Ancient Egyptians Bred Kittens Specifically for Mummification Say Researchers

Posted on April 12, 2012

A radiographical study of a cat mummy from the Egyptian collection of the National Archaeological Museum in Parma, Italy was carried out in order to evaluate the content and to describe how cats were wrapped and mummified. The cat mummy scanned was a 4 to 5 month old kitten. Researchers say that from about 332 BC to 30 BC in Egypt, cats were raised near temples specifically to be mummified. People would then buy the mummies to use as offerings to the goddess Bastet.

The National Museum of Parma, Italy bought the mummy in the 18th century from an antiquarian. It is considered a high-quality archaeological artifact, because the body inside the mummy was complete, wrapped intricately and decorated with geometrical patterns and depicted eyes. The researchers says the tightly packed cat was probably treated with natron, a naturally-occurring mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate, sodium bicarbonate, and small amounts of salt, sodium sulphate and herbs used to dehydrate the body, just like with human mummies.

Here is part of the description of the cat mummy skeleton from the researchers:

"The mummy contained the complete skeleton of a 4-5-month-old cat. Radiology revealed the position of the cat's body; it was wrapped to occupy the smallest space possible. In order to better position the cat, the ribs of the thorax were compressed cranio-caudally and the fore limbs were then positioned very close to the thorax. The hind limbs were flexed close to the lumbar spine and the tibio-tarsal joints were subluxated to allow the repositioning of the tarsal, metatarsal and phalanx bones cranio-caudally near the tibiae. A coccygeal vertebra was fractured in order to reposition the tail as close as possible to the body."

The researchers also found a hole-like fracture in the occipital region of the mummified cat's skull. This may have been used for draining the skull contents as part of the mummification process.

Giacomo Gnudi, a veterinary professor at the University of Parma, and lead author of the study says, "The fact that the cat was young suggests that it was one of those bred specifically for mummification."

There were mummified cats buried with their owners during Ancient Egypt, but the researchers say this was "almost certainly" not one of those cats. They believe it is one of the many young cat mummies produced and sold in Ancient Egypt (332 BC to 32 BC) to those who venerated the goddess Bastet. The researchers say this was a popular tradition during this time period.

The research is published here in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery

More from Science Space & Robots