Is this 2,000-year-old Egyptian burial site the world’s oldest pet cemetery?

A team of archaeologists has discovered the oldest known pet cemetery on record — a nearly 2,000-year-old burial ground filled with well-loved animals, including the remains of cats and monkeys still wearing collars strung with shell, glass and stone beads, at the port of Berenice on the Red Sea coast of Egypt a decade ago.

The dry Egyptian desert preserved the remains of this cat buried in a blanket
The dry Egyptian desert preserved the remains of this cat buried in a blanket. © Marta Osypińska)

The head of the research, Marta Osypińska, a zooarchaeologist from the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, explains that although the ancient Egyptians used to mummify animals to honour the gods, in this case, it is an unusual place since, unlike other cemeteries where the animals had died from starvation or a snapped neck, in this case there is no mummy and no signs were found that the animals had died from some type of human violence, which leads them to think that they were pets.

“There are old, sick and deformed animals that had to be fed and cared for by someone,” Osypińska explains to Live Science. They were not animals that were functional for work but required attention. “Most of the animals were buried very carefully. The animals are placed in a sleeping position — sometimes wrapped in a blanket, sometimes covered with dishes” she adds.

In one case, a macaque monkey was buried with three kittens, a grass basket, cloth, vessel fragments (one of which covered a young piglet) and “two very beautiful Indian Ocean shells stacked against its head,” Osypińska said. “So, we think that in Berenice the animals were not sacrifices to the gods, but just pets.”

The skeleton of a lame cat.
The skeleton of a lame cat. © Marta Osypińska

Dated in the first and second centuries A.D. during Egypt’s early Roman period, archaeologists discovered the pet cemetery by accident. According to this scientific medium, for years researchers have excavated the outskirts of Berenice because there is an ancient dump filled with rubbish from Egyptian society. In 2011, the team began finding small animal remains in one area, so they looped in Osypińska because of her speciality in zooarchaeology.

“It turned out to be dozens of cat skeletons,” she said. In fact, of the 585 animals they excavated, 536 were cats, 32 dogs, 15 monkeys, one fox and one falcon. None of the animals was mummified, but some were placed in makeshift coffins. For instance, one large dog “was wrapped in a mat of palm leaves and someone had carefully placed two halves of a large vessel (amphora) on his body,” just like a sarcophagus, Osypińska said.

Archaeologists found the remains of a cat wearing a bronze collar.
Archaeologists found the remains of a cat wearing a bronze collar. © Marta Osypińska

Just like some pets today, these animals may have worked for their owners, Osypińska said. For instance, cats may have been mousers and the dogs could have helped guard and hunt. But a few of the animals were deformed, meaning they likely couldn’t run. “Someone fed and kept such a ‘useless’ cat,” Osypińska said. Her team also found dogs, some nearly toothless, that made it to old age, and three “toy dogs,” smaller than cats, that were likely too small to work.

The importance they gave to animals at that time is given because many of them were wrapped with fine fabrics or ceramic pieces that formed a kind of sarcophagus. The cats, which accounted for 90% of the total remains, wore iron collars or beaded necklaces, “sometimes very precious and exclusive,” Osypińska said. An ostracon, a piece of ceramic with text — like an “antique text message” — found at the site had a note from when some pet cats were still alive, telling an owner not to worry about the cats, because someone else was taking care of them, she added.

These ancient Egyptian dogs were buried in ceramic vessels.
These ancient Egyptian dogs were buried in ceramic vessels. © Marta Osypińska

Thus, in summary, the new study based on the discoveries at Berenice allows putting to the test the dominant theses in scientific discourse on the human-animal relationship in ancient times since there is numerous strong archaeozoological, veterinary and textual evidence that clearly indicates that people who lived here nearly two thousand years ago cared for non-utilitarian animals in a similar way to today, a relationship in which the animals could have provided emotional companionship.