Ancient pet cemetery and ship hull uncovered at Red Sea port
An international team of archaeologists from Poland and the USA have made two significant discoveries at the 2,000-year-old ancient port of Berenike on the Red Sea coast of Egypt, according to a news report in PAP (Science and Scholarship in Poland). The findings include a ship’s hull from the Roman era and an extensive burial ground for animals. They have also started to pinpoint some of the major buildings of the port through geophysical work.
Berenike, also spelt Berenice, was founded in the 3rd century BC by Pharaoh Ptolemy II (285-246 years BC), who named it after his mother, Berenice I of Egypt. Initially, the port was used for shipments of African elephants, which were used in the wars against the Seleucids in the Near East, who had blocked the import of Indian elephants. The city was also a refuge and place of temporary residence for seafarers, traders and the general public from far corners of the world, and provided a safe haven along the dangerous shipping route over the Red Sea with its treacherous coral reefs and marauding pirates. In the Roman period, Berenike developed into a trade emporium: spices, myrrh, frankincense, pearls and textiles were shipped via Berenike to Alexandria and Rome.
Berenike was established as a port to import African war elephants. Image source .
Excavations were first launched at Berenike in 1994 and are still continuing. One of the most significant finds of recent months is the ship’s hull, which is the first fully preserved and documented frame from the hull of the ship from the Roman period in Egypt. The location of the hull suggests that the ship had been dismantled and its parts stored in a warehouse near the port.
"This will be the first time that we know the actual size and construction of a Red Sea vessel, because no ancient vessels, or even wrecks have survived to this day," said Iwona Zych from the Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw.
Reconstruction of the ship’s frame. Image: Rys. J. Rądkowska/Berenike Project, PCMA UW
The second and slightly more intriguing discovery at Berenike was a large cemetery for small animals. So far, the research team have uncovered the remains of 60 animals including a large number of cats, a small number of dogs, two vervet monkeys, and a baboon. Most of the animals were found inside clay vessels. Interestingly, one of the monkeys had a metal collar, suggesting that it may have been kept as a pet.
Dr Marta Osypińska, the project archaeozoologist, has speculated that the large concentration of animal burials may reflect some sort of plague or disease at the port. Alternatively, it is possible the animals were used in magic rituals before a long sea journey took place, or that it was simply a place for the port’s inhabitants to bury their deceased pets. It is hoped that further research will help to unravel the exact reason for the cemetery, which may shed light on life and culture in the ancient sea port.
Archaeologists taking measurements in the animal cemetery: Marta Osypińska, Piotr Osypiński, Kamila Braulińska. Photo: S. E. Sidebotham/Berenike Project, PCMA UW
Archaeologists working at Berenike have also made progress in mapping the entire layout of the ancient port. Using the latest high-tech scanning methods, the research team have been able to identify the outline of buildings and other structures that have not yet been unearthed.
"This year's results are very promising. We have registered structures that are completely invisible on the surface. Among them is a building resembling a Tetrapylon (gate with four entries) at the intersection of two main streets and a large complex, probably with public/administration/cult purposes, in northern part of the city. We can expect the most important urban buildings in that area," said Zych.
Featured image: Animal burial at Berenike. Image: K. Braulińska/Berenike Project, PCMA UW