The ancient Egyptians are famous for having a very intense relationship with cats. But it wasn’t just cats, the Egyptians kept a number of pets that seem exotic, impractical or impossible to our contemporary sensibilities. In addition to cats and dogs, they were also fond of keeping falcons and hippos as pets.
As a mark of how important animals were to the Egyptians, pets were often mummified, to be buried alongside their owners. In fact, animals were also mummified en masse, to sell to religious pilgrims so they could be offered as tribute to the gods. When researchers investigated the Temple of Anubis last year, they found approximately eight million mummified animals stored within. Most of them were puppies.
But unlike the caches of mummified animals that have been found, a new discovery appears to be a pet cemetary. A team of researchers from the Polish Academy of Sciences, led by Marta Osypińska, found the site while excavating an ancient trash dump by Berenike.
In an article they published in the academic journal Antiquity, the researchers describe the burial site as being about two thousand years old. That means the burials were contemporary with the period when Egypt was controlled by the Roman Empire.
The cemetery consists of about one hundred animals, most of them cats. The scientists counted eighty-six cats, nine dogs and two monkeys. All of their skeletons were intact.
The site is interesting because it was clearly set aside just for pets. Two of the cats wore necklaces made of ostrich shells. Three other cats, as well as one of the monkeys, wore ornamental iron collars. And they were not buried along with human remains.
The cemetery is also interesting in that none of the animals show signs of disease. They were also not mummified. This runs contrary to the norm in animal burial sites found elsewhere in Egypt. “The Berenike cemetery,” wrote the researchers, “reflects different intentions and cultural practices compared to the Nile Valley animal deposits.”
We already knew from other archaeological finds that the ancient Egyptians regularly kept animals as pets. But the pet cemetery definitely points towards a very caring relationship between the Egyptians and their animals.
Steven Sidebotham, the director of the dig, says that the gesture of burying the pets was especially remarkable considering the extreme conditions in which the people lived. “[Berenike was] way out on the edge of nowhere. What makes this unique is [that despite] the very rough circumstances in which these people are living, they still manage to find the time and effort to have companion animals with them.”