The ancient transcontinental port of Berenice, located in southern Egypt on the west coast of the Red Sea, was established in the 3rd century BC. By Egypt’s early Roman period (30 BC to the 4th century AD), it had become an important seaport, with goods passing through from Egypt, East Africa, India, Arabia, and Europe for trade across the Roman Empire.
The ruins of the town were identified in the early 19th century, and several phases of excavation have been undertaken since then. In 2011, excavations on the outskirts of Berenice uncovered several small animal skeletons. Further investigations of this area carried out over the following decade revealed that it was the site of a unique early-Roman animal cemetery, established in the 1st century AD. The discoveries from this burial ground are the subject of a new paper, recently published in the journal World Archaeology (see ‘Further reading’, below).
Investigations at the site, carried out as part of the Berenike Project – in collaboration with the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, the University of Warsaw, and Delaware University – revealed 585 complete animal skeletons, in addition to other fragmented remains that indicate the total number of animals buried here was even higher than this. Of the 585 complete individuals in the cemetery, 536 are cats, whilst dogs and monkeys make up a much smaller proportion of the burials, with just 32 and 15 individuals respectively. More unusually, one Rüppell’s fox and one Barbary falcon are also present.
The cemetery is particularly interesting because it is not just local animals that are represented here. It was originally assumed that the monkeys in the burial ground would belong to one of the species of baboons that lives in north-eastern Africa, but morphological analysis revealed that, in fact, they are most likely to represent two species of macaque (Rhesus macaque and Bonnet macaque) that live in the Indian subcontinent. These species are highly intelligent, good swimmers, and able to adapt to a variety of foods and conditions – all factors that may have played a role in the decision to transport them thousands of miles across the ocean to this corner of the Roman Empire.
Although cats are commonly found in ancient Egypt, the population at Berenice appears to be more varied in size than those discovered at other sites in the area. This could be explained by natural sexual variation, but there is also a possibility that it is an indication that these animals were brought to the city not just from the Nile Valley, but from further afield, possibly even from other continents.
Many of the dogs in the cemetery look like the local population native to this area around the Eastern Desert. However, dogs with very similar characteristics are also known to have existed in other regions, such as the Indian subcontinent, so there is a possibility that some of them could have been introduced to Berenice from more distant locations. Furthermore, there are at least two examples of different species that definitely came from beyond the Red Sea coast, one of which was a miniature ‘toy dog’ of a Maltese type. Small dogs like this are known in literature and iconography, but their physical remains have never been found before in Egypt.
Animal remains are found at many ancient Egyptian sites, often in the form of sacrifices to the gods, but the cemetery at Berenice is different. The evidence here suggests that these animals were kept as pets.
Unlike mummified animals at other sites in the Nile Valley, none of the animals at Berenice seem to have been killed by people or allowed to die through starvation for the purposes of sacrifice. They have also not been mummified, but have been carefully buried, often in sleeping-positions, some wrapped in mats, covered with pottery, or in makeshift coffins. Also unusual is the fact that the site has no human burials at all, unlike most other burial grounds containing animals in the region.
Apart from pottery fragments, ‘collars’ were the objects most frequently found accompanying the burials of cats and monkeys at Berenice. These were mostly made of iron, although there are some examples in bronze and various organic materials. Also found with some animals were necklaces with beads of glass, faience, stone, or shell. Several animals were found buried with other individuals – there are multiple instances of young cats and kittens buried in graves of two to four individuals – or parts of other animals, such as the cat placed on the wing of a large bird. In one particularly exceptional burial, a young Bonnet macaque was buried with three kittens, a very young piglet, two large shells, two large vessel fragments, a grass basket sealed with resin, and a piece of cloth. These adornments clearly reflect how much these animals were valued by the people who buried them.
Analysis of the animals’ skeletal remains also revealed that many of them were injured or sick, often with limited mobility, and would have required human care in order to survive. There are also examples of old animals who would not have survived for so long if they had not been fed and looked after by people. Furthermore, examination of some of the animals’ stomach contents revealed that they were being fed with choice foods such as small fish. Evidence of humans caring for animals can also be seen in texts from early Roman Berenice; for example, one reads, ‘Herennius to Satornilus his dearest, greetings… Concerning the cats, Ourses is taking care of them in accordance with what I also wrote to you on another occasion.’
Although it is likely that some of these animals did serve a practical function, such as cats catching mice, and dogs guarding and helping with hunting, the presence of injured or old animals, and others such as the small ‘toy dog’ or monkeys who could not have worked, indicates that humans were keeping these animals not just for their ability to be useful, but for companionship.
It has been argued by some scholars that ‘pets’ as we understand them did not exist in the ancient world, but the discoveries at Berenice clearly demonstrate that people had close emotional connections with domestic animals, keeping them for company, caring for them in sickness, and burying them with love.
FURTHER READING M Osypinska, M Skibniewski & P Osypinski (2021), ‘Ancient Pets: the health, diet and diversity of cats, dogs and monkeys from the Red Sea port of Berenice (Egypt) in the 1st-2nd centuries AD’, World Archaeology (https://doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2020.1870545).
ALL PHOTOS: Marta Osypińska.