|And here's another type of|
cat mummy, this one pictured
in Egypt: Descriptive,
Historical, and Picturesque,
by Georg Ebers, 1878.
By Strassberger, B. [CC BY-SA 2.5],
via Wikimedia Commons.
|A cat mummy, Egypt. This is the sort of thing we usually think|
of when we think, "Egyptian cat burial."
Stock photo by Andrea Izzotti via Adobe Stock.
Usually, when we think of cat burials from ancient Egpyt, we think of mummies. You know the ones—they’ve been found by the thousands, and they generally are mummies of cats that were raised specifically to be sold as religious offerings. To modern cat people, that sounds pretty grim. What about pet cats, we want to know? Now, thanks to excavations of a Roman-era port town, we may have good evidence for cats kept as pets in the first and second centuries AD.
An animal cemetery in a trash dump
We are talking about a place called Berenike, which was a Red Sea port that was an important link between Upper Egpyt and points on the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Ocean. What is most interesting to us is an area called the “Early Roman trash dump,” because that is where archaeologists have discovered nearly 100 complete animal skeletons, and most of them are cats. There are also dogs and monkeys buried there. The oldest burials date to the late first century AD, and the latest date to the second century. So, they're roughly 2,000 years old.
The Berenike cats
|Were there cat-human scenes like this in|
ancient Egypt? We like to think so.
Stock illustration by Lorelyn Medina via Adobe Stock.
Eighty-six complete cat skeletons have been found at Berenike. Two of these cats were buried with a bead made of ostrich egg shell, and three were buried with collars. Unlike the mummified cats mentioned above, these cats don’t seem to have been killed deliberately. The evidence suggests to one researcher that what we have here is a cemetery for house pets.
Why it matters
A first-century cat cemetery is pretty exciting because it provides new evidence of humans and cats having early relationships that go beyond the practical. Imagine you're living in an Egyptian port town during the Roman era. Sure, you might like to have a cat around to keep mice and such out of your home, but if that’s as far as your interaction goes, if you see the cat only as a utilitarian vermin-catcher, would you go to the trouble of carefully burying the cat when she dies? Would you place a little bead in the grave with her? Maybe. It's hard to guess exactly what people thought or felt or intended 2,000 years ago. But it seems likely that the cats in this cemetery were valued for more than their rodent-catching skills. We like to think they were treasured pets, beloved in life and respected in death.
Marta Osypinska, “PetCats at the Early Roman Red Sea Port of Berenike, Egypt,” Anitiquity 90 (354): 1-5.