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Did Egyptian mummification lead to the domestic cat?

17 February 2005

Ancient Egyptian animal mummies at the Natural History Museum are used to investigate the processes of domestication in cats and cattle.

Naturally mummified cat.

Naturally mummified cat.

Through studying animal mummies, scientists and archaeologists have learnt more about the importance of animals in ancient Egyptian society. The identification of some animals can clarify the relationship between certain gods and the mummies offered to them.

‘The mummified specimens are so well preserved,' said Richard Sabin, Museum mammal expert, 'that we've been able to study the skeletons to make close comparisons with the modern wild and domestic animal specimens held in our research collections.’

Mummified cat.

Mummified cat.

The collection includes the African subspecies of wild cat Felis silvestris and also the markedly larger predecessor to the modern domestic cat.

Sabin explains ‘we're looking at a point in time that is very close to the origin of the domestic cat. It adds to the body of evidence and to the theory that cats were being bred for the mummification process.’

Animal Mummies of Ancient Egypt

The Animal Mummies of Ancient Egypt exhibition displays a unique range of animal mummies for the first time in the UK, including cats, a baboon, a crocodile and birds of prey.

Visitors get the chance to peer inside the mummies with the help of X-rays. There are also examples of natural mummification, when the body dries before it decomposes.

Bandages from a calf mummy.

Bandages from a calf mummy.

Spectacular examples include a cat buried under the grounds of the Duke of Bedford's house in Woburn Abbey. The cat is thought to be approximately 300 years old and had been buried in an air-tight brick-lined cavity.

Extremely low levels of humidity and virtual absence of bacterial action had helped to preserve it. The Duke of Bedford's cat is on show for the first time at the exhibition.

Animal Mummies of Ancient Egypt is on 14 February to 3 July 2005 at the Natural History Museum at Tring

Further Information