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Contemplating the Cat

By Arendse I Lund, on 28 September 2016

Arendse

by Arendse Lund

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet, was once asked what surprised him most about his creation. His answer? “Kittens.” The feline statistics are both impressive and shocking: according to Friskies up to 15% of Internet traffic is cat related; cats get almost 4x the viral views as dogs on Buzzfeed. You don’t even need to seek out cat-related content during your daily Internet perusals; unless you have certain plug-ins, inevitably the cats come to you.

bisected cat

Dorso-ventrally bisected pregnant female. (Grant Museum, Z2969)

While cats seem to be the lingua franca of the web, the proliferation of cat gifs, memes, and photos is only magnifying a greater trend, one which continues offline as well. Children and adults alike ooh and aah over the Grant Museum’s display of bisected cats. Keen-eyed visitors may even spy with delight the embryonic kitten nestled in the womb of one of the specimens. There’s accessibility in the cats’ familiarity; this appeal extends to all ages if the toddler-height fingerprint smudges on the display cases are anything to go by. 

Egyptian cat stella

Cat underfoot? (Petrie Museum, UC14323)

Cats have fascinated diverse cultures for millennia. Linking cat lovers today with those three thousand years ago, the Petrie Museum has an entire display case dedicated to Ancient Egyptian cat statuettes and artefacts. Throughout the Egyptian dynasties, the felines were associated with several goddesses and revered in their own right for their ability to kill vermin—including cobras. Cats were also known to be mummified and buried after death. 

Much later, a similar fascination with cats can be found in an entirely different part of the world—medieval Europe. Illuminated manuscripts were the Internet of the times and cat references can be found scattered across those vellum pages. One early Irish monk wrote a poem in praise of his cat, Pangur Bán. From Robin Flower’s translation:

I and Pangur Ban my cat,

‘Tis a like task we are at:

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night…

Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night

Turning darkness into light.

Cat erasure in manuscript

Green pigment has eaten through the parchment in the shape of a cat. (National Library of Wales, Peniarth MS 28, f. 26r)

In Vatnsdœla saga, Thorolf Sledgehammer is the proud owner of twenty cats who defend him from attack. One might wonder if the writer had much knowledge of cats—rottweilers they are not. However fanciful that story was, cats served a useful function as pest control. A mid 13th-century Welsh manuscript containing the laws of Hywel Dda directs that payment be made if a cat is killed. Four pence should be paid to the owner if the cat is old enough to hunt mice; a kitten too young to open its eyes is only worth a single penny and one able to see but too young to hunt worth two pence.

Medieval zoomorphic decorated 'Q' motif

It’s a dog-eat-cat-eat-mouse world out there. (Harley 3053, f.45v)

The common sight of cats slinking around monasteries may have made them familiar source material for illuminators working on the manuscripts. Perhaps the medieval version of a Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks cartoon segment, one illuminator drew a historiated initial depicting a dog catching a cat catching mice. Cats are a common sight in manuscripts where they find themselves in an abundance of absurd situations.

Cat licking bottom

A clean cat is a happy cat. (Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, U 964, fol. 376r)

In the 13th-century Book of Maccabees, an archer takes aim at a cat who is busy ensuring it’s clean absolutely everywhere. Cat owners are accustomed to this sight and, clearly, so was the illuminator. There are plenty more strikingly similar images of this theme found in medieval manuscripts. 

A cat playing with nun's spindle

A helping hand? (Stowe MS 17, f. 34r)

In another instance of cat behavior which hasn’t changed all that much, the 14th-century illuminator of the Maastricht Hours depicted a cat playing with a nun’s spindle. Cats were such a common sight and part of daily life that the Middle English Ancrene Wisse permitted anchoresses to own a cat but no other animal. In the 15th century, Exeter Cathedral had a resident mouser on the payroll who earned one penny per week; someone even cut a cat flap in the cathedral’s south tower door which can still be seen today.

Cat paw prints on manuscript

Dubrovnik State Archives, Lettere di Levante. (Photograph by Emir O. Filipović)

Not all cats are depicted positively though and some aren’t intended to be depicted at all. One fine furry fellow left its mark all over the Lettere di Levante from the Dubrovnik State Archives. Pet owners may sympathize—the pages of the manuscript accidentally recorded where an inky-pawed cat walked across it. 

Cat urinated on manuscript

An angry monk making his point. (Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

However useful cats could be to have around, they could be disruptive as well. The blank half of the delineated page above, along with the manicules and cat sketch, was not initially planned in the 15th-century manuscript. What appears to have happened is that the scribe working on this left the manuscript out over night and came back to an unpleasant surprise. The scribe wrote an exasperated note in the margins: “Nothing is missing here, but one night a cat urinated on this. Cursed be the mischievous cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and similarly all the others too. And pay heed to not leave books open at night where cats can reach.” We would all do well to heed that advice.

As our ancestors were fascinated with cats, so are we. There’s something entrancing about the felines and that something has spoken to humans across cultures and time periods. While our medieval forebearers might have had to make do with sharing manuscripts rather than cat gifs, nowadays we can be endlessly entertained by the felines with a click of a mouse.

Thank goodness for that.

I have sung and praised the sun disc, I have joined the baboons

By Gemma Angel, on 15 April 2013

Suzanne Harvey #2  by Suzanne Harvey

 

 

 

 

 

What links the evolution of language to the collection of baboon figurines at the Petrie Museum of Egyptology? I have previously speculated on the reasons why Ancient Egyptians might create figures of baboons performing acrobatics, playing the harp and even drinking beer. After months of sporadic research and conversations with museum visitors on the subject, I have finally chosen a favourite theory (without a hint of bias) that just happens to link directly to my own research on baboon communication.

Monkey with beer potThis post was inspired by an essay entitled Some Remarks on the Mysterious Language of the Baboons, [1] which mentions this quote from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Chapter 100:

I have sung and praised the sun disc, I have joined the baboons.

The reason that Egyptians considered baboons to be sacred is actually quite straightforward. When baboons wake in the morning, like many primates (humans included), they tend to stretch and produce vocalisations. To some, the pose baboons adopt while stretching – sometimes raising their front legs in the air – resembles worship. As they stretch more often at sunrise, this action together with their ‘chattering’ noises when moving from sleeping sites, was interpreted as singing and dancing to praise the Sun-god, Ra. [2]

 

Caption for baboon chatterThis only explains the role of language in making baboons sacred. Of several Gods to whom they are sacred, the deity who links baboons unequivocally with language is Thoth. Thoth is often depicted as a baboon scribe who not only spoke and wrote, but who actually gave the gift of language to the Egyptians, rather than simply understanding it. [3]

The voice of the baboon is the voice of God

This title might seem a somewhat unusual interpretation of the famous vox populi, vox Dei maxim, but it is in fact the Ancient Egyptian variation on this theme. Their belief was that whoever understood the language of the baboons had access to religious knowledge that was usually hidden. This is very good news indeed for modern primatologists – though I’ve yet to decipher any religious revelations while analysing baboon vocalisations! I can however dispute the Greek author Aelianus’s assertion that baboon language is “utterly incomprehensible to ordinary human beings”. [4]

ThothThoth’s significance in language and wisdom suggests that my earlier supposition – that baboons playing harps and drinking beer was not linked to religion due to the absence of sober, worshipful poses – was in fact erroneous. It seems that Egyptians were motivated to experiment with baboons, trying to train them to perform feats such as playing the harp, to reveal the link to Thoth hidden within them.

A range of baboon statuettes are currently on display as part of the Foreign Bodies exhibition in UCL’s North Cloisters. They represent a unique interpretation of other species that are nevertheless similar to our own, and a fascinating insight into how a distant culture defined themselves in relation to other primates – believing themselves to be inferior to baboons in terms of both holiness and wisdom. Ancient Egyptians recognised the human-like intelligence, ability to communicate and dexterity of baboons that we are equally fascinated by today, albeit from an evolutionary science perspective, rather than a religious sensibility. The quest to discover the inner Thoth continues…


References:

[1] H. Te Velde: ‘Some Remarks on the Mysterious Language of the Baboons,‘ in Kamstra, J. H., Milde, H. & Wagtendonk, K. (eds). Funerary Symbols and Religion. (1988), J.H. Kok: Kampen.

[2] G. Pinch: Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. (2004), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Hans Kummer:  In Quest of the Sacred Baboon. (1995), Chichester: Princeton University Press.

[4] H. Te Velde, (1988), p.134.

From the Forests of Punt to the Deserts of Saqqara: Life and Death as a Sacred Monkey

By Gemma Angel, on 18 March 2013

Suzanne Harvey #2  by Suzanne Harvey

 

 

 

 

 

Given the wealth of figurines, statues, engravings and even mummies of baboons found in Egypt, it may seem odd that a baboon skull features as an object in our current Foreign Bodies exhibition in UCL’s North Cloisters.

Baboon SkullThe key to this puzzle is that baboons are not, and never have been, indigenous to the areas of Egypt in which their remains have been found. They were imported from Nubia and the mysterious Land of Punt for use at temples and burial sites, where their habit of stretching and ‘chattering’ was viewed as worship of the Sun God, Ra. Since these animals were sacred to Gods of wisdom and the underworld, themselves deified in the form of Babi and The Great White One, and imported at great cost – surely their lives in Egypt would be ones of luxury?

Life and death in a foreign land

The largest number of mummified baboons have been found at the tombs of Saqqarah, an arid desert environment that contrasts starkly with the natural forest and savannah habitat of baboons. In their natural environment, baboons spend most of their waking hours foraging for food in the form of leaves, seeds, fruit and insects, none of which would be possible in the desert. In fact, the environment of the temples and burial sites where baboons were kept, was so foreign to these species that most died from malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, and fractured bones. Of around 200 mummies analysed, few had lived beyond 6-10 years, despite the natural lifespan of the sacred Hamadryas baboon being around 30 years.

Baboon environment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From a primatological point of view, this highlights just how unsustainable desert colonies of baboons were. First breeding usually occurs between 5 and 7 years – with the majority of adults dying so young, it’s unlikely that much successful breeding took place at the temples. Recent studies at UCL’s Gashaka Primate Project have shown that diet has a strong effect on reproduction in baboons, with age of menarche, infant mortality and interbirth intervals all highly dependent upon nutrition.[1] In order to sustain a desert population of baboons, the Ancient Egyptians would have required constant imports of new animals, making baboons very rare and expensive offerings to the Gods.

The lost baboons of the Petrie Museum

Baboon mummy

In 2010, oxygen isotope analyses were carried out on hairs from one of the British Museum’s baboon mummies, and researchers were able to locate the Land of Punt, by comparing markers in the ancient baboon to modern samples. 3000 years after the baboon was mummified, his homeland was located as modern day Eritreia and Ethiopia, where baboons remain today.

The baboons at the Petrie Museum date from a later period than those at the British museum, and documentation indications that they were were mummified after voyages to Punt ceased. So for now, all we can really say for certain about the Petrie Museum baboons is that they were a long way from home when they died…


References

[1] J.P. Higham, Y. Warren, J. Adanu, B.N. Umaru, A.M. MacLarnon, V. Sommer, & C. Ross: (2009). ‘Living on the edge: Life-history of olive baboons at Gashaka-Gumti National Park, Nigeria’, in American Journal of Primatology, Vol. 71 (2009), pp.293-304.

 

 

Musical Apes: Can Baboons Play the Harp?

By Gemma Angel, on 11 February 2013

Suzanne Harvey #2  by Suzanne Harvey

 

 

 

 

 

Excuse me, is that baboon playing a harp?

This is a question that I long to be asked when I’m working at the Petrie Museum of Egyptology. Whilst there are many examples of baboon figurines in the collection, my favourites have always been the selection from Amarna, in which the animals are shown performing acrobatics, drinking beer and playing the harp. Baboons appear throughout Egyptian mythology, and the majority of the figurines at the Petrie and elsewhere depict baboons sitting in a realistic manner, rather than performing any elaborate tricks. These figurines are often found at burial sites. Hapi, an Egyptian God of the underworld, is depicted with the head of a Hamadryas baboon and is said to protect the lungs of the deceased.[1] For this reason, it is common to find the baboon head of Hapi as a lid of canopic jars containing lungs. So, if baboons are typically viewed as sacred animals used in funerary reliquary, why is that baboon playing a harp?

Monkeys of several species were kept as pets in Ancient Egypt, so it is possible that they were trained to perform tricks. Having studied olive baboon infant tantrums, I know from experience that they are athletic animals who are often keen to throw themselves around – but acrobatics seems a stretch, and whilst I’m sure they could be trained to pluck harp strings, I doubt it would be easy listening. Since my own biological and behavioural approach does little but rule out possibilities, there must be another explanation for the existence of these unusual figurines. The Petrie Museum attracts a lot of visitors who are either professional Egyptologists or well-read enthusiasts of the subject. So, in my first ever research engager micro crowd-sourcing exercise, I’ve compiled some of their theories here:

 

1. The figurines were crafted at a time when the Pharaoh Akhenaten brought in monotheism, demanding that his subjects worship only one God, the Sun God. Therefore, worship of the baboon God was forbidden, and these less serious depictions of baboons may have become fashionable – Suggested by a retired German doctor who researches the beginnings of monotheism in ancient cultures as a hobby.

2. They are part of a culture of fantastical animal stories used for entertainment, and would have been high status decorations in a wealthy household – Suggested by an American Professor of art, interested in representations of animals in Egypt.

3. As baboons, particularly alpha males, could be seen as the reincarnation of dead ancestors in the form of the baboon deity Babi (not to be confused with the baboon-headed deity, Hapi…) the statues may show baboons engaged in activities that dead relatives enjoyed – Suggested by a UCL masters student studying ancient writing.

Any or all of these theories may be relevant, but overall, it seems that perspectives from art, theology and graphology lead to more interesting interpretations of this object than my own biological anthropology approach. For anyone interested in cross-disciplinary or multiple interpretations of museum objects, our upcoming exhibition Foreign Bodies will be on display in UCL’s North Cloisters, with additional featured objects in all 3 of the UCL Museums from March 18th – featuring (amongst others) my favourite baboon harpist.

 

References:

[1] Hans Kummer: In Quest of the Sacred Baboon. (1995), Chichester: Princeton University Press.