Cats and dogs lie as if they are sleeping in individual graves. Many had collars or other embellishments, and they had been cared for through injuries and old age, just like today’s pets. But the last person to bury a beloved animal companion in this arid Egyptian land on the shores of the Red Sea did so nearly 2,000 years ago.
The site, located in the early Roman port of Berenice, was found a decade ago, but its purpose was mysterious. Now a detailed excavation has found burials of nearly 600 cats and dogs along with the strongest evidence yet that these animals were precious pets. It would make the place the oldest known cemetery for pets, the authors claim, suggesting that the modern pet concept was no stranger to the ancient world.
“I have never encountered a cemetery like this,” said Michael MacKinnon, a zoological zoologist at the University of Winnipeg who studied the role of animals in the vanished Mediterranean but was not involved in the new work. “The idea of pets as part of the family is hard to grasp in antiquity, but I think they were [family] here.”
Archaeologist Marta Osypinska and her colleagues at the Polish Academy of Sciences discovered the cemetery just outside the city walls during a Roman landfill in 2011. The cemetery bulbs that have been used between the first and second centuries AD, when Berenice was a busy Roman port that traded ivory, textiles and other luxury goods from India, Arabia and Europe.
In 2017, Osypinska’s team reported that they were revealed remains of approx. 100 animals—Most cats – as bulbs that have been cared for as pets. But the exact nature of the site was not clear. Salima Ikram, an expert on ancient Egyptian animals at the American University of Cairo, said at the time that the bones may have been discarded waste.
Osypinska and her colleagues have now excavated the remains of 585 animals from the site and analyzed the bones in detail. A veterinarian helped the team determine health, diet and cause of death.
The animals bulb for having been carefully placed in well-prepared pits. Many were covered with textiles or pieces of pottery, “which formed a kind of sarcophagus,” says Osypinska. More than 90% were cats, many of whom had iron collars or necklaces threaded with glass and shells. A feline was placed on the wing of a large bird.
The team found no evidence of mummification, sacrifice or other ritual practices seen at ancient animal burial sites such as Ashkelon Place in Israel. At Berenice, most of the animals bulge to have died of injury or disease. Some cats have broken legs or other fractures that may be caused by falls or from being kicked by a horse. Others died young, possibly due to infectious diseases that spread riding in the cramped city.
The dogs, which only make up approx. 5% of burials (the rest are monkeys), tended to be older when they died. Many had lost most of their teeth or suffered periodontal disease and joint degeneration.
“We have people who have very limited mobility,” says Osypinska. Yet many lived long lives and their injuries healed. “Such animals had to be fed in order to survive,” she says, “sometimes with special food in the case of the almost toothless animals.”
The fact that humans took such good care of the animals, especially in a rough area where almost all the resources had to be imported – and that they took such care to bury them, as many modern owners do – suggests the people of Berenice had a strong emotional bond with their cats and dogs, the team concluded last month in World Archeology. “They did not do it for the gods or for any utilitarian benefit,” Osypinska says. Instead, she argues that the relationship between humans and their pets was “surprisingly close” to what we see today.
Ikram is convinced. “This is a cemetery,” she says. “And it sheds an interesting light on the people of Berenice and their relationship with their animals.”
Archaeologist Wim Van Neer is also on board. “I have never seen a cat with a collar” so long ago, says Van Neer from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, who has studied the relationship between humans and animals in the ancient world, also in Berenice.
Still, he says it is possible that Berenice’s people valued their cats and dogs for non-experimental reasons. A seort would have teemed with rats, he remarks, making cats a valued working animal. And even though a couple of the puppies on site were small dogs that resembled today’s toy breeds – and therefore probably had little use, except as dogs, larger dogs could have guarded homes and consumed waste. “I do not think it was just a loving relationship.”
Osypinska hopes the new work will convince other archaeologists that accompanying animals are worth studying. “At first, some very experienced archaeologists discouraged me from this research,” arguing that pets were irrelevant to understanding the lives of ancient people, she says. “I hope the results of our research show that it’s worth it.”