Letters Written by Ancient Roman Commanders Have Been Found in a Pet Cemetery in Egypt

Discovered among the graves of hundreds of cats, dogs and monkeys, the correspondence was likely written by centurions in the first century

Archaeologists have been studying the pet cemetery since it was first discovered in 2011. Marta Osypińska

An ancient pet cemetery in Egypt is becoming a gold mine for rare Roman history. Alongside its carefully constructed graves of more than 200 beloved cats, dogs and monkeys, archaeologists have now found letters handwritten 1,900 years ago by Roman centurions stationed nearby.

Though Rome controlled Egypt for centuries—from the year 30 to the mid-600s—few Roman sites still exist in the region, lead researcher Marta Osypińska, an archaeologist at Poland’s University of Wrocław’s Institute of Archaeology, tells Science in Poland’s Ewelina Krajczyńska. The burial ground, which dates back to the first and second centuries, is located in Berenike, a Red Sea port in southern Egypt built by Roman Emperor Tiberius.

Osypińska’s team first discovered the cemetery in 2011, and they’ve been slowly excavating it since then. Among the burials of cats, dogs and exotic monkeys, researchers have found ceramics, Roman coins and now, several letters written on papyrus by military officers who commanded units of Roman legions.

The cemetery is located in Berenike, in the south of Egypt, on the coast of the Red Sea. Marta Osypińska

According to a statement by the University of Wrocław, these “priceless sources of knowledge about the ancient inhabitants of Berenike” are from the era of Emperor Nero, a cruel Roman ruler of the mid-first century. During his reign, Berenike was a hub of cross-continental trade, through which goods from India, Arabia and East Africa flowed, Osypińska says in the statement. The port was home to regional merchants, Roman higher-ups in charge of trading and—as historians have long suspected but never before proven—a unit of the Roman military.

The newly-found correspondence contains several names of presumed Roman centurions: Haosus, Lucinius and Petronius. In one letter, Petronius asks Lucinius, who is stationed in Berenike, about the prices of some exclusive goods, Osypińska tells Science in Poland. Petronius writes that he’s sending money via “dromedarius,” a unit of Roman soldiers traveling on camels, and tells Lucinius to provide the soldiers with veal and tentpoles.

Researchers believe ancient Romans likely kept the papyri in a nearby office which was later destroyed, accidentally distributing its contents over the pet cemetery, as McClatchy’s Aspen Pflughoeft writes. Excavators found the papyrus in rolled fragments, which they showed to Rodney Asta, an expert of ancient inscriptions, who pieced together a page approximately one and a half feet long and a foot wide, Osypińska tells Science in Poland. Among the animal graves, researchers have found countless ostracons—pieces of pottery etched with writing—but the papyri are the first paper texts to be found on-site.

The cemetery included more than 200 burials of pet cats, dogs, monkeys and calves. Marta Osypińska

The letters are the latest evidence of advanced Roman trade to be found in the cemetery, per the statement: The skeletons of several buried monkeys, recently identified as macaques native to India, show that Romans imported non-utilitarian animals across oceans. These primates, along with long-haired cats and miniature dogs, were “elite pets,” and many were buried with toys, ceramics or other animal companions.

As Osypińska notes in the statement, it may seem difficult to reconcile the image of commanders of an ancient foreign legion with such animals, which were “treated as family members.”

“However, our findings unequivocally show that the military elite surrounded themselves with elite pets and led an exclusive lifestyle,” she adds.

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