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Mysterious ancient cemetery buries more than 1,000 dogs

The 2,500-year-old cemetery in the ancient city of Ashkelon attracted scientific attention because it buried a large number of dogs for no apparent reason.

Archaeologists from the Leon Levi expedition in 1985 discovered more than 1,000 dog skeletons dating back to the 5th and 3rd centuries BC while they were digging under a hill in the ancient city of Ashkelon, Israel, near the Mediterranean coast.

Mysterious ancient cemetery buries more than 1,000 dogs
Mysterious ancient cemetery buries more than 1,000 dogs

This is the discovery. I’ve never seen it since there’s no place in the ancient Near East where so many dog tombs are gathered in one place and for no apparent reason. This discovery has been interesting to many scholars and is trying to figure out what’s behind the massive burial of dogs in Ashkelon.

The dogs are buried in shallow, seemingly unmarked holes, in sloping positions with tails between the back legs. Many graves are under the streets and in narrow alleys, requiring small holes to cover the dog’s body. Some have two legs tightly tied together, like being tied up before being buried. It’s remarkable that there are no burials, and the dogs don’t have a special orientation.

The skeletons don’t have any apparent kill marks and there are few signs of violence. Geo-analysis of the tombs combined with assessment of the age and sex of the dogs at the time of death showed that they did not die in one disaster. Instead, they seemed dead and buried gradually over a long time.

American archaeologist Lawrence Stager, who led the excavation, argues that these dogs belong to a Phoenician healing cult, in which they are trained to lick human wounds in exchange for a fee. He believed that they were worshipped in a coastal temple near the tomb, which the ancients regarded as sacred creatures and carefully buried when they died. However, scientists have not found any traces of such temples.

Dogsbreed, in some cases puppies, were associated with different cults and rituals in ancient Near East cultures. The ancient Egyptians associated dogs (along with some other animals) with gods such as Dwamutef, Wepwawet, Khentimentiu, Anubis, and worshiped them in special temples. In the ancient empire of Iran, the Achaemenids, dogs were highly revered and Zoroastrianists regarded them as the second most important creature, after humans. In ancient Greece, dogs were associated with the god Asklepios.

The absence of clear physical evidence on the dog bones at Ashkelon does not rule out the possibility that they were ritually killed. In the ancient Near East, some methods of killing such as poisoning and drowning would leave no visible trace on animal bones. The high percentage of puppies in Ashkelon’s graves may indicate that they’re more popular. However, some scholars argue that high mortality rates among young children are not uncommon in the context of an unavailable veterinary clinic.

Two scholars P. Wapnish and B. Hesse, authors of a 1993 study, disagree with the theory of dog worship and religious Ashkelon cemeteries. Instead, they assume they’re semi-wild urban dogs and the concentration of burial at one point is just a local custom. According to them, graves have no special significance and dogs are buried only in places, not a dog-prepared cemetery.

Alva Thomas
Alva Thomas
Alva Thomas expert in training and caring for pet dog breeds. Whether he spending quality time with her own furry companions or contributing to websites such as Dogsbreed.org and Animalpet.com, dedicated to our canine.

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