The Ure Museum: The Nine Lives of A Mummified Cat’s Head

By Dr. Claudina Romero Mayorga, November 2020.

This year’s edition of Heritage Open Days (11-20 September) at the Ure Museum was a bit different. For the annual HOD we would normally host a talk and open the museum on a Saturday with free activities for families, but the pandemic forced us to step up and go virtual. What could we offer to attract people back to their computer screens during a time when families had already been online for 6 months!?

Since the theme for this year was “hidden nature” we chose to focus on the mummified cat’s head that is spending its afterlife in one of our cases. Our staff and some colleagues in the Department of Classics created a series of short videos under the title “The 9 lives of the Ure Museum’s cat’s head”. Each life of the cat – and each day of the festival – would be devoted to discovering a specific aspect of our feline. After all, the internet loves cats.

Dr Hana Navratilova started with Bastet and the wide range of powers that this Egyptian goddess displayed. Prof. Ian Rutherford then offered a refreshing and honest point of view: what we know–and don’t—about the ancient Egyptian custom of sacrificing cats. Dr Claudina Romero Mayorga gave us a gory insight into the mummification process and a step by step guide to mummifying a sardine (and to keep our cat well fed in the afterlife). Prof. Rachel Mairs provided us with an eco-friendly vision of ancient Egypt by focusing on how papyri were recycled into cartonnage.

The Ure Museum curator, Prof. Amy Smith and the assistant curator, Jayne Holly, then reminded us of their important “behind the scenes” work. By tracing back the cat’s provenance—where it comes from, when was it added to our collection, who gave it to us–we discovered bits of our own history. Lending our feline to another museum and running some tests in the lab to become part of the ancient Egyptian Animal Biobank also expanded our knowledge of this spooky artefact.

All videos were posted on our website and advertised on social media, enabling us to engage with people around the world. Our number of followers on Twitter and Facebook rocketed; international institutions liked our posts and we created a series of colour-in pages that accompanied each video for younger kids. In the end, our Heritage Open Days were more accessible than ever. If you missed the videos, you can still watch them at: https://collections.reading.ac.uk/ure-museum/whats-on/cat/.

New Artwork to be Inspired by University Classics and Archaeology Collections

     

A creative take on artefacts in the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology at the University of Reading will be produced thanks to Meeting Point, a scheme putting art in unexpected places.

The Ure Museum, in the Classics Department, located in the Classics Department in the Edith Morley building on the Whiteknights campus, has been chosen as one of six museums and heritage sites to work in partnership with artists to commission a new work of art inspired by each venue.

The Meeting Point programme is led by contemporary arts agency Arts&Heritage, which supports small and medium scale museums to put art at the heart of their programmes and to forge new relationships between the contemporary arts and heritage sectors.

Professor Amy Smith, Curator of the Ure Museum and Head of the Classics Department at University of Reading, said: “Meeting Point is a great way to keep museums at the forefront of cultural activity, that is, to help ever wider audiences see the connection between contemporary creative arts and the collections of historical, archaeological and sociological information encapsulated in our museums.

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We are really looking forward to discovering how artists might respond to different aspects of our collection, perhaps even our archives which themselves tell great stories about those who collected and curated the collections in the 19th-20th centuries. We are also hoping to recruit an artist who is interested to share their creative process with the students.”

The Meeting Point programme has previously worked with venues in the North East, North West and the midlands, partnering more than 20 museums with artists from across the UK.

As well as commissioning a new artwork which responds to their collection, each venue also receives training in best practice for working with artists.

Steph Allen, Executive Director at Arts&Heritage, said: “Arts&Heritage works with museums and heritage sites which have little previous experience of commissioning contemporary art.

We’ll be working with these six venues to pair each with an artist who will create a brand new piece of work – which could be anything from sculpture to a sound installation – created especially for the venue and inspired by its history and collections.”

Arts&Heritage is funded as a Sector Support Organisation by Arts Council England through its National Portfolio Organisation funding.

The other museums selected to take part in the Meeting Point Programme are Didcot Railway Centre; the National Paralympic Heritage Centre in Aylesbury; Furzey Gardens in the New Forest National Park; and‘a space’ arts; and The Brickworks Museum in Southampton.

 

-The Meeting Point Team

Studying the Book of the Dead at Reading

Dr Nick West writes:

The words of Papyrus Chester Beatty IV, a short text extolling the immortality of writers, still resonate after 3000 years or so:

“Their portals and mansions have crumbled, their Ka servants (mortuary cult priests) are gone; their tombstones are covered with soil, their graves are forgotten. Their name is pronounced over their books, which they made while they had being; good is the memory of their makers, it is forever and all time!”

If you go down to Typography today, you’re in for a big surprise. There’s lots of marvellous things to see and curiosities on display.

Unmetrical allusions to teddy bears aside, the department holds a real treasure for me (among many others). One I’ve been dying to have myself, namely, a Book of the Dead papyrus.

The Palmer papyrus may be a tiddler as BD papyri go (just over 13 feet long) but it’s still close to being three of me lying down. I didn’t measure precisely;  you get funny looks lying prostrate in a corridor.

Still, although it is not the 100 feet plus leviathan of which the British Museum can boast, the Palmer papyrus can rival the BM’s collection. Only one papyrus from the BM (and apparently no other papyrus in the world, according to my advisors) compares with our papyrus in Reading because it is one of only two that can be called ‘hybrids’.

Over the millennium long evolution of the Book of the Dead’s development there were several distinct styles of laying out a manuscript. These set styles do not seem to have been mixed … that is with the exception of P. BM EA 9904 and the Palmer papyrus.

I had no idea about this when I went to visit and when the protective covers were removed I had the biggest shock of my life … a mixed style papyrus.

The first portion is laid out in the horizontal ‘Theban style’ and written in Egyptian hieratic (a shorthand script based on hieroglyphs) while the remainder is written out in hieroglyphs either in vertical columns or horizontal rows.

My mind was totally blown: nothing I had learnt about the Book of the Dead prepared me for this moment. Once I’d recovered from my initial stupor it occurred to me that even though this is a reasonably late papyrus (Ptolemaic period circa 200 BC) I was still looking at a text that was a century or two more than 2000 years old! It never sounds much in print but the immediacy of this statistic really hits you when you are gaping at it!

This brings me back to the quotation from Papyrus Chester Beatty, composed around the time the Book of the Dead was being put together. Although the top quarter of the papyrus is lost the name of the papyrus’ owner remains in a number of places: Heru-ibu the daughter of Ta-neferu.

Reading out her name, as well as portions from the papyrus, brought it home to me that the modern term ‘Book of the Dead’ is a misnomer in several ways.

Not only does the modern name we give to a collection of texts the Egyptians called ‘spells for going forth by day’ miss the mark because the original title emphasises new life, the term hides the fact that the Book of the Dead is far from dead.

Even now scholars are comparing ever more manuscripts and deducing many regional traditions of this corpus. There may even be other eccentric people like me compiling their own manuscript.

In reading Heru-Ibu’s papyrus in its preserved state, we give her, and the other owners of BD manuscripts such as Ani, Nebseny and Hunefer, the immortality their papyri had intended.

Just as Papyrus Chester Beatty IV says, “good is the memory of their makers, it is forever and all time”!

Greeks & Egyptians-themed Day School

Thirty keen adult learners joined members of the Department of Classics for a Day School, planned in collaboration with the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, for a presentation of their research on the topic of Greeks & Egyptians, on 18 May 2013.

During the day 30+ participants learned about the interactions of ancient Greeks & Egyptians in Egypt, from members of the department and two of the Department’s recent PhD recipients.

Participants were also given the opportunity to view the Ure Museum collections, some relevant artefacts in which were discussed by Dr. Smith (Curator) and Prof. Rutherford (on the topic of mummified cats).

Participants gave enthusiastic feedback and called it ‘… a most enjoyable and stimulating study day…’, commenting that ‘the range of topics and their enthusiastic presentation were excellent’.