A Roman Era Pet Cemetery: 86 Cat Burials Discovered in Egypt
Eighty-six pet cats from the Roman Era were found on the outskirts of the ancient port town of Berenike (Berenice) near the Red Sea in Egypt. The method of burial implies they were not part of a religious ritual, just pets that died of natural causes. This phenomenon has been noted with many different animal species and involved various funerary practices in the ancient world, although mummification was the most common.
Animal Burials Weren’t Uncommon
The burial of animals is attested to in Egypt from the pre-Dynastic period through to Roman times. However, animal burials in ritualistic contexts is also encountered across Europe from Prehistory through historical times. The most frequently buried animal type in Berenike was the domestic cat, while in most European places it was the domestic dog.
Egypt was probably the most significant of the places where cats were first domesticated. To date, the Berenike cemetery has produced 86 complete cat skeletons and several other bones from disturbed burials. Single cat bones have been identified in other parts of the Early Roman port and its rubbish dumps.
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Dispersion of small animal burials in one of the excavated trenches. The level of the trash dump is dated to the 2nd century AD. (drawn by P. Osypiński)
A Unique Site
The researchers described the importance of the discovery for human-animal relationships in the journal Antiquity. They wrote: “Relations between people and animals in the past are usually approached through the prism of archaeozoology, but this too often neglects the possibility of pet-keeping, which is assumed to be a modern phenomenon. The finds from Berenike seem to question this assumption.”
Animals buried as part of religious or spiritual rituals usually have artifacts buried with them, but most of the animals found at Berenike did not have any. Of course, there were a few exceptions to this, with some cats found with an ostrich egg shell bead by their necks. Three cats and a vervet monkey were also buried wearing iron collars.
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Marta Osypińska, author of the study from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology at the Polish Academy of Sciences, described the burials to the International Business Times: "In addition to individual animal inhumations, three burials contained two animals. So far, the only species found in such double burials are cats, and significantly, they always contain an adult and a juvenile."
Osypińska said that cats were usually killed and mummified during this period, but the Berenike site shows that domestic animals were also buried carefully when they died from natural causes, such as aging.
Example of a mummified cat from ancient Egypt. (Public Domain)
The Location of the Cat Graveyard
The cat graveyard was discovered next to the ancient military port town in a location known to archaeologists as the "Early Roman trash dump". However, experts believe that when the cats were buried it was a clear undulating area on the outskirts of Berenike. The experts stress that these finds should be interpreted as a cemetery for house pets, rather than deposits related to sacred or magical rites.
Drawing of the remains found in another of the excavated trenches in Berenike, Egypt. (drawn by P. Osypiński)
Top Image: Photos of some of the cat burials found in the cemetery in Berenike, Egypt. Source: Marta Osypińska