A dog buried in Berenice was protected with a piece of ceramic.
By David GrimmFeb. 26, 2021, 10:45 a.m.
The cats and dogs lie asleep in individual graves. Many wore collars or other ornaments, and, like pets today, had been cared for from injury and age. But the last person to bury a beloved animal companion in this arid Egyptian land on the Red Sea coast did so almost 2,000 years ago.
The site in the early Roman port of Berenice was found 10 years ago, but its purpose was mysterious. Now a detailed excavation has uncovered the burials of nearly 600 cats and dogs, along with the strongest evidence yet that these animals were valued pets. That would make the site the oldest known pet cemetery, the authors argue, suggesting that the modern concept of pets was no stranger to the ancient world.
“I’ve never come across a cemetery like this,” says Michael MacKinnon, a zoo archaeologist at the University of Winnipeg who has studied the role of animals in the past Mediterranean but was not involved in the new work. “The idea of considering pets as part of the family is difficult to understand in ancient times, but I think they were [family] Here.”
The archaeozoologist Marta Osypinska and her colleagues from the Polish Academy of Sciences discovered the cemetery right in front of the city wall under a Roman rubbish dump in 2011. The cemetery appears to have been in use between the first and second centuries AD, when Berenice was a busy Roman port trading ivory, fabrics, and other luxuries from India, Arabia, and Europe.
In 2017, the Osypinska team reported that the remains of around 100 animals – mostly cats – that were apparently cared for like pets were exposed. However, the exact nature of the website was not clear. Salima Ikram, an expert on ancient Egyptian animals at the American University in Cairo, said at the time that the bones may have been thrown away.
Field research at the Berenice pet cemetery
Osypinska and her colleagues have now dug up the remains of 585 animals from the construction site and analyzed the bones in detail. A veterinarian helped the team determine health, diet, and cause of death.
The animals appear to have been carefully placed in well-prepared pits. Many were covered with textiles or ceramic pieces, “which formed a kind of sarcophagus,” says Osypinska. More than 90% were cats, many wore iron collars or necklaces with glass and shells. A cat was placed on the wing of a large bird.
The team found no evidence of mummification, sacrifice, or other ritual practices observed at ancient animal burial sites such as the Ashkelon site in Israel. Most of the animals in Berenice seem to have died of injuries or illnesses. Some cats have broken legs or other fractures, possibly caused by falling or kicking a horse. Others died young, possibly from infectious diseases that spread rapidly in the narrow city.
The dogs, which make up only about 5% of burials (the rest are monkeys), tended to be older at the time of their death. Many had lost most of their teeth or suffered from periodontal disease and joint degeneration.
“We have people with 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 foods in the almost toothless animals.”
A cat from Berenice wore a bronze collar.
The fact that humans looked after the animals so well, especially in a troubled region where almost all resources had to be imported – and that they looked after them just like many modern owners – suggests the humans of Berenice had strong emotional bonds with their cats and dogs, the team concluded in World Archeology last month. “They didn’t do it for the gods or for any useful use,” says Osypinska. Instead, she argues that the relationship between people and their pets was “surprisingly close” to what we see today.
Ikram is convinced. “This is a cemetery,” she says. “And it sheds interesting light on the people of Berenice and their relationships with their animals.”
The archaeologist Wim Van Neer is also on board. “I’ve never seen a cat with a collar,” says Van Neer of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, which studied the relationship between humans and animals in ancient times, also in Berenice.
Still, he says, it is possible that the people of Berenice valued their cats and dogs for non-sentimental reasons. A seaport would have been full of rats, he discovers, which would have made cats a valued workhorse. And although some of the pups on the property were small dogs similar to today’s toy breeds – and therefore likely only useful as lap dogs – larger canines could have guarded houses and devoured garbage. “I don’t think it was just a loving relationship.”
Osypinska hopes the new work will convince other archaeologists that pets are worth investigating. “At first some very experienced archaeologists stopped me from doing this research,” she argues, saying that pets are irrelevant to understanding the life of the ancient peoples. “I hope the results of our studies show that it is worth it.”