The burial of animals is attested in Egypt from the pre-Dynastic period through to
Roman times. This phenomenon is observed across different animal species and
involves varied funerary practices, although mummification is the most
significant. Against this background, a series of burials of small animals, under
excavation since 2011 at Berenike, suggests a unique example of pet-keeping rather
than the religious or magical deposits found in the Nile Valley.
Berenike was a port-town on the Red Sea coast. It was established as a military
post to protect the transhipment of African elephants being carried by sea for
Ptolemy II (285 BC–246 BC). Following a period of decline, during the Early Roman
period (first to third centuries AD), the Ptolemaic fort area revived to become
one of the most important of the ports linking Upper Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula
and the Indian Ocean (Sidebotham Reference Sidebotham2011).
Systematic archaeological excavations were initiated in 1994 and have continued
irregularly until the present day. Currently, research at the site is directed by
Steven Sidebotham in cooperation with the Polish Centre for Mediterranean
Archaeology, Warsaw University.
As part of these excavations, nearly 100 complete animal skeletons have been
discovered in the area located to the west of so-called Serapis Temple on the
outskirts of the Early Roman port (Figure
1). The stratigraphy and abundant material culture of this burial ground
indicate that it was in use between the last quarter of the first century AD and
the first half of the second century AD. The burial ground is located within a
much wider zone, known as the “Early Roman trash dump” (Sidebotham Reference Sidebotham2011: 57) that has been under investigation
since the start of archaeological work in Berenike, and which has produced a
plethora of priceless finds. At the beginning of the first millennium AD, however,
this place was an empty sector between the town and the much earlier Ptolemaic
fort. Within this undulating area, the first burials of small animals were made
during the last decades of the first century AD. The latest animal burials, dug
into the rubbish dumped all across this area, can be dated to the second century
AD (Figure 2).
Figure 1. Location of the Berenike and specific town zones (drawn by M. Hense).
Figure 2. Dispersion of small animal burials in excavated trenches—level of trash
dump dated to second century AD (drawn by P. Osypiński).
The animal burials from Berenike typically have no grave goods. A few examples of
accessories, however, are preserved. Two young cats were found, each with a single
ostrich egg-shell bead by their necks, and another three cats and a vervet monkey
were buried with iron collars. In addition to individual animal inhumations, three
burials contained two animals (Figure 3).
So far, the only species found in such double burials are cats, and significantly,
they always contain an adult and a juvenile.
Figure 3. Selection of cat burials from Berenike (photograph M. Osypińska).
The most frequently buried animal type in Berenike was the domestic cat. Egypt was
undoubtedly one—and probably the most important—of the places where cats were
first domesticated (Van Neer et al. Reference Van Neer, Linseele, Friedman and de Cupere2014). The Berenike cemetery has so far produced 86
complete cat skeletons and a number of other bones from disturbed burials. It
should also be mentioned that single cat bones have been identified in other parts
of the Early Roman port and its rubbish dumps. Currently, the assemblage of
complete burials consists of 34.9 per cent adults, 27.9 per cent sub-adults and
37.2 per cent juveniles, infants and neonates.
Preliminary metrical analysis of the cat skeletal material suggests a homogeneous
population. The data correspond well with the values from other north-east African
domestic cats. So far, no evidence for other types of cats, such as the jungle cat
(Felis chaus) known from the Nile Valley (Linseele et
Reference Linseele, Van Neer and Hendrickx2007), has been identified at
The next most common species recorded in the burial ground is that of dog (nine
individuals), and at least two types of monkey: three grivets and one olive
Most of the well-preserved, complete animal skeletons are free of any pathologies.
Particular attention has been paid to any evidence for the intentional killing of
the animals—a practice known from the Nile Valley animal mummies—but there is no
indication of this in the Berenike assemblage.
On the basis of the type of burial, the absence of mummification, the diverse
species list and the absence of human inhumations, it is suggested that the
Berenike cemetery reflects different intentions and cultural practices compared to
the Nile Valley animal deposits. In my opinion, the described features suggest
that the Berenike finds should be interpreted as a cemetery of house pets rather
than deposits related to sacred or magical rites.
There is evidence confirming the ancient roots of the keeping of small pet
animals, both in Egypt and Mediterranean Europe; the burials of favoured Roman
dogs, for example, were commemorated with epitaphs. Dog burials in Egypt have also
been interpreted as a reflection of humanity's emotional bond to “Man's best
friend” (Ikram Reference Ikram2013: 299); typically,
these dogs were buried with a human and so were presumably killed on the owner's
death. In the case of cats, we have no evidence of this kind, either from Egypt or
other regions. Instead, in Egypt, we find cat mummies produced on an almost
industrial scale, especially in the first centuries AD.
Another specific feature of the Berenike cemetery is the very high percentage of
cats. These animals were deeply respected throughout the pre-Roman periods, but
such practices were never adopted by other societies. In Roman Europe, the cat
initially became popular in the first century AD and its spread was aided by the
Roman army (Toynbee Reference Toynbee1973). Thus, could
we suspect that the eclectic evidence (both Egyptian and Roman) from Berenike
reflects the adoption of the cat as a pet in this multicultural community?
Naturally, there are plenty of reasons for keeping cats in a port-town, but the
general segregation of the kitten and adult inhumations suggests a more complex
relationship than pragmatic coexistence.
The animal cemetery in Berenike appears to be a unique site. 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