National Geographic : 2009 Nov
a stratum thicker than most coal seams, ten to twenty cats deep." Some of the linen-wrapped cats still looked presentable, and a few even had gilded faces. Village children peddled the best specimens to tourists for change; the rest were sold in bulk as fertilizer. One ship hauled about 180,000, weighing some 38,000 pounds, to Liv- erpool to be spread on the elds of England. ose were the days of generously funded ex- peditions that dredged through acres of desert in their quest for royal tombs and for splendid gold and painted masks and co ns to adorn the estates and museums of Europe and America. The many thousands of mummified animals that turned up at sacred sites throughout Egypt were just things to be cleared away to get at the good stu . Few people studied them, and their importance was generally unrecognized. In the century since then, archaeology has become less of a trophy hunt and more of a science. Excavators now realize that much of their sites wealth lies in the multitude of details about ordinary folks---what they did, what they thought, how they prayed. Animal mummies are a big part of that pay dirt. " ey re really manifestations of daily life," says Egyptologist Salima Ikram. "Pets, food, death, religion. They cover everything the Egyptians were concerned with." Specializing in zooarchaeology---the study of ancient ani- mal remains---Ikram has helped launch a new line of research into the cats and other creatures that were preserved with great skill and care. As a professor at the American University in Cairo, she adopted the Egyptian Museum s lan- guishing collection of animal mummies as a research project. A er taking precise measure- ments, peering beneath linen bandages with x-rays, and cataloging her ndings, she created a gallery for the collection---a bridge between people today and those of long ago. "You look at these animals, and suddenly you say, Oh, King So-and-So had a pet. I have a pet. And instead of being at a distance of 5,000-plus years, the ancient Egyptians become people." Today the animal mummies are one of the most popular exhibits in the whole treasure- filled museum. Visitors of all ages, Egyptians and foreigners, press in shoulder to shoulder to get a look. Behind glass panels lie cats wrapped in strips of linen that form diamonds, stripes, squares, and crisscrosses. Shrews in boxes of carved limestone. Rams covered with gilded and beaded casings. A gazelle wrapped in a tattered mat of papyrus, so thoroughly attened by mum- mi cation that Ikram named it Roadkill. A 17- foot, knobby-backed crocodile, buried with baby croc mummies in its mouth. Ibises in bundles with intricate appliqués. Hawks. Fish. Even tiny scarab beetles and the dung balls they ate. Some were preserved so that the deceased BY A. R. WILLIAMS PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICHARD BARNES I n 1888 an Egyptian farmer digging in the sand near the village of Istabl Antar uncovered a mass grave. e bodies weren t human. ey were feline---ancient cats that had been mummi ed and buried in pits in stag- gering numbers. "Not one or two here and there," reported the English Illustrated Magazine, "but dozens, hundreds, hundreds of thousands, a layer of them, Pampered in a temple during its lifetime, a sacred baboon was enshrined after death in the Tuna el-Gebel catacombs. Priests prayed and made offerings to it there as signs of their abiding reverence.