Is This 2,000-Year-Old Egyptian Burial Site the World’s Oldest Pet Cemetery?

Excavations show how humans treated cats, dogs and monkeys in first- and second-century Egypt

Dog burial
Some of the animals—including this dog—were buried in pieces of pottery. Maria Osypinska

Nearly 2,000 years ago, people in the Roman port city of Berenice, Egypt, treated animals with great respect, feeding special food to toothless pets, protecting the critters while they recovered from injuries, and burying their furry companions in individual graves with collars and ornaments—or so a new analysis of a large pet cemetery in the ancient port city of Berenice suggests.

The study, published in the journal World Archaeology, centered on the remains of 585 animals interred in the graveyard. Many of the pets were covered in textiles or pieces of pottery, which lead author Marta Osypinska, an archaeozoologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences, describes to Science magazine’s David Grimm as “a kind of sarcophagus.”

About 90 percent of the animals buried at the site were cats. Many of the felines wore iron collars or necklaces decorated with glass and shells. One was laid to rest on the wing of a large bird.

Dogs, meanwhile, made up about 5 percent of the burials. The canines had often lived into old age, losing teeth or suffering from gum disease and worn-out joints—conditions that probably would have made it impossible for them to fend for themselves. Some of the dogs had also recovered from injuries sustained long before their eventual deaths.

“We have individuals who have very limited mobility,” Osypinska tells Science. “Such animals had to be fed to survive, sometimes with special foods in the case of the almost-toothless animals.”

The cemetery, which dates to the first and second centuries A.D., was located just outside the city walls. Osypinska and her colleagues found it in 2011, buried below a Roman trash dump. In 2016, they published findings regarding the first 100 skeletons they were able to examine, but at the time, some experts questioned whether the site was actually a cemetery or a rubbish dump containing animal bones. The new study includes further analysis of the burials, including input from a veterinarian who helped analyze the animals’ diets and health.

Is This 2,000-Year-Old Egyptian Burial Site the World's Oldest Pet Cemetery?
Many of the animals were buried in collars or with ornamental goods. Osypinska et al. / World Archaeology

In addition to the cats and dogs, the animals buried at the site included monkeys imported from India. As Joanna Jasińska reported for the First News last August, most of the monkeys in the cemetery died young, possibly because it was difficult for people to care for them in such a different environment from their home region.

Still, like the cats and dogs, the monkeys were buried with great care. One was draped in a woolen blanket, while others were found with items buried beside them, including amphoras and large shells.

Bea De Cupere, an archaeologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences who was not involved in the study, tells Atlas Obscura’s Gemma Tarlach that the cemetery is “completely different” from other ancient graveyards. Unlike in the Nile Valley and other sites across Egypt, the animals were not mummified, and their burials don’t appear to have served a ritual purpose. But, she says, it’s hard to know exactly how Berenice’s humans viewed the animals. She notes that cats had jobs to do: namely, controlling rodent populations in the city’s storerooms and the ships that docked at the city.

“Berenice is a port, so pest control is important,” De Cupere tells Atlas Obscura. “These animals may not have been solely companions. We just don’t know.”

Remains of animals found in ancient sites reveal a range of relationships between humans and animals in different places and times. An enormous cemetery from fourth- and fifth-century Ashkelon, a Phoenician city in what’s now Israel, contains the remains of thousands of dogs, many of them puppies, reported Assaf Kamer for Jewish Business News in 2017. People seem to have buried the animals carefully, but without any offerings. It’s possible the pups were killed as part of a ritual practice.

As Robert Losey, an archaeologist at the University of Alberta who was also not involved in the study, tells Atlas Obscura, researchers have previously found evidence that hunter-gatherer groups in Russia buried their canine companions with grave goods, much like human burials, more than 7,000 years ago. People buried dogs in North America and Europe even earlier. These animals probably weren’t pets in the strict sense, but may have been working partners and companions to humans.

On the other hand, De Cupere tells Atlas Obscura, careful burial of animals is historically unusual.

“Cats and dogs are always a rare find in archaeology,” she says. “When I find a dog in the archaeological record, it’s mostly one that’s been thrown away, dumped in a pit, without any ritual.”