Why is an Ancient Egyptian Mass Grave of Dogs ‘Stumping Archaeologists’?

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A new story about a strange burial is making the rounds on archeology sites and online news sources. According to Heritage Daily, archeologists excavating in the Fayum uncovered the remains of an 8-year-old child and 142 dogs in a late antique Egyptian necropolis. The “amazing discovery” is stumping archeologists.

According to the press report, Russian archeologists affiliated with the Center for Egyptological Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences were excavating the necropolis at Deir el-Banat, 62 miles to the west of Cairo, when they came across the unusual human-canine burial. Galina Belova, who examined the canine remains, concluded that all the dogs died at the same time. Given that there was no sign of violence, Belova suggests that perhaps the dogs may have drowned.

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Though dog burials are well known in ancient Egypt, it is unclear why the child was buried alongside (or, better, atop) the canine remains. To add to the strangeness, the child’s head was covered by a “linen bag” something that is unusual even though there is a precedent for it. Heritage Daily reports that the burial is something of a “mystery.”

Unusual archeological discoveries make for splashy news items, so it’s worth thinking through the options in greater detail. The Daily Beast spoke to archeologist and ancient historian Dr. Mark Letteney, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, about how archeologists approach strange artifacts and what we might make of this burial.

The first thing you do when you uncover something, said Letteney, “is stop. Archaeology is a destructive endeavor — the real data of archaeology is not the artifacts, but the specific properties of their deposition: how they appear in the ground, in what shape, orientation, and in what relation to the other material in the ground?” It’s not just about the objects, it’s about “how they got to be where they are when we come across them.” Letteney said that you could unearth the Holy Grail, but it would be archaeologically meaningless unless you recorded exactly where you found it in relation to everything around it.

Recording the data associated with a new discovery can take many forms: older archeologists relied upon a brief sketch and notes, but today people are more likely to use photographs. The locational data of points of interest are logged, soil samples might be taken for laboratory testing, and 3D models of the first evidence might be built. Multiple iterative stages of logging of evidence are undertaken. The goal of all of this, said Letteney, “is that another archeologist could read through your notes, look at the data that you collected, and correct your inevitable mistakes.”

Deciding exactly what you have found is especially challenging. The process involves experience, expertise, and scholarly curation. Identifications “are made on the basis of comparison” you take your new discovery and compare it “with similar sites, artifacts, or depositions that have been securely identified.” People who have a lot of experience excavating and analyzing artifacts from a particular region and period can notice the similarities between new discoveries and those that have already been documented.

To do this comparative work, of course, you have to know what time period you are excavating. There are a variety of different ways to do this, but it’s important to know that archeologists can’t carbon date everything they find. Carbon dating is prohibitively expensive and takes a long time. Fortunately, there are other reliable methods, the most “tried and true” of which is pottery. “Pottery,” said Letteney, “has a lot of things going for it: it is cheap to produce, and therefore ubiquitous; it is durable, and therefore stays intact over long time spans; and people’s taste in pottery changes over time, meaning that if you can identify the style of pottery that you’ve found in or near an archeological feature, and you know the date range when that style was popular, you can tentatively date the feature.” It’s a bit like fashion: if you watch a tv show in which the women have big hair and sport neon leg warmers you know it is set in the 1980s.

The best analogy for this dating process, Letteney told me, is cell phones. “If you were walking through an abandoned house and you found a cell phone in a drawer that was only produced between 2003 and 2006 — and you could be sure that no one had been in the house since it was abandoned — you’d know that the house was abandoned in 2003 at the earliest. If you then found a six pack of Coke cans that were the can style from 2004–2007, you could say that it was in fact 2004, at earliest, when the house was abandoned. If you had enough artifacts like the cell phone and Coke cans, and all clustered in the 2003–2007 range, you could plausibly suggest something about the date that the house was abandoned, the date when it was in use, and something about the people who lived there — they liked Coke, had cell phones, etc.” Ancient archeology is much the same.

Once you know the “when” of the context, you can then turn to the significance of the deposit (the thing you discovered in the ground). What does it represent? What does it mean? How was it used? Or even just, what is it? Letteney told me that this is where the hard work really starts. It’s basically an exercise in comparison: you compare your archeological context to other contexts from similar places and similar periods. This takes an enormous amount of time. Letteney said that this is one of the reasons that there’s such a delay in archeological publishing. You might see a press announcement about an amazing discovery, but the formal site report will not come out for years or possibly even decades. This is because archeologists are spending hundreds of hours gathering data, and comparing their discoveries to other forms of evidence

In the case of this burial of dogs, the broader data set includes Greco-Roman and late antiquity Egyptian burials. When something unusual is found, said Letteney, he usually turns to those who specialize in that thing. In this case Letteney looked to specialists in burial (Dr. Liana Brent, a mortuary archeologist) and canine burials in particular (Dr. Victoria C. Moses, a zooarcheologist who specializes in dog sacrifice and burial).

As it turns out, dog internment is in evidence almost everywhere you find human burials in the ancient Mediterranean world. “In Italy,” said Letteney, “we have good evidence for, and studies of, dog sacrifice, and particularly puppies” by scholars like Victoria Moses, Jacopo De Grossi Mazzorin, Claudia Minniti, and Barbara Wilkens. Inhabitants of Rome purportedly crucified dogs for their failure to warn them about a stealth attack by the Gauls in the fourth century BCE (they were awakened by Geese, instead).

Though this is not at all clear from news reports, the discovery itself was made in November 2007 and, thus, the Belova and Savinetsky’s findings have received some scholarly attention.

In her article “Man’s Best Friend for Eternity: Dog and Human Burials in Ancient Egypt,” Dr. Salima Ikram, a Distinguished Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, discusses the phenomenon of dog burials in ancient Egypt and tackles this find in particular. Ikram notes that while the dogs had been “crudely mummified” the child itself was preserved through natural desiccation. Ikram notes that the burial is highly unusual and does not fit with standard practice in which dogs served a kind of amuletic purpose. It is possible, she notes, “that the child had been a caretaker of dogs raised to be votive offerings” and that, when it died, the child was honored by being placed alongside its charges. Ikram notes that a similar burial, in which a human was buried on top of thousands of dogs, was unearthed in a gallery at the Temple of Anubis (Anubeion) at Saqqara. If this reading is correct then the co-burial of the child and the dogs would be mutually beneficial: “the dogs would be guaranteed care [in the afterlife], and the child would be assured an eternal existence, the goal of every Egyptian.”

With respects to this particular find, said Letteney, we should exercise caution about some of the reported details of the excavation. The confident statement that the child was eight years old at the time of their death is difficult to confirm. Letteney explained that while it is easy enough to identify a child (because the bones are small and there’s no evidence that the subject had gone through puberty) it’s difficult to be precise. “There is no way to say, ‘this child was 8 years old’ based on bones alone,” said Letteney, “It is impossible. You can give a range, and the best archeologists can often say with older children is ‘pre-pubescent,’ which generally is indicated as ‘under 14 or so.’” (This is why, in her work, Ikram describes the child as “under 14 years of age.”) Gender is even more challenging: only a tombstone or gender specific grave goods allow us to tentatively deduce the sex of a deceased child.

There are some instances where there is no data with which to make sense of a discovery. When that happens, Letteney told me, archeologists turn to other ways of making sense of things—primarily, anthropological data and theories of human interaction and motivations. There’s a joke among archeologists, he told me, that when they are truly at a loss, they label something “ritual” and call it a day. Ikram’s study (and by extension Belova and Savinetsky’s) is on much firmer ground as religion is a plausible explanation for any kind of burial practice. In this case, the identification seems particularly secure. After all, no parent of a dog-walking-averse pre-teen would believe that a child looked after 142 dogs without a very good reason.

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