Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Million Mummified Cats

There was an occasion early in Belzoni's career in Egypt when a local wanted to sell him some falcon mummies.  Several sealed clay jars were produced.  Belzoni observed that the jars looked exactly like the kind still in use locally, and opined that perhaps these were not genuine ancient artifacts.

Incensed, the artifact merchant smashed the jars to the ground.  Within there were indeed mummified birds, now much the worse for the experience.  From the casual destruction shown in this incident one might reasonably conclude that there is no shortage of mummified critters in Egypt.

Belzoni learned this himself when he later found a cache of animal mummies while excavating in the Valley of the Kings:

"There were bulls, cows, sheep, monkeys, foxes, bats, crocodiles, fishes, and birds, in them: idols often occur; and one tomb was filled with nothing but cats, carefully folded in red and white linen, the head covered with a mask representing the cat and made of the same linen."

This was probably a collection of animals designated as pets in the afterlives of upper caste Egyptians, but there were also large numbers of animals mummified as offerings.  This tradition was most prominent in late Pharonic times and into the Ptolemeic/Roman era. 

Very large accumulations of these votive mummifications were found at Saqqara .  There are entire galleries devoted to specific types of mummies-baboons, falcons, and half a million ibis mummies!

The numbers of animals mummies discovered are impressive.  Four million ibis burials at Tune el-Gebel.  Eight million  Dogs packed into tunnels at Saqqara. 

And of cats, too many to count.  There is in fact a persisting story that tons of mummified cats were excavated in the late 19th century, shipped to England and ground up for fertilizer!  With a story simultaneously this detailed and this implausible I was quite prepared to track it down only to find that someone has already done so.  This last link by the way comes from a blog usually devoted to obscure 19th century literature, showing an admirable Catholicism of interests that hearkens back to the many self taught Egyptologists of that century.

Most of these animal mummies were mass produced in a sort of factory system that combined, in essence, puppy and kitten mills, cheap mummification, storage on site until an annual mass interment, and one assumes a fair amount of "smells and bells" ceremony to mark the occasion.  The priests involved in this, to be entirely frank, business, had shifty ethics such that burials of expensive critters like baboons often contain lesser animals, while the cheap stuff like cats and ibises often contained only parts of same.

Clearly animal life was not given great reverence in later Egypt.  Things had slipped considerably since Herodotus reported on the practices associated with the death of pets in Egypt:

"All the inhabitants of a house where a cat has died a natural death, shave their eyebrows, and when a dog dies they shave the whole body including the head."

But of course the mass production of puppies and kittens-done in most unnaturally at a few days of age-might not qualify for the laudable degree of mourning he was referring to.

With so darned many mummified animals under the sands of Egypt there is neither means nor need to excavate and conserve them all.  Most will have to just stay put.  For more info and pictures on animal mummies, as well as a link to "adopting" one of your own to be conserved, go here .

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