Mummified cat

What is it?

This small wooden coffin contains the mummified remains of a cat and dates to the Ptolemaic period of Ancient Egypt, c.305-30 BC. Animals were highly honoured throughout Egyptian history. They were often associated with gods, and therefore their mummies had strong religious significance. Four types of animal mummies are known: pets buried with, or close by, their owners; cult animals believed to be living avatars of gods; animals mummified to be used as food for the deceased; and votive offerings. Votive mummies were made to be donated to the god closely associated with that particular animal. This cat mummy is a votive offering for Bastet, the goddess of war, who is often depicted in feline form.

IMAGE: Manchester Museum, the University of Manchester

Where was it found and when?

Votive offerings were most popular between about 800 BC and AD 400. A number of underground catacomb complexes dedicated to these offerings have been discovered around Egypt, and this cat comes from one of the best known – Saqqara, which is 30km south of modern Cairo. Discoveries of animal burials at Saqqara were first recorded during the Napoleonic campaigns. There are human burials alongside those of the sacred Apis bulls, and galleries dedicated to dogs, falcons, baboons, ibis, and cats; it is known as the Sacred Animal Necropolis. This particular cat mummy was discovered during excavations by the British archaeologist, Cecil Firth, in the late 1920s, before being shipped to Manchester soon after.

Why does it matter?

Pilgrims visiting the site at Saqqara were able to purchase animal mummies for dedication. Animals were rarely worshipped themselves, but they were seen as devotional vessels in which a god could reside. This cat mummy, through its connection with the goddess-warrior Bastet, symbolised strength and power. Mummies were more affordable than other votive offerings, such as bronzes, so would have been a more accessible form of devotion, not restricted to the elite of society. These animal cults were state-organised religions, and so received financial backing, thereby uniting ordinary people of Egypt, especially during times of civil unrest.

This mummy is one of 800 animal mummies studied using radiography – digital X-rays and CT scanning – by researchers at the University of Manchester. Such modern scientific techniques enable us to see inside without damaging the exterior – revealing the contents for the first time in more than 2,000 years. 

The cat’s wooden coffin comprises two matching halves joined by wooden dowels. Traces of paint are still visible, evidence that the coffin was once brightly coloured. It is even possible to make out the faint lines of the cat’s face and tail. X-ray revealed a complete mummy containing the remains of a cat in the standard ‘skittle’ shape – legs folded in and the tail between the legs.

Some of the mummies were found not to contain any animal skeletal material, but were filled with other remains, such as mud, reeds, sand, egg shells, and feathers. Researchers from the University of Manchester believe that these mummies are just as important as the ones containing whole animals, because the Ancient Egyptians believed that the material was sacred through association with the animals or the sacred space of the temple, and as such it could be mummified.

The coffin and mummy will go on display in the exhibition Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt, which opens at Manchester Museum in October 2015, then travels to Kelvingrove in May 2016 and Liverpool in October 2016.