Monday, October 23, 2006

Friday Archaeology Blogging

Now appearing pretty much on any day that isn't a Friday, it seems...

Anyway, one of the things that happened to me during the last month or so, during the recent silence on this site, is that my 16-year-old cat Claudia passed away (peacefully, quietly, and at home, which is about as much as one can hope for). So, this particular edition of Friday Archaeology Blogging is going to be a brief and general survey of ancient pets, particularly cats. And, by "pets" I mean animals domesticated for reasons of comfort and companionship, rather than food, hunting, protection, vermin control, etc.

The Egyptians and Earlier

The Egyptians' attitude towards cats is well known; they viewed them as sacred, and our first written records of cats come from that civilization. Indeed, cats were often mummified by the Egyptians (as were many, many other animals), and cat mummies are found in many Egyptian tombs, suggesting at least some sort of emotional bond between the deceased person and his or her animals.


Egyptian cat mummies

We even have an early mention of a named cat from Egypt. A cat found in a tomb near Thebes, dating to about 1450 B.C., seems to have been named "The Pleasant One."


Tomb painting from the tomb in which The Pleasant One was found

However, actual "pet-ification" of cats may predate the Egyptians by millenia, as suggested by the recent discovery of a neolithic burial on Cyprus which dates to roughly 8,000 B.C.



Now, there is no evidence here beyond the circumstantial to indicate that the cat buried in this case was a pet. However, the inclusion of the animal in a tomb is evidence that it was at the very least of value to the deceased person, and I can't help but see this as a stepping stone to the kind of master-pet relationship that became common later on.

The Romans


A bird (a duck?) portrayed on a 2nd century A.D. mosaic from Italica, in what is now Andalucia.

The Romans do not seem to have held cats in quite the same esteem as the Egyptians. Cat footprints are found on ancient Roman terracotta roof tiles, indicating that somebody's cat had gone for a walk while the tile was drying in the sun, but there is little evidence for cats as pets. However, the Romans did keep other pets, as shown by a poem of Catullus, written in the mid-first century B.C., lamenting the death of a bird (Latin text here):

CATVLLI CARMEN III (adapted from a translation by Walter Sullivan [JTK)

Mourn, oh Cupids and Venuses,
and all people of charm and refinement:
the sparrow of my girlfriend has died,
the sparrow, delight of my girl,
whom she loved more than her own eyes.
For it was honey-sweet and it knew its
mistress as well as a girl knows her mother,
nor would it move itself from her lap,
but jumping around hither and thither,
he used to chirp continually to his mistress alone:
now he embarks on that gloomy journey
from which, they say, no one ever returns.
Curses on you, evil shadows of Orcus,
you who devour all beautiful things,
so lovely a sparrow have you taken away from me.
O evil deed! o miserable little sparrow!
Now because of you my girl's swollen little eyes
are red from weeping.

I would note, concerning this poem, that there is debate about the actual meaning of the poem. I have heard it argued, implausibly in my humble opinion, that the bird here represents the poet's relationship with the girl, a relationship which has now ended (the logic being that the sparrow was a sacred bird of Venus, goddess of love, and that furthermore we know that Catullus did break up with his girlfriend, and that it was extremely traumatic for him). This seems to me to be a clear case of reading too much into a piece of literature.

Pre-Incan Peoples of Peru

To jump briefly and illogically across the pond, I thought I'd end by mentioning this. According to the article, archaeologists in Peru have been excavating an actual dog cemetery, approximately 600 to 1,000 years old, wherein the animals were often buried with blankets and treats. Care taken to ensure an animal's comfort in the next life again speaks quite clearly to the animals status, at least in part, as pets.


An ancient Peruvian dog

I suppose the point here is that people have been domesticating animals for "non-utilitarian" purposes for a heck of a long time, and pretty much globally (I actually couldn't find much evidence at all for cultures that didn't have pets). Long may we continue to do so.


Ancient Egyptian wall-painting

2 comments:

Scout said...

glad to hear your cat passed peacefully.

an animal's ability to 'see' the spirit world is a very ancient belief. cats and dogs still, if a healing is taking place, like to be present.

i'm sure cats and dogs were domisticated for other reasons (companionship, keeping vermin down, guards etc.), still i always wonder about the spirit aspect. you always know when someone in the neighbourhood has died as all the dogs start howling. and that, my friend, ain't just an old wive's tale!!!

Bazz said...

Indeed. Claudia was never particularly fond of sleeping on a bed occupied by someone else, and the only times I can remember her spending an entire night on my bed was when I was sick. She was very very senstive to how others were doing.