The Gayer-Anderson Cat
When I first heard about the Gayer-Anderson cat I had never actually seen it. I wrongly assumed it was some artist’s interpretation of ancient Egyptian art (don’t ask how I got to that conclusion, I can’t remember). Thankfully I now know better and, quite frankly, find the thing fascinating.
Number EA64391 was on loan to another museum when I was at the British Museum back in December 2012. It’s obviously more than just a number.
In 1939 major Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson donated the cat to the British Museum, but it did not go on display until 1947 (two years after the major’s death). It was found at Saqqara and dated to the Late Period (661-332 BC). In the Late Period is was quite normal for cats to be mummified and, with or without cat coffin, to be offered to Bastet.
So, that’s that then? No. There is a lot more to this item than you can see on the outside. In fact, it’s deemed so interesting that it has been on loan several times before the end of 2012 and it’s mentioned in quite a few books.
The first thing that stands out is its beauty and detail. Anyone who has a cat will immediately recognise that typical smile they always seem to have on this copper face. There’s beautiful detail in the ears (Maat’s feather), the whiskers have been engraved and it is wearing a beautiful engraved collar. It has two golden earrings and one golden ring in its nose. There are bands on the tail. The eyes may have been inlaid in the past.
There is a scarab beetle (associated with the god Khepri) on the cat’s forehead. Part of the collar is an amulet with an udjat-eye. Underneath is another scarab, a winged one this time, with a sun-disc inlaid with silver.
The bands on the tail are visible here as is the smooth curve of the back and shoulder blades. This cat’s shape looks quite natural, even though it is too symmetrical compared to a living cat.
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Even though we know the cat was found at Saqqara, there is not much more we can tell. The original (presumably wooden) base is lost, so carbon dating is no option here and any inscription is lost to us. The rings are not original to this cat, even though they are ancient Egyptian. Moulds used to create copper items like this were only used once. The ancient Egyptians also had differences in the style of their art depending on the region, so even that cannot be used to properly date this cat.
The cat was acquired by major Gayer-Anderson in 1934. Due to further examination we now know the cat has sustained substantial damage, but it is not quite clear when and why or who repaired it. It is assumed Gayer-Anderson painted the cat after cleaning and restoring it, but not all repairs are believed to be his.
As with so many ancient Egyptian artefact the question arises what to think about cleaning and repairing. In some cases it is so sad to see the state the items are in, but does that justify actively repairing it (and not only displaying it with all available pieces, for example)? If it hadn’t been for the examination carried out we would not have known about the extensive damage to this cat. And let’s be honest, it’s quite beautiful the way it is. But, as always, the debate continues. I may have to write about that one day…
Spencer, N. (2007), The Gayer-Anderson Cat, British Museum Press, London
British Museum website:
1. Number EA64391, also mentioned in the text above.
2. Bronze figure of a seated cat, also mentioned in the text above.
3. Examination of the Gayer-Anderson Cat, also mentioned in the text above.
4. British Museum Technical Research Bulletin, Volume 2 contains an article about the examination of the cat.