Divine Cat: Speaking to the gods in ancient Egypt

8 November 2007 – 27 January 2008                
Room 3                          
Admission free

This display focuses on the ancient Egyptian practise of dedicating metal statues of gods in temples, in a bid to communicate with the divine realm, and seek favours in return. Centred around the iconic bronze Gayer-Anderson Cat, the exhibition reveals how objects can be read in different ways, using archaeological and historical sources, but also the fruits of exciting new scientific research.

Acquired by the British Museum in 1939, from the retired British Army general and avid collector of ancient art, Major Gayer-Anderson,  the Cat is perhaps the finest example of a bronze statue to survive from ancient Egypt. The figure of a seated cat, 39cm high, is embellished with gold and silver jewellery. The subtle form of the feline body has been masterfully recreated in metal by the ancient craftsman. The cat usually represented the goddess Bastet; it dates to around 600 BC, and would have been dedicated in a temple by a king or wealthy individual.

The meaning and purpose of this star object is brought into focus through two main facets to the display.

Firstly, a display revealing what new analyses, undertaken in the science laboratories of the British Museum earlier this year, have revealed about the iconic Gayer-Anderson Cat. High-resolution x-rays have informed us that the Cat was heavily repaired by Major Gayer-Anderson, a keen metal restorer, in the 1930s. Perhaps fearing the head would become detached, he inserted a metal cylinder into the neck of the cat, and soldered other parts of the figure. The radiographs also inform us of the casting technique used to make the object, around  a wax original. X-ray fluorescence was used to analyze the metal. In this technique, non-destructive X-ray beams are directed at an object, allowing the specific elements to be quantified. This Cat is made of bronze, an alloy of 84.7% copper, 13% tin and small amounts of arsenic and lead. It has also been possible to reveal the Cat’s tail was embellished with a different metal alloy. Originally of a different colour, this would have created a striped effect.

On the other side of the display is a wall of bronze figures shows the variety of form and size that such statues could take, which were deposited in their millions in temples throughout Egypt. These figures attest to the bewildering variety and richness of Egyptian religion: Horus as a falcon or a shrew, Osiris as a mummified figure, an ibis-headed Thoth, Isis cradling her son Horus on her lap, a god with two ram-heads. The inscriptions upon some of these statues reveal what the donors sought in purchasing and dedicating such figures:

O Horus-the-Child who is in Djedet, give life, health, a long lifetime and great and perfect old age to Ptah-tef-nakht!

A cast bronze replica of the cat will be on open display to allow visitors to appreciate the quality of the modelling of the feline form. The exhibition is accompanied by a book, The Gayer-Anderson Cat, by Neal Spencer.

For further information or images please contact Katrina Whenham on 020 7323 8583 or hboulton@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk