Printer Friendly

Digging into a doggone puzzle.

Digging into a doggone puzzle

They came to Ashkelon, a port city in southern Israel, seeking a treasure trove of ancient pottery. But the archaeologists never dreamed they would also dig up hundreds of dead animals.

A team led by Paula Wapnish and Brian Hesse of the University of Alabama at Birmingham examined the first 100 animal skeletons in 1986. Many remained intact, and nearly all dated back to a time known as the Persian period, which lasted from 500 to 332 B.C. Each of the small-boned skeletons lay buried in its own shallow pit, prompting some researchers to speculate that these were the remains of badgers, which live underground. But a visiting zooarchaeologist informed the crew that they had instead stumbled upon a remarkable concentration of ancient dogs.

The canine conundrum captured the imagination of project scientists and volunteers alike, and over the next few years, team members competed in inventing explanations for the find, Hesse says.

Speculation that a rabis outbreak killed the dogs proved unlikely, since evidence indicated that most of the dogs died at different times from a variety of causes. Proposals that the site functioned as an ancient kennel, breeding center or resting place for coddled pets lost favor when the researchers noted that many of the skeletons showed wear and tear typical of street dogs, such as mangled paws, broken ribs and tooth degradation, and that only 38 percent lived beyond the puppy stage -- a survival rate matching that of street dogs today. These signs indicate that the animals received no special care during their lifetimes, Hesse says. Yet the observation that none of the dogs showed skewed limbs or other distortions suggests the animals were buried carefully rather than pitched in a convenient hole, he adds.

As the mystery continues to baffle investigators, the corpses keep mounting. Last summer, in an area the size of a dining hall, the Ashekelon excavators came across another 450 partial or intact skeletons, for a total of 785 canines dating to the first half of the Persian period. The sheer number, Hesse says, gives investigators pause.

He suspects the phenomenon reflects "a fad" arising from a unique blending of several cultures that overlapped at Ashkelon from 500 to 400 B.C. Phoenician, Egyptian and Persian influences appear to have dominated this mix, he says. Hesse cites evidence that the Phoenician word for "temple attendant" and "dog" may be the same, signifying that Phoenicians held dogs in high spiritual esteem. He adds that Egyptians depicted dogs in their hieroglyphics and had a penchant for mummifying animals, while Persians viewed dogs both as sources of purification and as agents of safe passage to the next world.

To understand the social forces underlying the canine burials, says Hesse, "combine several cultures and mix thoroughly." He insists that no single cultural influence suffices. For example, although the Persians revered dogs, they viewed any burial as a desecration of the earth, he notes.

It remains unclear why the skeletons stayed so well preserved. Hesse speculates that the people of Ashkelon may have protected the site from scavenging animals, treating it as one would a cemetery, or that the relatively shallow graves were nonetheless deep enough to mask scavenger-attracting decay odors. To help answer this grave question, he plans to create similarly shallow burial sites for dogs that died recently of natural causes, and then monitor the area for scavengers.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Science Service, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:animal remains discovered at an archeological site in Ashkelon, Israel
Author:Cowen, Ron
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 23, 1991
Words:568
Previous Article:Root words: scientists strengthen the case for subterranean signals among plants.
Next Article:Therapy improves rectal cancer outlook.
Topics:


Related Articles
Bronze Age cemetery emerges in Syria.
Subway fossils.
Time crime: protecting the past for future generations.
Nuclear milestones (Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp; Mordechai Vanunu).
STUDENTS DIG STUDY OF `BONES' IN SIMI.
STUCK IN THE MUCK; NEW DISCOVERIES AT LA BREA COME STEADILY, BUT SLOWLY.
CENTRAL TOPANGA LANDOWNER KEEPS BUILDING PLANS OPEN.
WOODLAND HILLS PUPILS DIG ARCHEOLOGY'S EARTHY TOUCH : ARTIFACT-FILLED TRAILER RE-CREATES ENVIRONMENTS.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters