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Mystery: Ancient canines found buried in graves

A dog buried in Ashkelon at the time of the Persian Empire has left modern-day researchers flummoxed. (Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon).jpeg
A dog buried in Ashkelon at the time of the Persian Empire has left modern-day researchers flummoxed. (Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

ASHKELON, Israel (Zenger News) — Like a good mystery? Here’s one that’s left archeologists scratching their heads for almost 30 years: why are 1,400 dog graves scattered around the Israeli port city of Ashkelon?

Back in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., Ashkelon was part of the Persian Empire. The bustling port city was a hub for massive international trade. It was occupied by the Phoenicians, who were associated with the vassal kingdom of Tyre in what is today Lebanon.

“During this time, when it’s a Phoenician city that’s part of the Persian Empire, there’s this strange thing that happens in Ashkelon,” said archeologist and professor Daniel Master of Wheaton College in Illinois. “We have dogs that are buried in every open space, every courtyard, every street, every field. We just find so many of them.”

At first, they thought it was a curiosity, “and then after we found 10 or 20 we thought it might be an annoyance. When we found hundreds, we realized it was a phenomenon. It was a fundamental part of life in Ashkelon,” he said.

And yet, despite having excavated the Ashkelon archeological site since his student days in the early 1990s, and even leading the digs for several years, he’s not quite sure why this was the case.

“Once we got enough dogs to be able to look at them as a whole, we could start building a pattern of when they died and start to see the mortality profile of the dogs,” Master said.

“One of the first observations is that these were street dogs. It doesn’t look like these were pets, because you wouldn’t have as many young dogs dying,” he noted.

“The second thing we noticed, there was no evidence they were cared for particularly in life,” he said. “There’s no evidence that they were fed in life in a special way. We never found that they were buried with any accessories, something that shows that someone who does the burying cared for the animal. Every time a dog died, they dug the pit, put the dog in the pit and covered it over.”

Why were they buried?

“We still don’t know whether there was a religious significance to this, whether it was simply a question of hygiene. My favorite hypothesis is that this was just urban life and hygiene,” said Master.

There isn’t any evidence that the canines were diseased, he added.

“If it were a disease, we might have expected a whole bunch of dogs to die at once. It wasn’t a situation where you have a mass grave. It seems that the most important thing was that they were buried once they died. We’re still not quite sure why,” Master said.

Master isn’t alone in such uncertainty. Zoo-archeologist professor Deirdre Fulton from Baylor University in Texas started working at Ashkelon when she was studying for her doctorate in 2007. She has examined the bones of the dogs buried there.

“There’s no clear evidence that the dogs had been killed. They seem to have died naturally based on the mortality profile — two-thirds of them are puppies, one third adults,” she said.

The buried dogs were found with their heads and tails tucked in, as if they were sleeping.

Fulton said she does not know why the dogs were buried.

“The best evidence for any type of practice is an ancient text or inscription, but we’ve never found anything like that,” she said.

“These dogs had an association, they are buried in places near occupations, near where people were living and they were burying them,” she added. “I would say that the way they tucked their heads and tails shows that they do have some sort of connection to the animal. There’s something more to it.”

People and dogs

The Ashkelon dog graves are the largest such sample in the Levant, so the archeologists don’t have anything to compare it to — the second-largest instance of this phenomenon numbers only 30 graves. So it’s small wonder that it has captured everyone’s imagination.

“I think it’s really interesting when we see human-animal interactions on this scale, when you have 1,400 dogs buried by a town or small city. It shows that they are indeed interacting in a way that’s not just for food but something more,” Fulton noted.

“We don’t often see ancient archeological excavations with animals,” she said. “It’s a relatable find in modern times, particularly for people who like animals and dogs.”

Unfortunately for those wishing to view this unique phenomenon, the buried dogs aren’t accessible to the public. After being excavated, they were examined for research purposes and then stored at warehouses at the Ashkelon site, where they remain.

The Curious Incident Of Ancient Dogs Buried In Mysterious Graves appeared first in Israel21C.