Flies, Cats and Rat Traps: the Ordinary Animals of Ancient Egypt
By Anna E Garnett, on 15 November 2017
The Grant Museum’s current exhibition – The Museum of Ordinary Animals: The Boring Beasts that Changed the World - explores the mundane creatures in our everyday lives. Here on the blog, we will be delving into some of the stories featured in the exhibition. This week we investigate some of the Ordinary Animals on loan from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.
Ask anyone about ancient Egypt and standard responses generally include pyramids, mummies, Tutankhamun, and sometimes (if you’re lucky) animals. Ancient Egyptians were keen observers of their natural environment and are well-known for representing all manner of flora and fauna in their artistic works. Gods and goddesses were also associated with particular animals and their behaviour: for example, the jackal god Anubis guarded the cemeteries of the dead, just as real jackals roamed the desert edge. What is perhaps less well-known is how ancient Egyptians considered the ‘ordinary animals’ who lived side-by-side with them in the Nile Valley. Egyptians utilised a wide variety of wild animals and some of these were domesticated, some kept as pets, and others were considered as vermin – just as they are today.
The ancient Egyptian word for ‘cat’ is ‘miu’, which proves that they also keenly observed the sounds that animals made! It is known from tomb scenes that cats were domesticated and kept as household pets from the time of the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069BC). They were also associated with the goddess Bastet, who was mainly worshipped at the site of Bubastis in the Nile Delta. Certain animals, including cats, were bred in vast numbers to be killed, mummified and presented as votive offerings to deities at their cult centres. Tens of millions of cat mummies were offered to the goddess Bastet by pious pilgrims, from the Third Intermediate Period onwards (1069-664BC). The two mummified cats in the ‘Ordinary Animals’ exhibition, one unwrapped (UC45975) and the other still wrapped in linen bandages (UC45976), are examples of these votive offerings.
Other ‘ordinary animals’ may not seem so useful at first, but aspects of their behaviour were channelled in a positive way. Take the humble fly for example: the fly symbol was used at the end of the ancient Egyptian word for the insect itself, and to mean ‘to fly’. Flies were also worn as protective amulets as well as symbolising persistence: soldiers were awarded golden flies by the pharaoh as reward for heroic efforts in battle. In addition to symbolising persistence, ancient Egyptians also believed that wearing fly beads and amulets would protect them against disease – they took the dangerous aspect of the fly’s behaviour to cause disease, and used it instead as a protective mechanism. Maybe we should take heed and look more kindly on the flies in our lives!
When a dangerous aspect of an animal’s behaviour could not be used in a beneficial way, they were treated as vermin since they could cause damage to property and spread disease. At the town of Kahun in the Faiyum area of Egypt, which dates to the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055-1650BC), Petrie observed that ‘nearly every room has its corners tunnelled by the rats; and the holes are stuffed up with stones and rubbish to keep them back’. There he found a ‘rat trap’ (UC16773), a fired ceramic device with a trapdoor which would have been used to secure any unsuspecting rats who dared to find their way into the town buildings. From this object it is clear to see that the ancient Egyptians welcomed certain ‘ordinary animals’ into their lives, but would rather see the back of others!
Anna Garnett is the Curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL
The Museum of Ordinary Animals runs until 22nd December. A number of events accompany the exhibition: through discussions, a late opening, a comedy night and offsite events discover how boring beasts shape our relationship with the natural world. Full details are on the exhibition’s website.