Ancient Egyptian cat mummy turns out to not be ancient, Egyptian or even a cat.
For more than 50 years a tiny Egyptian mummy, no bigger than a hand, has sat in storage in the WA Museum — an ancient tightly wrapped mystery whose contents would remain sealed for ever by the mottled brown linen wound around it.
But thanks to modern technology some of the secrets of Perth’s “cat mummy” have finally been unravelled, to reveal what appears to be an elaborate 90-year-old scam.
Up until 30 years ago WA Museum staff believed they had a 2500-year-old mummified cat, donated by Perth man Reginald Wadham in 1930, and it was displayed as a sacred artefact like the type the ancient Egyptians used to offer up to the goddess of fertility, Bastet.
But in 1982 an X-ray revealed it was a fake, containing bones or wood either from ancient times or from the 1920s, when fraudsters capitalised on the frenzy whipped up by the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb by selling forgeries.
Head of anthropology and archaeology at the WA Museum Moya Smith, who was assistant curator when the trickery was discovered, can clearly remember her devastation on learning the museum did not have a genuine mummified cat.
“I was really disappointed to see the X-ray,” she said. “I was pretty shocked. But it’s also quite exhilarating to know something one way or another.”
It is this curiosity that drove Dr Smith to delve further to find out what the “fake cat” really was — and how old — by doing a CT scan.
Speaking to The Weekend West before the scan, Dr Smith said she hoped the mummy was at least from the ancient Egyptian era.
“I still have this fantasy that maybe it will be an ancient fake. Even if we don’t do that, then at least we will know something more about how it’s made,” she said.
“Technology 30 years ago was not particularly stellar, so as we’ve looked at it we’ve thought we could learn more about this by having further non-invasive work done. As technology has become so amazing, the possibilities we could learn from a CT scan are quite amazing.
“We could learn not just the shape of what’s inside, but what exactly is inside, whether it’s wood or bone, and if it’s bone what type of bone.”
Those questions were answered this month when Dr Smith and forensic pathologist Alanah Buck, who is an honorary research associate for the museum’s anthropology department, watched as the mummy went through the scanner at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital’s radiology department.
They also took the chance to scan another two mummies, a bird and a snake, which are 3000 years old and were acquired in the early 1900s.
Dr Smith’s worst fears were realised as Dr Buck analysed the 3D image, which showed two bones had been joined and bound with linen to form the cat appearance.
“There’s no doubt that’s a piece of human femur,” she said. “It’s clearly been cut … this is something that almost makes you feel it’s from a production line. They’ve cut it to fit this piece.”
Dr Buck believes the fake is most likely modern.
“The reality is around the time of Tutankhamen’s discovery (in 1922) there was huge interest and a big market,” she said. “It’s probably been purpose-made for this.”
The news was a disappointment, too, for Dr Buck, who has excavated in Egypt as part of her earlier work as a physical anthropologist.
Regardless of the result, she said the opportunity to non-invasively investigate the remains was fascinating. “It’s like going from the horse and cart to the motor car, using this technology,” she said.
Dr Smith plans to send the CT scans to a colleague in Cairo for further analysis, but judging by the precise cut marks on the bone she, too, believes it is a modern forgery.
“There will always be a place for it at the museum, no matter what it is,” Dr Smith said.
Of course, the fact that they think it’s actually human bone inside the mummy is a tad more disturbing than the fact that it’s not a real cat.