A labyrinth of sacred tunnels packed with the mummified remains of millions of dogs has been excavated under the Egyptian desert.
The catacombs are estimated to contain the remains up to eight million dogs, many of which would have been offered to the gods when they were just hours old.
Others would have been treated as living representatives of the dog or jackal-headed god Anubis and would have lived out their lives in the nearby temple before being preserved and laid to rest in the network of tunnels.
The fascinating details come from Cardiff University scientists, who along with Egyptian colleagues are the first to examine the structure and contents of the complex underground network built 2,500 years ago under the Saqqara desert.
The catacomb, which lies ten to 12metres underground, consists of a long central corridor and a series of smaller passages that branch off it.
Sampling of small areas and bone examination of their contents suggest that the entire network is home to eight million dogs, as well as a handful of cats and jackals.
Some of the dogs were killed and mummified just days or even hours after birth.
With the need to mummify so many animals, perhaps thousands per year, it is likely the animals were bred in puppy farms dotted around the ancient capital of Memphis.
Pilgrims, who were not necessarily particularly well-off, bought the dogs, then paid for them to be mummified, in the hope of currying favour with the canine-headed god, Anubis.
As one of the most important gods of the dead, Anubis was particularly worth pleasing.
Dr Paul Nicholson, of Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion, said: ‘These animals were not strictly “sacrificial”.
|Remains: One of eight million dogs archaeologists believe are buried in a labyrinth of sacred tunnels under the Egyptian desert|
The excavation, which was funded by National Geographic, also revealed that some dogs were interred individually, in niches in the tunnel walls.
It is thought the animals afforded this sort of burial lived in the temples where they were treated as living embodiments of Anubis.
While Dr Nicholson’s team are the first to examine the tunnels in detail, they are not the first to discover them, with geological work pointing to the tunnels being raided in the 1900s.
It is thought that a small tunnel was built to remove animal mummies which were then likely ground up and sold as fertiliser.
|Professor Salima Ikram examines one set of remains. The entire network of catacombs is also home to a handful of cats and jackals|
The dog catacomb is the larger of two in the area. The Saqqara desert also contains catacombs dedicated to bulls, cows, baboons, ibises, hawks and cats.
It is thought the practice died out after the Romans conquered Egypt in 30BC.
|Hidden mysteries: Cardiff University scientists and their Egyptian colleagues are the first to examine the structure and contents of the complex underground network built 2,500 years ago under the Saqqara desert|