I've been wasting my time researching the importation of mummified cats to Europe and elsewhere. For what purpose? Let's not get into that. Neil, of the magnificent Adventures in the Print Trade, inspired me way back here. If I'm lucky, this will be the stupidest thing I ever do here - the very first Wuthering Expectations Special Investigative Report.
Were mummified cats shipped to England to be used for fertilizer? After months of investigation, the shocking answer is: probably, although I have my doubts, but no more than once. I thought I might get a week out of this. Now it's going to be a couple of days, because the conclusion is lame. I could spend a lot of time whining about the low quality of sourcing in books from respected academic publishers, but I'll keep that to myself.
The problem is that National Geographic forced my hand this month with a typically excellent cover story on the subject. The article is about how Egyptologists are squeezing all sorts of new information out of mummified animals.
The article begins with a description of the 1888 discovery of the enormous cat cemetery near Beni Hasan. Their source is the Liverpool Egyptologist William Martin Conway, writing for the English Illustrated Magazine. That article can be found on Google Books in Conway's The Dawn of Art in the Ancient World (1891), with pp. 181-3 of special relevance. The best specimens - intact, even gilded - are valued for the souvenir trade. The mass, though, "a layer of them, a stratum thicker than most coal seams, ten to twenty cats deep" (Conway, 181) suffer a different fate:
Some contractor came along and offered so much a pound for their bones to make into something - soap, or tooth-powder, I dare say, or even paint. So men went systematically to work, peeled cat after cat of its wrappings, stripped off the brittle fur, and piled the bones in black heaps, a yard or more high, looking from the distance like a kind of rotting haycocks scattered on the sandy plain. The rags and other refuse, it appears, make excellent manure, and donkey loads of them were carried off to the fields to serve that useful, if unromantic, purpose. (Conway, 182-3)
Conway appears to be an eyewitness. Here is where we must get the cats for the next step in the journey. Now I'm quoting the National Geographic article: "One ship hauled about 180,000, weighing some 38,000 pounds, to Liverpool to be spread on the fields of England." The consignment of this shipment was announced in the February 4, 1890 London Times, and its auction in the February 11 paper.* The first article title mentions 19 tons of embalmed cats, the second 9 tons of mummy cats, which turns out to cause great confusion in later references. The number of cats, 180,000, seems to be the result of assuming that each cat weighted 1/10 of a pound (9 tons times 10 cats per pound).
See also this March 2, 1890 New York Times paragraph describing the auction. You might see what caught my attention. Weird piece, written at third hand. Note the appearance of "two gentlemen described as 'evidently scientists'". A critical reader of historical evidence may begin to wonder what's going on here.
I still wonder. Two years after the discovery of the cat cemetery in Egypt, described in a well-known article by a Liverpool professor, a shipment of an "undistinguishable mass of fragments", along with some intact mummified cats, arrives in Liverpool and is auctioned off. Some sort of link between Conway's piles of bones and this shipment would be nice. An actual eyewitness account of the auction would be nice.
Note, please, that I have not come across a single reference, reliable or otherwise, to any other shipment of mummified animals to England, or anywhere. This one is apparently it. More on this one tomorrow, including a cartoon.
* Source: Palmer’s Index to the Times, January 1st to March 31st 1890. I haven't seen the articles. Anyone who wants to pursue this will need better access to old English newspapers than I have.