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Ancient Red Sea Port May Have World’s Oldest Pet Cemetery

Ancient Red Sea Port May Have World’s Oldest Pet Cemetery

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Archaeologists unearthed an extensive animal burial ground at the 2,000-year-old port of Berenice on the Red Sea coast of Egypt a decade ago. Now they say that the evidence found in almost 600 animal graves suggests this could be the world’s oldest pet cemetery.

The site was first discovered by archaeozoologist Marta Osypinska and her colleagues at the Polish Academy of Sciences in 2011. It’s located  just outside the city walls of Berenice  (also spelled Berenike.) It was under a Roman trash dump and the researchers write in their new paper published in  World Archaeology  that “The ‘pet cemetery’ at the port functioned from the mid-1st to mid-2nd century AD.”

Manner of placement of the body of a dog, cat and monkey in the ‘pet cemetery’ at Berenice. (Osypinska, M., Skibniewski, M., & P. Osypinski/ World Archaeology 2021 )

Exploring Animal Life in Berenice 2,000 Years Ago?

Before examining the nature of the burials and approaching the pet cemetery debate, it’s worth putting the animal graves into context.  Berenice was a port  that would have seen many ships, as the Romans who controlled it traded ivory, fabrics, and other luxury goods with people all over India, Arabia, and Europe. Imported resources were not only of economic concern, but they were also important to keeping people, and possibly their pets, alive in this location.

A busy port would have had  rats, and that means that  cats and dogs could have been very helpful creatures to have around. They may have held value, in part, as working animals. Larger dogs could have also served to protect homes and other buildings.

The Graves of Hundreds of Animals Tell Tales of Human Interest

The assumption that this may be the oldest pet cemetery in the world is based on the analysis of 585 burials which have been unearthed to date. Most of the graves were made for cats, although the researchers also  write that they found dogs “mainly of a light, Spitz-type, there was also a taller variant, as well as toy-dogs” and “two species of macaques” at the burial ground.

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Most of the burials suggest that the animals were laid to rest with care in well-prepared graves. Excavations revealed many of the bodies had been covered with textiles or pottery fragments – as if the animals were inside “a kind of sarcophagus,”  according to Osypinska. Numerous cats, which make up 90% of the burials in the proposed pet cemetery, were wearing iron  collars or necklaces with glass and shell beads. They even found one cat which had been placed on a large bird wing in its burial pit.

Collars and beads found alongside cats, as well as the accoutrements of a monkey burial. (Osypinska, M., Skibniewski, M., & P. Osypinski/ World Archaeology 2021 )

The study authors argue that the manner of the  burials, nature of the remains, and the grave goods all suggest that these animals were pets – a concept which has been debated when discussing animal and human relationships in the distant past. For example,  back in 2017 , when the excavation team had already discovered dozens of animals, they were told that the remains could just be discarded trash and of little relevance for people interested in understanding the lives of the humans who inhabited the site.

But that didn’t sway Osypinska from her perspective that there was something more to the site and the relationship between the animals in the graveyard and the people who they accompanied during their lives. She told  Science magazine  “At first, some very experienced archaeologists discouraged me from this research. I hope the results of our studies prove that it’s worth it.”

Excavations at the port of Berenice, also known as Berenike, have revealed more than 500 animal burials, mostly cats, in a proposed 2,000-year-old pet cemetery. ( I. Zych/The Berenike Project: the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw, and the University of Delaware )

Signs of Care

When a veterinarian joined the team to analyze the bones and determine the animals’ health, diet, and cause of death, they discovered evidence to support the notion that the animals had received human care during their lives. The report shows that the animals mostly died from injury or disease, but several of them received more than basic care.

Osypinska explained that many of the animals had lived long lives and their bones show evidence of injuries having healed. “We have individuals who have very limited mobility. Such animals had to be fed to survive,” she  said, “sometimes with special foods in the case of the almost-toothless animals.”

But is it a Pet Cemetery?

According to the new paper, these actions could only be explained by the “close emotional relationships” between the animals and humans. “They weren’t doing it for the gods or for any  utilitarian benefit,”  Osypinska said.

Which brings up a common argument against the belief that these were pets. Some researchers  still argue  that the busy port of Berenice lends support to the notion that these were working animals, it’s worth remembering that, as the researchers note “dogs and cats may be explained by the need of their utilitarian ‘services’, [but] it seems difficult to justify the presence of  miniature dogs  and macaques on such grounds.”

The remains of a cat at Berenice were found naturally desiccated, wearing a collar (inset), and wrapped in linen. ( M. Osypińska/The Berenike Project: the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw, and the University of Delaware )

Salima Ikram, an archaeologist and professor of Egyptology at The American University in Cairo, who  Science magazine  notes was one of the naysayers in 2017, has now been convinced by the evidence. “This is a cemetery. And it sheds an interesting light on the inhabitants of Berenice and their relationships with their animals.”

In the end, even if many of the animals were working animals, that doesn’t negate the idea that they were also loved. The care that went into burying these animals shows that there was a special bond between at least some of the animals and the humans who buried them.  Previous studies  all around the world already provide enough evidence that humans living in the distant past had strong emotional bonds to animals.

Top Image: A dog protected with a piece of pottery, which was buried in the pet cemetery at Berenice. Source:  M. Osypinska

By Alicia McDermott

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