Saturday 10 July 2021

World's oldest known pet cemetery

There may be others, currently unknown, but the oldest recorded pet cemetery in the world is in the Egyptian port of Berenice. The map shows you where it is. The archaeologists have been digging in what appears to be a rubbish dump in that city and they have discovered a burial ground which is nearly 2,000 years old. 

The interesting aspect of this pet burial ground is that they have decided that the animals buried there were genuine pets and not sacrifices to the gods. Many thousands of animals particularly cats were bred and killed for sacrifice but this is not the case with these animals. They were often old and buried in a very careful way sometimes with collars and with objects which indicated that they were cared for.

Cat buried at the world's oldest known pet cemetery
Cat buried at the world's oldest known pet cemetery. Photo: Marta Osypińska

Unsurprisingly the vast majority of the remains are of cats reflecting this era of cat worship which did not genuinely translate to great cat care. Of the 585 animals that they excavated 536 were cats, 32 were dogs; there were 15 monkeys, one fox and one falcon. Not one was mummified. Some were in makeshift coffins. They decided that the animals were old and sick, more evidence that they were genuine pets and looked after until they died of natural causes rather than being killed for sacrifice. In Ancient Egypt often kittens were killed for sacrifice and mummified and cat mummies were sometimes scams by priests. This is one reason why it can't be said to be a golden era for cats. Wild cats were also sacrificed and buried on river banks. The remains of 80,000 wild cats were found on the Nile's riverbanks.

Some of the cats were wearing collars made from iron or beaded necklaces. Sometimes the ornaments were precious. They also found a piece of ceramic with text on it. This is called an ostracon. In this instance the text told the cat's owner not to worry about their cat because someone else was looking after him or her. This seems to be an early version of cat sitting! But it strongly supports that pet ownership was alive and well in Ancient Egypt.

Perhaps at one time people thought that ancient Egyptians did not have a concept of pet ownership or what we prefer to call 'pet guardianship' or caretaking. But that thought was perhaps always misplaced for several reasons one of which is that the first known pet was a wild cat buried with their owner on Cyprus almost 10,000 years ago. That, the experts believe, is evidence of the beginning of cat domestication, pet ownership and the concept of pets.

Berenice is a port as mentioned and perhaps it is a place where more than 2,000 years ago traders came on ships with their companion animals including cats, dogs and the occasional monkey brought from India.

The remains of the animals had been well preserved by the dry Egyptian desert. The photograph shows the remains of a cat buried in a blanket. We can see the cat's canine teeth and we have a glimpse of their incisor teeth as well.

The archaeologist in charge of the dig was researcher Marta Osypińska, a zooarchaeologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.

P.S. There is one aspect of archeology with which I strongly disagree. They are exhuming the remains of people and pets. Is this not disrespectful of both? We rightly have to get permission and have a good reason to exhume someone buried in a graveyard but when animals and pets are buried thousands of years ago it is a free for all. Something wrong there.

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