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 2011). 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 2011: 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
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
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. 2014). 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 al.
2007), has been identified at Berenike.
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 baboon.
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 2013: 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 1973). 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 this assumption.