Tens of Thousands of Egyptian Mummies in English Soil? December 18, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Modern , trackback
For the hundreds of thousands of cats and kittens brought up for mummification in ancient Egypt life was brutal and short. Most lived six months to a year and then were either hammered on the head, or more typically had their necks wrung before being tightly bound and sold to the religious perhaps particularly pilgrims, who would then deposit the cats at a suitable shrine. Of course, there was a consolation to being sold (indirectly) to the gods: eventually, once your soul had returned into its body, you would be reborn into that wonderful divine land where the Nile was forever flooding, sending plagues of mice into outrstretched claws. That at least is what you could tell yourself as the thug with the ragged bandages lifted you up by the scruff of the neck…. But the afterlife that the cats of Beni-Hasan were to experience was not quite as idyllic as all that. No purring into the sunset… No ushabtis to fetch milk…
In 1888 an Egyptian farmer digging in the desert at Beni Hassan about a hundred miles from Cairo struck what one contemporary described as a ‘seam of cats’: by some accounts he fell into the hole, it must have been a rude awakening… This was a tunnel into which hundreds of thousands of mummified cats had been packed by pious ancient visitors seeking blessings from their divine masters. News soon spread and locals of all ages came in search of gold. And there were, in fact, occasional treasures: a life size bronze sarcophagus with a cat in; a statue of Osiris… However, for the most part there were cats upon cats upon cats. Not, you will understand, beloved cats, brought to maturity in a family and carefully mummified so Felix, say, could follow said family into the next world. These were, as suggested above, and amply demonstrated by x-rays and analyses of those mummies that have survived, battery cats, bred en masse and murdered when they were big enough to be impressively sold in bandages, then bought up causually by those who wanted to trade favours with Isis and Osiris.
Once the locals had realised that there was little bronze and gold and lots of cats they were forced to get entreprenurial. First, they sold cats to passers-by for ‘the smallest coin’. Then a local contractor brought the cats by the pound:
to make into something – soap, or tooth-powder, I dare say, or even paint. So men went systematically to work, peeled cat after cat of its wrappings, stripped off the brittle fur, and piled the bones in black heaps, a yard or more high, looking from the distance like a kind of rotting haycocks scattered on the sandy plain. The rags and other refuse, it appears, make excellent manure, and donkey loads of them were carried off to the fields to serve that useful, if unromantic, purpose.
The Egyptians have a history of making the best of what antiquity left them: mud-bricked houses, for example, are to this day mined as nitrogen fertiliser. The cats eventually enjoyed a similar fate both at home and, interestingly, abroad. ‘Some were quickly sold to local farmers, and the bigger lots found their way to an Alexandrian merchant – then by the steamers Pharos and Thebes to Liverpool.’
At Liverpool in the UK they were sold at auction for £3, 13 s. 9d a ton and ground up and spread over English fields: the auctioneer, in a questionable attempt at humour, used a Beni-Hasan cat skull as his auction hammer. A second auction was even more successful.
On Monday, at the saleroom of Msssrs. Gordon and Co., Rumford-street, Liverpool, a consignment of about nine tons of fragments of embalmed cats from the Beni-Hassan pit were offered for sale by Mr. J. Gordon. Owing to the announcement that had been made respecting the great antiquity of the mummy cats, which had been recently discovered in Egypt; a large number of merchants and brokers crowded the saleroom. There was very little amusement, the company being too much in the buying mood to allow time to be wasted. The auctioneers first disposed of the bones, which were eventually purchased Oy Messrs. Leventon and Co. at £5 17s. 6d. per ton. Messrs. Leventon, it will be remembered, are the holders of the first cargo that was imported from the same place.
There was also a brisk trade in cats skulls as souvenirs. Indeed, probably to this day on mantlepieces around the Mersey…. And Liverpool city museum got its grubby paws on a selection of complete mummies: were these the ones that ended up in the British museum?
Any other great cat stories: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com And for previous Beachcombing cat posts…
As so often Zenobia got here before us… If you want more science less manure go there.
19 Dec 2013: Bob S writes in with this classic letter to the Times (April 1935) that is a lesson to all ‘wrong place’ searchers everywhere. ‘Sir, with reference to Mr Martin’s letter in the Times of to-day, may I remark that it is not only the careless collector who has been responsible for enthusiasts of a later day enjoying the at least temporarily thrilling experience of a wonderful kind? There is the case of the arrow-heads observed upon a farmhouse mantelpiece in Scotland by an antiquary who, recognizing the type as something never before found in Northern Europe, questioned his host. The farmer replied that when ploughing he frequently turned up these strange specimens, a stament verified when the antiquary himself went into the fields with a spade. The exciting news was communicated to a learned society in London, and a party travelled specially to Scotland to make further investigations; possibly an entire recasting of the archaeology of the British Isles was averted when it came to light that a predecessor of the farmer had used as fertiliser serveral loads of broken mummy-cats, at one time exported from Egypt for this purpose. With the mummy gragments had come the arrow-heads. It was in Scotland, too, that a New Zealand mere (greenstone axe) was once found; and one of the fine carved celts from the island of Santo Domingo was some years ago uneathed in the Ardennes. Yours faithfully. T.AJ. April 26. Thanks Bob!
20 Dec: Bob has gone one better and supplied Beach with this small pdf collecting together all references to. Let’s hear it for Bob! [12 page pdf] egyptian cats