The Mysterious Dead Dogs of Ashkelon

August 2, 2021 | Naama Barak
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Scattered throughout the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon are the remains of some 1,400 dogs, who appear to have died and been buried in the 4th or 5th century BCE, when Persia ruled the area. While the graves were discovered some 30 years ago, archaeologists have yet to find an explanation. Naama Barak writes:

“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,” [the archaeologist Daniel] Master explains. “One of the first observations is that these were street dogs. It doesn’t look like these were pets, because [if so] you wouldn’t have so many young dogs dying,” he notes.

“The second thing we noticed: there was no evidence they were cared for particularly in life,” he adds. “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 did the burying cared for the animal. Every time a dog died, [someone] 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,” . . . says Master. There isn’t any evidence that they were diseased, he adds.

The Ashkelon dog graves are the largest such sample in the Levant, so the archeologists don’t even 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.

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