Cat Imposter: Guess what x-rays reveal about our feline mummy ‘fake-out’

In Cairo, I’m out of touch with what’s shown on TV, but I always know when something about Egypt has been broadcast. On slow news days, Facebook, Twitter, and my work email all light up with inquiries.

In May, there was a mini-boom in Egyptian interest following a BBC programme  on animal mummies. The headlines promised to reveal an ancient ‘scandal’ – who wouldn’t be intrigued by this?

Mummified animals – most typically cats and small birds with beautifully patterned and decorated wrappings sometimes buried in wooden or metal containers – are some of the most recognizably ‘ancient Egyptian’ objects in museums. They encapsulate two of the biggest modern clichés of ancient Egyptian culture: the Egyptians’ love of death, and their weird animal-headed gods. Add to this the fact that a lot of them are small enough to transport easily. No wonder most museums have them on display. And we’re no exception at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Cat mummy3

Animal mummies, statues, and containers, Hall of Ancient Egypt, HMNS.

The ‘scandal’ the BBC referred to was that only a third of the animal mummies studied and scanned by a research project contained the ‘right’ remains at all, with exterior wrapping and interior contents matching up. Another third contained partial remains – body fragments rather than a single intact body – and the last third contained nothing at all inside.

While the study cited is the most recent, and one of the most thorough, investigations into animal mummies, its results are no great surprise. Researchers have long known that the insides of animal mummies can be surprising. Prof. Salima Ikram, touched on this at a recent lecture at HMNS, and an updated edition of her book on the topic is coming out later this summer.

There are some other things that one could say about the ‘scandal’ of the empty mummies, but now I’ve got a question to ask: what’s inside our funny mummy?

Cat mummy 1

Photo Courtesy Michael C. Carlos Museum

We received this cat mummy on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. On the ouside, it’s a fair example of the medium size of cat mummies – which tend to come in small, medium, and large – and has an unusual piece of blue-bordered linen among its wrappings (and a rather disappointed look painted on its face). So far, so good.

When the mummy was x-rayed, however, it became clear that the tidy outside wasn’t matched by a tidy inside. Rather than a cat skeleton, you can see that there’s a large broken bone at the bottom end, and a mass of something at the ‘top’ end.

cat x ray

© Emory University Hospital, courtesy of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University

We’ve got our own ideas about what made up the ‘cat’, but before we reveal them we’d like to open it up and crowd source some identifications. What’s your best guess? Let us know what you think the cat mummy was actually made of and enter it into the comments below.

Editor’s note: Tweet your guess to HMNS or post below, and we’ll mention the winner in Tom’s next blog.

Egyptian Nefertiti replica ends in a bust: ‘Ugly’ statue brews social media storm

A mini controversy has just broken out in social media about a rather ugly new rendering of the famous Nefertiti bust. The original bust, currently on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin, is one of the most iconic pieces of Egyptian art, recognized as easily as King Tut’s gold mask. It was not a surprise, therefore, that Egyptian authorities recently decided to erect a larger-than-life replica of the same bust at the entrance to the city of Samalut, to honor her memory.

This effort ended in – pardon the pun – a bust in its own right. The image, which only bears a very superficial resemblance to the original, has caused a storm in Egyptian social media, attracting worldwide attention. While the original bust is very well known, the story of its discovery is perhaps less well known. Nefertiti’s bust was discovered in the ruined workshop of the sculptor Thutmose on December 6, 1912 by a German archaeological team.

Bust being handed over to German archaeologist

Presentation of the Nefertiti bust shortly after discovery in 1912. (Left to right: Hermann Ranke, Paul Hollander and Mohammed es-Senussi)

Although the bust is uninscribed, Ludwig Borchardt, the dig director, immediately realized who was represented: the tall blue crown with uraeus serpent must belong to the queen. “No use describing it, you have to see it” he wrote.


Handwritten note by Ludwig Borchardt on the discovery of the bust. Aside from a quick sketch, it contains the remark “No use describing it, you have to see it.”

The Egyptian government gave the bust, and other finds, to the German expedition at the end of the season, according to a custom of the time, known as “partage.” It was not until ten years later, after World War I, that the bust was put on display in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The reaction was immediate: Nefertiti became an icon and the Egyptian government demanded her return, claiming that she had been allowed to leave the country by subterfuge. The matter remains unresolved to this day, and Nefertiti has survived two world wars in Berlin.

Nefertiti was the principal wife of the New Kingdom pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1350 – 1335 BC). Akhenaten tried to revolutionize Egypt, outlawing the worship of a host of gods, headed by Amun, the king of the gods. In their place he proposed the worship of the Aten, the sun-disc that gave life to the world. He moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a virgin site 250 miles to the north. This new capital he called Akhetaten (“horizon of the sun disc”), the modern site of Tell el-Amarna. Akhenaten’s changes did not find favor, and after his death the site was abandoned by his successor – the more familiar Tutankhamun – as the capital moved back to Thebes. Amun had restored the status quo.

A new religion required a new artistic style to express itself. Set against earlier Egyptian objects, Amarna art can appear more naturalistic, softer and more intimate. Images of Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and their six daughters were the icons of this new creed, and Amarna was filled with sculptor’s workshops producing decoration for the city. The bust of Nefertiti, with its unusual shape, was probably a model used to define and standardize images of the queen.

The latest update on the “controversy” tells us that the Samalut bust is to be replaced with a statue of a peace dove. So all is well that ends well.

The original bust continues to attract huge throngs of tourists in Berlin. A museum quality replica of the same bust, manufactured by highly talented artists at the Neues Museum, has been on display in the Hall of Ancient Egypt at the Houston Museum of Natural Science since 2013. She looks forward to seeing you there.


Her Majesty awaits your visit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Discover new secrets of ancient Egypt with guest lecturers

This week, more than 400 folks interested in all things ancient Egyptian are making their way to Houston for the 66th Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt. Running from April 24 to 26, this is the first year the conference is being held in Houston, and perhaps it has something to do with the beautiful new Hall of Ancient Egypt at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

HMNS is excited to host a public three-part lecture featuring leading Egyptologists Dr. Salima Ikram, Dr. Josef Wegner, and Dr. Kara Cooney, who are in town for the ARCE conference. At the museum, each expert will give an update on his or her latest research project.-o6cwMJsxKVXL0Xx6UZa2Dl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVvK0kTmF0xjctABnaLJIm9

You don’t have to be an academic to attend the lecture, or to register for the meeting. ARCE welcomes all fans of ancient Egypt, novice to authority. The lecture will be held Wednesday, April 22 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 to the public and $12 for HMNS members.

Online registration for the ARCE meeting is now closed, but on-site registration at the DoubleTree Hilton Downtown Hotel will remain open from April 24 through the end of the conference.

Read on for more details about HMNS’s guest Egyptologists.


Divine Creatures, Animal Mummies Providing Clues to Culture, Economy and Science f3638a_3053bb27e037f77cbc56ea0f4b110a8c.jpeg_srz_305_260_85_22_0.50_1.20_0
by Salima Ikram, Ph.D., American University in Cairo

Animal mummies were amongst the least studied of Egypt’s treasures. Now scholars are using them to learn about ancient Egyptian religion, economy, veterinary science and environmental change. The world’s leading expert on animal mummies and founder of the Animal Mummy project at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Dr. Salima Ikram, will present the different kinds of animal mummies and explain what we can learn from them.




Secrets of the Mountain-of-Anubis, A Royal Necropolis Joe_Egypt
by Josef Wegner, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

The ongoing Penn Museum excavations has recently identified a royal necropolis at Abydos. A series of royal tombs located beneath a sacred desert peak, the Mountain-of-Anubis, belong to over a dozen pharaohs include Senwosret III and the recently identified king Senebkay. Dr. Josef Wegner will review the latest findings from the necropolis that spans Egypt’s late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1850-1550 BCE).




21st Dynasty Coffins Project, Recycled Coffins Offer the Socioeconomic InsightKara_Cooney_examines_Egyptian_coffin_
by Kathlyn (Kara) Cooney, Ph.D., UCLA

Dr. Kara Cooney will give an overview of the 21st Dynasty Coffins Project which studies the amount of “borrowing,” or reuse, a given coffin displays during this period of turmoil and material scarcity and seeks to contribute to the understanding of socioeconomics in ancient Egypt. Equipped with high definition cameras and working in cooperation with museums and institutions in Europe and the United States, Cooney takes her research team to investigate, document and study coffin reuse in the Third Intermediate Period. The data acquired will be compiled into a comprehensive database available to Egyptologists everywhere.

All Tied Up – A New Addition to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS

Over the last couple of weeks, eagle-eyed visitors to the Hall of Ancient Egypt may have noticed that things look somehow different. If it’s not any bigger than before, the Hall is certainly better stocked than before – we have added something in the region of sixty new objects to the displays. Most of these come from the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, and join a number of pieces they have already loaned us.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting some of these new objects, and talking about why they’re special and what getting them on display involved – some of them have been specially conserved for display.

The first piece, which you can see in our case on war and weaponry


does not look typically Egyptian at first glance. A hand-modelled clay figure shows what looks to be a naked woman. Her head is shaved except for four plaits. Her long legs taper away into an abstracted point, rather than feet, but otherwise she looks cheerful enough. Turn her round, though, and it’s a different story.


Her hands are tied behind her back, making her a helpless prisoner.

Figures of naked women, made of fired, red-slipped clay (like ours),

‘Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, UC59288’

‘Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, UC59288 (



Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, UC59284, rear view

Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, UC59284, rear view (


Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, UC16148’

Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, UC16148 (

or glazed faience,

Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL, UC16725

Courtesy The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL,  UC16725 (

were made in large numbers in the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period of Egyptian history (about 2040 – 1570 BC). Like our piece, they often have shaven heads with plaits, schematic faces, and stumpy or missing feet. Earlier scholars had fun calling them ‘concubines of the dead’, assuming that they were provided to keep the male tomb owner company in the afterlife.

Present interpretations are less single minded. We now call them ‘fertility figures’, and identify them as generic images of women used (by men, women, and children) in rituals and as conduits of prayers associated with birth and re-birth. Magic and medicine were linked together in Egypt, and figurines like these could have been used in healing rites, magically becoming the goddesses needed to fight illnesses. Our figure could be one of these ‘fertility figures’, but what about her bound hands? Is this a case of Fifty Shades of Terracotta?

It’s more likely that our figure is not connected with fertility but hostility. She is a captive, and as such joins a rarer group of objects. Almost all of these are made of fired clay, and depict figures with hands pinioned like our figure. One figure is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge UK, but the largest group is in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Credit ‘Courtesy E. Waraksa

Courtesy E. Waraksa

Like the fertility figures, these images also had magical associations, although presumably of a rather different sort. They could represent or stand in for people that the owner of the figure wished to harm, or had succeeded in harming. A slightly different type of these ‘execration figures’ is inscribed with a lengthy text naming the chiefs of neighboring countries “who may rebel, who may plot, who may fight, who may think of fighting, or who may think of rebelling in this entire earth” – a fine early example of legal boilerplate. Many of these figures are broken, and it seems likely that breaking them was the climax of one type of ritual. Attacking the stand-in figures also attacked the persons they represented.

Egyptologists tend to steer away from the question of whether the Egyptians really practiced ritual executions, or just vented their anger on these execration figures. A spectacular recent discovery has forced us to come back to the issue. A team from Johns Hopkins University discovered the trussed and pinioned remains of a man buried inside the temple complex of the goddess Mut at Luxor. Dating around the Second Intermediate Period, like our figure, he had probably been killed by having his neck twisted from behind – almost like wringing a bird’s neck.

I’ve called our figure a woman, but is this correct? A colleague pointed out the difficulty of assigning gender to figures like this, and that clay execration figures are all male – or, at any rate, none are definitely female. What I saw as a naked woman with a big chin and rather small bosom could be a bearded man wearing a triangular loincloth made of slashed leather, typical for foreign soldiers, and probably also worn by the figures in the photograph above.

What I think makes our figure different, though, is its hairstyle. Only women are shown with a shaven skull and plaits; for me this makes the identification as female almost certain. Women were named alongside men in execration texts, so why, sometimes, couldn’t they be given personalised figures? Come and have a look and decide for yourself.

Finally, if you are interested in finding out more about Egyptian magic and execration figures, the standard text on the subject, Robert Ritner’s The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice can be downloaded free from the University of Chicago.