Friday, 13 January 2017

Here, Kitty Kitty: Ritual Mummification in Britain

The last thing one expects to find - or in this instance, have fall on their face - whilst soft-stripping a ceiling is a dusty, old, mummified cat. But that's exactly what happened to one of the demolition crew members at PCA's site on Staines High Street, a row of early-19th century shops. So, what was a possibly 200 year-old cat doing in the ceiling of a shop or floorboards of the house above? Well, we did a bit of digging (pun intended!) and the reasons are more shocking than you might think.

Dried cat, in-situ
Feline mummification is a well-known practice in ancient Egyptian culture. The reverence and respect with which cats were treated is evident by their significant presence in artwork and writing, to say nothing of how they were treated in death whether buried alongside their owners as a beloved pet or sacrificed as part of a religious offering. Nowadays, cats are mostly known as the former, being the second most popular pet in the country after their canine counterparts. However, in the past, they were also subjected to veneration of one kind or another and used in superstitious practices.

Up until the late-18th century, in Britain and northern Europe, it was customary to hide dried or mummified cats within the walls of one's home to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to the inhabitants. Concealing objects to serve as magical charms is not a new practice in these Isles, with dried chickens and shoes being another commonly found item in chimneys, under floors, and even in roof spaces.

Whilst there are many examples of dried cats in the UK, most of them date up to the 18th century, however this doesn't mean the practice did not continue beyond this. As the building it was found in dates to the 1860s at the earliest, this would make it one of the most recent cases of ritualistic concealment on record.

Back at PCA's London office for closer inspection

Given the level of preservation, we know for sure it was a male. Based on our research and a thorough examination of the remains by PCA's Animal Bone Specialist, Kevin Rielly, it is unlikely that he simply got trapped underneath the floorboards. Aside from the fact that the owners would have had to put up with at least a week of howling and scratching before the poor animal died, it is likely that he would be in the foetal position had he starved to death. The visibility of the bones and ligaments as well as the lack of fur is the result of decades (if not centuries) of desiccation and decay, which has unfortunately taken away any evidence concerning his state of health at the time. A great amount of detail, however, such as the rolls of its skin and paw pads, are still well preserved and clearly visible.

Close up of the face, with whiskers still intact
Its positioning then, not consistent with death by starvation, is of particular interest, which brings us to another theory of why it might have been placed there. Cats are known for catching vermin and this particularly useful role in life was, in some cases, also expected of them in death. Dead cats, especially those displaying the running or attacking positions as though on the hunt, were also concealed in buildings in the hope that they would ward off vermin. The shop in which it was found was originally a fishmongers and poulterers, so it would make sense if the owners subscribed to this belief and deposited the deceased cat in order to protect their goods.

Perhaps it is a combination of the two and these felines were intended as deterrents not just for earthly rodents, but also spiritual vermin, at the hands of witchcraft. Charms may appear less macabre now, with horseshoes replacing desiccated animals, but the desire to attract good luck and repel evil is ever-present.

Ultimately, this fascinating find has brought on more questions than answers. Why was it put there? Where did it come from? Was it already dead or deliberately killed and if so, who killed it?

Join us next time as PCA continues to #DigDeeper

The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic
Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your post. I’ve been thinking about writing a very comparable post over the last couple of weeks, I’ll probably keep it short and sweet and link to this instead if thats cool. Thanks.