Of mousers and men
When did cats graduate from convenient pest-control to one of the world’s most popular pets, and how can you tell the difference in the archaeological record? The answer, John Buglass and Jennifer West suggest, may lie in Roman Yorkshire.
Today, the image of a pet cat purring on its owner’s lap is the epitome of cosy domesticity – but this was not always the case. While the archaeological record suggests that dogs staked their claim to being man’s best friend as long as 15,000 years ago (CA 301), felines were much slower in joining our households. But how far can we trace the evolution of this relationship, and how far is it possible to distinguish between cats that coexisted with humans for their own advantage (scavenging our settlements) or for ours (as resident pest control) and those cats that had taken the next step to achieve the status of a beloved pet? Again, archaeology may hold the key.
Pussycat went to sea
Excavations have uncovered cat remains all over the world, but genetic studies suggest that the domestic cat (Felis catus) first emerged as a distinct species from their ancestors, African wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica), in the Near East around 10,000 years ago. Since then they have spread around the world, being transported by humans (knowingly or otherwise) as we explored, traded, and settled. By 7000 BC, we can see evidence of cats cohabiting with humans in China, while some 5,300 years ago they had reached Cyprus – almost certainly introduced by humans, as the island had no indigenous cat population.
The first hints of actual integration with humans came later still, however, from Egypt around 4,000 years ago. This was a culture that revered cats as sacred, but felines also seem to have forged more worldly relationships with humans: an increased cooperation vividly illustrated in 18th Dynasty era (c.1350 BC) murals adorning the tomb chapel of a wealthy official, Nebamun, in Thebes (now on display in the British Museum). Here, a small striped cat is shown helping a hunter to catch or retrieve wild birds, much as we might employ a gundog today. But this is still clearly a working animal, rather than evidence of cats attaining a more sentimental status.
Moving into Europe, cats first appear in ancient Greek art in the 5th and 4th centuries BC – though never as an unambiguous pet – but in the Roman world they are shown in more clearly domestic scenes, including a mischievous moggy helping itself to the contents of a larder, captured in a 1st century AD mosaic from Pompeii’s ‘House of the Faun’. Feline figures feature far less frequently in Roman art than dogs, however, which might suggest that if they were regarded as pets by now, they had not yet attained the heights of popularity that they enjoy today. Once again, few of these depictions allow us to distinguish between resident mousers and members of the family.
Perhaps the most convincing image of a potential pet from this period comes from the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, which houses the gravestone of a Gallo-Roman child who died in the 2nd century AD. The stele bears an appealingly lifelike image of a little girl cuddling a cat to her chest. With a childish lack of concern for the animal’s comfort, she grips it under its front legs, leaving its lower body to dangle (and allowing an opportunistic cockerel, perhaps another pet, to seize the tip of its tail in its beak), all the while gazing out at the viewer as if posing for her portrait. An incomplete inscription identifies the girl only as the daughter of a man called Laetus, but it is tempting to fill in the gaps ourselves: might this be a loving depiction of a lost child, shown clutching a pet that she had played with in life?
Cats (and Romans) conquer Britain
Closer to home, our earliest clues to domestic cats in Britain also come mostly from the Roman period (again, much later than dogs, whose remains are known from sites as early as the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer camp at Star Carr, near Scarborough). Although their bones have also been found at a small number of Iron Age sites – notably seven 3rd-century BC skeletons excavated at Gussage All Saints hillfort in Dorset – our best evidence for their being adopted as household animals is found at villa sites like Bishopstone, Lullingstone, and Rudston, as well as in York.
In most of these cases, it once more remains unclear whether these animals were pest control or pets – but one site in the Mid Tees Valley seems more promising. This is a Romano-British villa at Dalton-on-Tees, North Yorkshire, which was first excavated by Teesside Archaeological Society in 1997. Their investigation revealed not only the remains of a substantial villa located beyond what was then accepted as the northern limit of such residences, but also a large and varied assemblage of over 3,700 well-preserved animal bones representing 28 different species. Almost 70% of these remains came from a well that had been backfilled sometime between the 2nd and 4th century AD, and among them were the remains of a small domestic cat.
Even a preliminary examination of its bones could tell that this was one unlucky feline: it had suffered devastating injuries to both the hind- and forelimb on its left side, with the entire head of the left femur missing, and the left elbow showing signs of having been badly broken. The fact that these wounds occur on the same side and – as we will discuss shortly – show similar signs of healing, suggests that they may have been inflicted at the same time, perhaps as a result of being kicked by a larger animal like a horse while hunting for food in a stable, or being hit by the wheel of a cart.
Whatever their cause, there is no doubt that they would have been disabling, potentially fatal injuries – and yet the cat had not died. Extensive new bone growth on both limbs shows clear signs of healing, while ‘polished’ wear patterns on the affected joint surfaces indicate that the limbs had eventually returned to use, albeit with a drastically reduced range of movement. In other words, it appears that a friendly human may have, if not nursed the stricken feline back to health, at least tended it with food and water while its bones knitted back together – a level of care above and beyond what you might expect to be accorded to ‘pest control’ or an opportunistic cohabiter.
Further analysis of the cat’s remains suggests that even after its fractures had healed the animal would no longer have been an effective hunter – one elbow was left partially fused, while its rear limb shows signs of an infection and healed break. Both injuries may (without all of the bones present to compare, we cannot be sure) have left the affected legs shorter than their counterparts.
If this stiff-legged, limping cat, which would certainly not have been able to earn its keep as a working mouser, had been allowed to continue living at the villa rather than being euthanised and replaced, might this suggest that its owner had felt a deeper emotional connection with the animal? If so, this could be our earliest evidence yet in Britain for a cat that was not just a household tool, but a cherished pet.