Berenike (Egypte) : Archaeologists Find Rare Pet Cemetery

Kristina Killgrove

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Berenike catsCat skeletons from Roman-era Berenike, Egypt.

At the site of Berenike on the Red Sea coast of southern Egypt, archaeologists discovered the burials of nearly 100 complete animal skeletons dating to about 75-150 AD, making it one of the earliest known pet cemeteries.

Animal burials are quite common in Egypt, from the pre-Dynastic through Roman times, although archaeologists usually see mummified creatures. Excavations at Berenike, however, which have been underway for more than two decades and led by Steven Sidebotham(University of Delaware), uncovered a burial ground that was located just outside of town.

Investigation of the animal skeletons was performed by Marta Osypińska (Polish Academy of Sciences) and reported recently in the journal Antiquity. Osypińska found a few animals with artifacts: two young cats each had an ostrich eggshell bead near their neck, and three cats and a monkey were buried with what appear to be iron collars.

Urn cambridge org id binary alt 20161202065009 26980 optimisedimage s0003598x16001812 fig2gSmall animal burials in excavated trenches at Berenike (c. 2nd c AD)

Although a few dogs and monkeys were found at Berenike, the majority of the skeletons are of domesticated cats. As Egypt was one of the locations of the earliest cat domestication, this cemetery is an important find and sheds light on humans' relationship with animals.

Osypińska concludes that these animals were all likely pets due to the lack of disease and the lack of evidence of intentional killing. "On the basis of this type of burial, the absence of mummification, the diverse species list, and the absence of human inhumations," she writes, "it is suggested that the Berenike cemetery [...] should be interpreted as a cemetery of house pets rather than deposits related to sacred or magical rites."

The Berenike cemetery appears to be unique, as cat burials are found far less often than cat mummification, which is an ancient Egyptian practice that centers on religious offerings. Cat burials are also found less often than dog burials, a Roman practice that appears to reflect the dog's role as a pet or companion. Osypińska suggests that the high percentage of cat burials may therefore reflect the multicultural nature of the Berenike community and offer a new approach to the consideration of pets.

Although Berenike was a military port-town, it was not located close to any major city, and life on this frontier was likely harsh. The presence of animal companions may very well have alleviated some of the residents' stress and made their days more interesting, in much the same way as our animal friends still do today.