An Ancient Egyptian Mummified Cat

Italian scientists have conducted a radiological examination of a mummified cat.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

In Ancient Egypt, cats were revered. It is thought that cats were first domesticated in Egypt about 10,000 years ago. The first mummified cats were buried with their owners. Over time customs changed, and mummified cats were made as offerings to the feline goddess, Bastet. From 332BC to 30BC, cats were bred specifically to be used as offerings, and cat mummies were available at different price points, ranging from ones containing a few bones, to more elaborate mummies containing the entire cat.

Engraving of a cat on the outer walls of an ancient temple at Edfu
Engraving of a cat on the outer walls of an ancient temple at Edfu, Egypt
Photo: BasPhoto / Shutterstock

A team of Italian scientists led by Giacomo Gnudi at the University of Parma, in Italy, recently performed a radiological examination of a cat mummy. The mummy is part of the University’s Ancient Egyptian collection, and was bought in the 19th century. Apparently cat mummies were so abundant at this time that 180,000 were shipped to Liverpool in the UK to be turned into fertilizer.

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The wrappings were decorated with geometric patterns and with depictions of eyes in black ink. The mummy was found to have the entire skeleton of a cat, with open growth plates on the bones suggesting that it was between 4-6 months old. This means it was probably bred specifically to be used as a mummy. A bone had been broken so that the tail could be positioned close to the body. The cat was in a sitting position, and the chest had also been compressed. This meant the body took up as small a space as possible. It is likely that a substance called natron was applied to promote the drying out process, and then the cat was put into a seating position; the compression of the chest could have been caused by the bandages. 

There was also a hole in the skull and partial dislocation of some of the skull bones. It is not known if this resulted from the way the cat was killed, or if it was part of the mummification process. 

The radiological examination showed that this is an important artefact, since it is of a full cat in elaborate wrappings. The mummy was an offering to Bastet.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:
The British Museum Highlights Mummy of a Cat
Gnudi, G., Volta, A., Manfredi, S., Ferri, F., & Conversi, R. (2012). Radiological investigation of an over 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummy of a cat Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 14 (4), 292-294 DOI: 10.1177/1098612X11432237

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