The Odyssey of an Ancient Egyptian Cat Sculpture


An early collection photograph of the Statuette of Bast in the Form of a Cat. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content.

Analysis of a bronze cat reveals clues about its ancient past.


By Jeffrey Maish, Judith Barr, and Almoatzbellah Elshahawi

Introduction

Ancient Egyptians revered cats, and worshiped the goddess Bastet, who could appear in human form with a feline head, or as a cat. Bronze and wood cat statuettes were placed as votive offerings at temples, and some were hollow and held cat mummies, preserving the remains for eternity.

Cat mummies and bones have been found at several sites, but the city of Bubastis, located in the Nile delta, north of Cairo, is known as the cult center for cat worship. Bubastis seems to have been overrun with cats, who were fed and cared for, and buried in the temple precincts when they died. Although cat mummies are found over an extended period, many date to the Ptolemaic Period from 332 to 31 B.C.

Over two thousand years later, Egypt was becoming a center of the nascent field of archaeology. From 1887 to 1889 Swiss archaeologist and Egyptologist Édouard Naville led excavations at Bubastis, also known as Tell Basta. His excavations, which followed years of uncontrolled digging, yielded a wide range of cat representations, from life-sized to small votive bronzes.  By the turn of the century, thousands of cat statuettes had flooded museums and the European art market. The demand for these charming feline bronzes reportedly led to a market for forgeries as well.

History Inscribed on the Base of a Bronze Cat

For many years, a bronze cat statuette at the Getty Villa was believed to be one of these imitations, and was left alone in storage. But recent discoveries and scientific tests suggest that it is, in fact, ancient.

Discoveries like this often start as clues on the objects themselves. In this case, we found an inscription on the underside of the wooden base that reads:

“Mounted By W.T. Ready, Nov 1892, 55 Rathbone Pl(ace), London W.” A 19th century business directory listed Ready as “a dealer in antiquities, coins, metals and gems.”

The inscription on the bottom of a historic wood base

In 1892, the Getty’s bronze cat was in Ready’s hands, but why? Was it being restored or reproduced?

To find the answer, we needed to understand a bit more about William Talbot Ready. He came from a family that worked with antiquities. He was the son of Robert Cooper Walpole Ready and brother to Augustus Papworth and Charles Joseph, all involved with antiquities, restoration, and part-time employees at the British Museum.

One of their trades (and sources of income) was in the relatively new technology of electrotyping, a copy process in which a thin metallic layer is deposited on a mold to create a metallic reproduction. The Readys amassed a substantial collection of electrotyped copies of coins and medals for sale. The Getty’s collection includes a Greek mirror with a Ready electrotyped attachment.

Sixty years later, J. Paul Getty saw the cat at Spink & Son gallery in London while out with friends, and it became one of the first ancient objects acquired by his newly-formed museum:

We all admired the bronze Egyptian cat and I bought it for 600 pounds.

Diary of (J. Paul Getty Jan 7, 1955)

Decades later it was classified as an imitation of an Egyptian statue, not as an antiquity. Last year, we began to look at the surface in more detail. It was curiously consistent and did not have the usual mottled corrosion patterns we are used to seeing on ancient bronzes. It was also too shiny, giving it a modern appearance, and oddly proportioned. Is this what led people to believe it was an imitation or forgery?

Dating and Discovery of an Ancient Cat

Intriguingly, the recessed and slightly hidden surfaces around the base of the statue hinted at something different, something ancient. The cat was x-rayed and found to be an accomplished casting, with few defects.

X-ray radiograph

Metal analysis by portable x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (pXRF), pointed to bronze, a copper-tin-lead alloy. Further investigation of the metal revealed the alloy was highly leaded (around 18%), consistent with published data on several bronze cat sculptures in European collections including from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz and the Staatliche Sammlung für Ägyptischer Kunst, in Munich.

Almoatzbellah Elshahawi examines the cat’s interior with a digital microscope

A radiographically opaque (light) area hinted at something nestled in the head. We decided it was time to remove the wooden base added by Ready in 1892 and to take a closer look inside. What we saw on the interior was a completely different surface of varied topography with corrosion formed over a very long time. In the head, a dark mass was tucked into the cavity, which also pointed to ancient molding and casting.

The sculpture’s interior reveals green and white corrosion.

One of the most advanced technical processes from antiquity, lost wax casting, used a clay core over which the wax model was built up and modeled. The thin layer of wax was then reproduced by the bronze cast. We suspected that this dark material might be a clay containing core material. If so, could it be dated by a process called thermoluminescence? To find out, we sent a sample to a dating laboratory in Oxford England. The material indeed contained clay and could be dated to between 1700 and 2700 years ago. Taken together, the alloy and clay core date point to the cat being an ancient Egyptian work after all.

Style and Past Restorations Led to a Mistaken Identity

So what led to the cat’s relegation as an imitation? Perhaps one of the main reasons was its style. Ancient Egyptian depictions of the cats ranged from sophisticated to primitive. This cat might be primitive, but a simpler style is not necessarily an indication of forgery. The cat also exhibits unusually deep-set depressions for the eyes. These may have held now-missing inlays.

The surface is dark, fairly even, and shiny, not what we would expect from an ancient bronze. Closer examination, however, revealed some striations, suggesting that the 19th-century restorer may have employed a rather aggressive abrasive treatment to produce an even surface.  The surface appearance was further evened by the application of a coating. Today this evenness seems inconsistent with a corroded ancient bronze surface, and thus, somewhat deceiving. We removed a small window of the coating with organic solvents and discovered a more characteristic, corroded surface beneath. The nineteenth-century coating was analyzed and found to be a mixture of beeswax, paraffin wax and an oil.

What’s Next for the Cat?

Almoatzbellah Elshahawi poses in the lab with the cat.

Coating removal in the conservation laboratory will continue to reveal the underlying aged surface. Further analysis will focus on the metal and its corrosion products, and the study of characteristic lead isotopes may help locate a production site more precisely (or at least the source of the lead). Additional provenance research may also clarify whether this cat came from Bubastis, and how it traveled to London by 1892.

Perhaps the bronze cat is reclaiming its 2300-year-old identity, moving from one stage of life into the next. A cat may have nine lives—even an ancient one.


Originally published by The Iris, 03.24.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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