyptians on an industrial scale for slaughter. Joshua Mark at Ancient.eu reports many dogs were used for hunting and herding in Egypt, and most would have been named and been well cared for. In fact, it was believed that in the afterlife the deceased would find a version of their house and garden as well as their loved ones in the afterlife, including their favorite dog. And in 2016, archaeologists found a pet cemetery in Egypt that dates back to the first and second century. There, 86 cats, nine dogs and two monkeys were lovingly placed in the ground, some with nice decorative collars.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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