The latest news from Berenike concerns the discovery of a strange shrine. The site is in the northern part of the town, a district marked in red on the magnetic map of the town shown above.
Harpocrates, a Romano-Egyptian god of secrets – Harpocrates is the smaller figure, second from right, holding a finger to his mouth in an ancient gesture of silence –and two other figures that could be several different Egyptian deities. The Greek text on the stele says, "It is improper to boil a head in here."
Really, that's what it says, and no, nobody else knows why, either.
But that isn't even the strangest thing about the shrine. On and around the altar were a few hundred small bones that turned out to come from three species of falcons: peregrine falcons, saker falcons, and common kestrels. The archaeologists thought that all fifteen falcons had all been lying on the altar when the shrine was abandoned. Which is really amazing, to find all those offerings still pretty much in place. The bones were jumbled, but one important part of the bodies was missing: there were no heads. So whoever these worshippers were, they honored their gods with offerings of headless falcons.
All of these falcons can be trained to hunt for people, but the archaeologists saw no clear sign that these were trained birds.
It's a remarkable assemblage, and a reminder of how much ritual religious activity went on in the classical world. Berenike had a full set of larger temples to more famous gods, including that great syncretic creation, Zeus-Serapis. But those larger, public rituals were not enough for some people. They also went into small neighborhood shrines like this one, where they enacted rites that reminded them of home, or felt more intimate, or allowed them to take a more prominent role, or whatever other reason impelled them to offer headless falcons in the room where it was forbidden to boil heads.