Cat skeletons found buried in the graveyard.
Cat skeletons found buried in the graveyard. Osypińska 2016

In ancient Egypt, where cats were first domesticated, they were often buried in a ritual, religious fashion. The cat burials found on the site of Berenike, an Egyptian town on the Red Sea that thrived 2,000 years ago, were different, though. 

As IBTimes reports, these cats were not mummified or buried with much adornment—only a handful had a trinket found in their graves. Nor were there any signs that the cats had been killed, as in some religious burials. These looked like domestic cats who had died natural deaths.

Writing in the journal Antiquity, the archaeologist Marta Osypińska suggests that these features mean that these cats were not buried as part of “sacred or magical rites.” Instead, she writes, this site should be considered “a cemetery of house pets.”

For millennia, cats were worshipped in Egypt, one of the earliest places where they were domesticated. But by the beginning of the first millennia A.D., the cult of the cat was falling out of favor. The cat skeletons in Berenike that were found buried with items had either iron collars or ostrich shell beads by their necks. In this one area, 86 cat skeletons were found, and most of them were single burials. The ones that were paired were an adult and a juvenile skeleton, suggesting that they were buried together on purpose.

The other skeletons—nine dogs and four monkeys—discovered in this spot also suggest that it was used as a burial ground for beloved animals. 

As Osypińska writes, all this is unusual. Usually, it’s thought that keeping pets and burying them carefully is a modern practice. But in her eyes this “unique site” shows that’s not necessarily the right assumption.