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Archeologists Discover Nearly 2,000-Year-Old Pet Cemetery in Egypt

Containing 100 lovingly positioned creatures, the site suggests that the ancients could have valued their companion animals as much as we do

(Antiquity/Marta Osypińska)
smithsonian.com

The ancient Egyptians had complicated relationships with animals. They kept a wide range of pets, from cats and dogs to hippos and falcons, and many household pets were mummified and buried with their owners. Animals were also mummified at an "industrial scale," sold to pilgrims who offered the mummies to the gods. One catacomb at the Temple of Anubis in Saqqara described last year contained over eight million animal mummies, most of them young dogs.

But a recent discovery differs from other sites throughout Egypt: it appears to be a pet cemetery, reports Traci Watson at USA Today. Marta Osypińska of the Polish Academy of Sciences and her colleagues came across the collection of creatures while excavating a trash dump outside of the ancient town of Berenike. The researchers detail the find in an article recently published in the journal Antiquity.

The burials are roughly 2,000 years old, dating back to the first and second centuries A.D. when the Roman Empire controlled the region and influenced its culture. The site contained roughly 100 complete animal skeletons, including 86 cats, nine dogs and two monkeys. 

But what sets this site apart from previously studied animal remains is that these creatures all appear to be household pets. The animals seem to be lovingly laid out and buried, not just thrown on the trash pile, Watson reports. Two cats were found with ostrich shell bead necklaces around their necks and three other cats and a vervet monkey had decorative iron collars. 

There animals also show little evidence of disease among the animals and an absence of mummification or human keepers buried alongside the creatures as is common elsewhere in Egypt, according to the paper. This suggests "that the Berenike cemetery reflects different intentions and cultural practices compared to the Nile Valley animal deposits," the researchers write.

The find is not the first discovery to hint that the ancients kept pets, but it does emphasize the great lengths Egyptians and Romans went to to care for these creatures, Steven Sidebotham, researcher at the University of Delaware who directed the Berenike dig, tells Watson.

"[Berenike was] way out on the edge of nowhere," he says, pointing out that the residents had to important food from agricultural areas hundreds of miles away. "What makes this unique is [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."

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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