ancient Egyptian pet cemetery
Image via Marta Osypinska

 

A group of Polish archeologists in Egypt working on a site along the coast of the Red Sea has unearthed a pet cemetery dating back 1,800 years to the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. Among the finds were burials containing the skeletons of 100 pets. The location of the site is in the old Roman port town of Berenike, which was established in the Ptolemaic period between 285-246 B.C. While cats and perhaps a smattering of dogs among the graves were expected, there were some surprises as well.

Domestic Pets of Ancient Egypt

Cats were revered among ancient Egyptians and countless examples of their remains have been uncovered over the years, but the cemetery at Berenike actually contained the skeletal remains of nine dogs, too. It appears most pets were buried separately, but double graves with cats occurred on multiple occasions. In one grave, a vervet monkey and three felines were found buried together, along with their iron collars. But those weren't the only pets identified among the cache of bones.

Primates as Pets

During the height of the Roman Empire it was not that uncommon to hold exotic animals in captivity as a source of amusement. Some were kept as pets, others were merely to admire, and still more were sent to the arenas to do battle with gladiators or to maul slaves for sport. As the Empire expanded the exotic pet trend caught on in many other parts of the world. Due to this, it wasn't a total surprise that at least four monkeys were buried in the cemetery. They included grivets and an olive baboon.

Ancient Burial Practices

The location of the cemetery came to light as the result of a larger excavation being undertaken near the town within close proximity to the temple to Serapis by the Polish Center for Mediterranean Archaeology at Warsaw University. According to the journal Antiquity, the dig actually began back in 1994 and is currently headed by Steven Sidebotham of the University of Delaware. The site differs in the sense that the animals it contains were obviously not used as part of any ancient burial practices.

Feline Domestication

One of the researchers, Marta Osypinska, wrote in her paper for the journal, "Egypt was undoubtedly one — and probably the most important — of the places where cats were first domesticated." More feline bones have been identified in other parts of the early port town, pointing to a sizeable cat population in the area at the time. The dogs in the plot were probably as a result of Roman influence. Either way, the cemetery is a strong testament to the lengthy bond between humans and pets.

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