Ancient Egypt is closely associated in the popular imagination with cats, and cat statuettes, coffins and mummies are common highlights of museum collections around the world. The reason they proliferate is because these images of the goddess Bastet were considered appropriate gifts to give to her.
Recently, archive research by volunteers at Manchester Museum enabled one particular example, previously without sure archaeological provenance, to be contextualised in time for our ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’ exhibition.
At last year’s CIPEG (International Egyptology Committee of ICOM) conference in Copenhagen, I saw an archive photograph currently held in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. It showed the archaeologist Cecil Firth (1878-1931) at the site of Saqqara, surrounded but recently-excavated cat bronzes and coffins. I immediately recognised an example on the left of the image as one now in Manchester Museum (Acc. no. 9303), with occupant still intact. It turned out that this impressive example had been donated by Thomas Alfred Coward (1867-1933), an ornithologist and Acting Keeper of the Manchester Museum during the First World War.
A letter survives in our correspondence archive from Coward, dated 27th October 1921, to the English excavator and Egyptologist James Quibell. In it, Coward expresses delight at the quality of the specimen he has received and jokes that the Assistant Keeper in charge of archaeology, Miss Winifred Crompton, had a particular liking for the piece:
The long expected lot has arrived. It is a beauty, and I want to thank you very much for selecting it. I had not seen one in a case before. The one by post, of course, came long ago, but this one seems to have taken its time!
As I believe you got it from a dealer, you may have no idea where it was found, but can you give me any approximate period or date for it?
I had to see Miss Crompton put it in a Tac case, or I think she would have taken it home to see if she could make it purr.
A brief note pencilled by Quibell in reply on the reverse of the same letter affirms that the cat coffin in fact came from the excavations conducted by Cecil Firth at Saqqara. This chance find in our archive, scanned and transcribed by volunteers, confirms the cat’s provenance. Coward’s interest in the piece is likely to have been zoological, so it is remarkable that the coffin remained intact. The coffin has now been CT-scanned and radiographed, and is the subject of an innovative haptic interface to enable blind and visually-impaired people. Research by the Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank is enhanced by such sure cases of archaeological provenance, enabling conclusions to be drawn about mummification and bandaging techniques in certain locations at certain times.
Our current exhibition ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies revealed’ is open until April 17th 2016, and can thereafter be see in Glasgow and Liverpool.