2,000-Year-Old Ancient Egyptian Cemetery Containing Dozens of Pets Unearthed in Berenike
A team of archaeologists have discovered a nearly 2,000-year-old pet cemetery holding the remains of dogs, monkeys and scores of cats at the site of Berenike, an Egyptian town on the Red Sea that thrived 2,000 years ago.
Pet Burials Unearthed
The archaeologists made the finding while excavating a nearby ancient military port town in an area known as the "Early Roman trash dump.” As they noted, the careful way in which the animals were lovingly buried and positioned shows that this was an intentional pet cemetery site. Interestingly, animals buried as part of religious or spiritual ritual ordinarily have artifacts buried with them, but most of the animals found at Berenike did not have any.
According to Smithsonian, only a few animals still wore iron collars when they were laid to rest, and the graves of two young cats include ostrich-shell beads. Some of the animals’ bodies were nestled under mats or pottery jars, signaling they were deliberately buried rather than just discarded as trash, archaeologists maintain.
A map of where the pet remains were found on the outskirts of Berenike. Credit: Marta Osypińska
Marta Osypińska of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the author of the report on the finding in the journal Antiquity, explains that it’s not unusual to discover pets buried in ancient Egypt, but most were interred with or near their owners. In this case, however, only a few double burials were unearthed, “In addition to individual animal inhumations, three burials contained two animals," Osypińska told IBT and continued, "So far, the only species found in such double burials are cats, and significantly, they always contain an adult and a juvenile." In total, 86 cats were found in the pet cemetery.
The Animal Cult Industry of Ancient Egypt
Osypińska suggests that cats were killed and mummified during this period on an almost industrial scale, even though the Berenike site indicates that domestic animals were also given careful burials when they died naturally. As Liz Leafloor reports in a previous Ancient Origins article, millions upon millions of animal mummies have been found in the dark, carved stone tunnels beneath the location of Egypt’s earliest pyramid. The astounding piles of preserved animal remains not only signify a cultural and religious phenomenon, but also speaks to the mammoth industry that operated to maintain a source of constant tributes to the gods.
‘The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat’ by John Reinhard Weguelin, 1886. A priestess offers gifts of food and milk to the spirit of a cat. ( Wikimedia Commons )
The Saqqara catacombs served as the burial places of animal tributes to the jackal-headed deity Anubis. Millions of dogs sacrificed and mummified to the canine deity were only one part of a wider practice of sacred animal cults. Why dogs? During the First Dynasty (3100 – 2890 BC) it was believed the sacred animals were the avatars or manifestations of their look-alike gods – in this case canines were seen as the embodiment of Anubis. Salima Ikram, an archaeologist and professor of Egyptology at The American University in Cairo, explains that Egyptians believed that “killing man's best friend,” guaranteed that Anubis would accompany the deceased from this world to the afterlife. The dogs were thus thought to have been votive offerings to the jackal-headed deity. The better quality the offering, the more favor the donor might receive from Anubis.
Mummified dog, Taggart School Museum, Assuyt, Middle Egypt ( Flickr)
Bronze trinkets and figures have also been repeatedly found within the piles of animal remains. These valuables could have represented personal piety, the fulfillment of a vow, a gift placed in gratitude, or acted as a bribe, according to Ikram. It is of note, however, that none of the animal remains have been found decorated or prepared like the Egyptian human mummies famous the world around.
Berenike Site Seen as “Way Out on the Edge of Nowhere”
The latest find may not be the first discovery indicating that ancient Egyptians kept pets, but it definitely emphasizes the significant amount of time the Egyptians and Romans spent in order to take care of these animals, as Steven Sidebotham, a researcher at the University of Delaware who directed the Berenike dig, suggests. "Berenike was way out on the edge of nowhere," Sidebotham says, pointing out that the site was so remote and harsh that most food was imported from hundreds of miles away. "What makes this unique is [despite] the very rough circumstances in which these people are living, they still manage to find the time and effort to have companion animals with them," he added [via Smithsonian].
Ultimately, Osypińska writes in the study that appears in the journal Antiquity, that the animal cemetery in Berenike is a unique example of the burial of household pets in Roman times. The careful treatment of the bodies suggests an emotional relationship between humans and pets as we know it today, a fact that openly questions the false assumption of pet-keeping only being a modern phenomenon.
Top image: Some of the remains of ancient Egyptian pets unearthed in Berenike. Credit: Antiquity/Marta Osypińska