Hello! I’m Anna O’Neill, a summer intern working in the Conservation Department at the Penn Museum. I’m currently studying to get my MSc in Conservation Practice from Cardiff University in Wales. This summer, I’ve been helping Molly in the Artifact Lab a few days a week and she asked me to write a little bit about one of my projects.
The Egyptians often made votive animal mummies—small, mass-produced animal mummies that pilgrims could offer to the gods. Cats were especially popular as they represented Bastet, the cat-headed goddess of protection, fertility and motherhood. The Penn Museum has several cat mummies in their collection. A few are below:
We recently started working on E16205, a cat mummy from Abydos (seen below in the image on the left). It was excavated in 1901-02 through the Egypt Exploration Fund through financial support of the Penn Museum, and dates to ca. 381-343 BCE. The linen wrappings are in bad shape—loose, torn and powdery—but that is the least of its problems. After a light cleaning, it became clear that something was missing.
As you can see in the image on the upper right, the linen is damaged and there is a bone exposed at one end of the cat mummy. Zooarchaeologist and Penn professor Dr. Kate Moore confirmed that it’s a cervical vertebra visible at the narrower end of the wrappings.
Animal mummies occasionally lose their heads, as the neck is the weakest point of attachment to the body. Back in March, Molly wrote about our falcon mummy’s floppy head.
In the hope that maybe the head had simply been misplaced, we sent an email to Egyptian Section curator Jen Wegner. A few hours later, Jen turned up in the Artifact lab, smiling and toting a small, tissue-wrapped package. Inside was this little beauty:
It is evident that this head does not match our cat mummy’s body. The colors and weaves of the linen are different, and the head has carefully articulated features while the body is rather haphazardly wrapped. But the main difference is that there doesn’t appear to be any cat parts within the sculpted wrappings! Inside, the mask contains bundles of linen and resin, but no bones that we could see. A quick look at the records for the head showed that it was X-radiographed in the 1980s and contains “no bony skull”. It is a fake—but an ancient one!
Faking mummies, particularly animal mummies, was not uncommon in ancient Egypt. The materials to make a mummy, like myrrh and natron, were costly. Instead of embalming, the expense could go towards elaborate wrapping and detailing. Once the linen was in place, a religious pilgrim wouldn’t know whether or not there was an actual mummy inside. Several other Penn Museum animal mummies were X-radiographed along with the false head, and it turned out that the middle cat mummy in the image at the very top of this post doesn’t contain any skeletal matter, either. A clue is in the shape of its body—it is wide at the top and narrow at the feet, upside-down in comparison to the real cats.
So, were the mummy-makers pulling the, ahem, linen, over devotees’ eyes? It is unclear whether the pilgrims knew that the votive mummies they offered to the gods were impostors, and nor do we know if it mattered. The qualities represented by the animal sacrificed may have been more important than its physical body. This way, a fake mummy representing the “idea” of a cat was an equally valid gift as the mummy of a real cat.
We’re disappointed that we can’t reunite our cat mummy body with its head, but Molly and I are going to work to stabilize the wrappings so that it can be CT-scanned and studied. In the meantime, it’s been interesting to see which of the Penn Museum’s votive mummies are real and which are (ancient) fakes.