Mummy of a cat (not from Beni Hasan).
Georg Ebers illustration from
Vol. 1, 1878.
CCBY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.
You have probably heard about how the ancient Egyptians venerated cats, so much so that probably millions of cats were mummified and buried in large cat cemeteries (more on this in a future post). Unfortunately, some of the 19th-century humans who discovered many of these cemeteries did not see the mummies as worthy of much respect, or even of much thought. Today’s post is about the strange case of the cat mummies of Beni Hasan.
An amazing find
In 1888, a farmer was plowing a field near Beni Hasan in central Egypt (about halfway between Cairo and Thebes) when he discovered something unusual. The unusual thing turned out to be a large cat cemetery, filled with the mummies of tens of thousands of cats. By one account, there were over 200,000 mummified animals, mostly cats but also mongooses, dogs, and foxes. By other accounts, there were 80,000, 100,000, or 300,000 animal mummies. The cemetery was associated with a temple of the lioness goddess Pakhet, who was a goddess of war and whose name, appropriately, means “She Who Scratches.”
An exciting archaeological find destined to provide researchers and an eager public with troves of information about ancient Egypt and the cat’s place there, no?
Well, not exactly (though the title of this post probably told you that).
Selling the "goods"
Instead, the cemetery was thoroughly plundered. An Egyptologist named William Martin Conway was able to visit the site and wrote about the ongoing plundering. The stench was enormous, he said, and the site became littered with bits of mummy cloth, bones, and fur. Children collected some of the more attractive mummies and sold them to tourists. Some of the bones were used as tooth powder.
But most of these mummies, at least 19 tons of them, were shipped to Liverpool, England, where they were ground up and sold as fertilizer. They fetched a price of four British pounds a ton, or nearly $11,000 total in today’s money (conversion by Historical Currency Conversions).
We have read in various places that some or one or none of the cat mummies from Beni Hasan ended up in either the British Museum or London’s Natural History Museum, but so far we have not been able to track down the truth.
Lamb, D.S. 1901. “Mummification, Especially of the Brain.” American Anthropologist 3 (2): 294–307.
Malek, Jaromir. 1993. The Cat in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press.
Tabor, Roger. 1991. Cats: The Rise of the Cat. London: BBC Books.
Wikipedia. “Cats in Ancient Egypt.”