Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Dog Burial Down Under Volume 55 Number 5, September/October 2002
by Eric A. Powell

[image]Caroline Wilby, a student at La Trobe University, excavates the skeletons of six dogs who were poisoned during snake bite experiments at the Melbourne Jail in 1877. (Geoffrey Hewitt) [LARGER IMAGE]

When archaeologists monitoring work on the former grounds of a nineteenth-century jail in downtown Melbourne noticed bones turned up by earth-moving equipment, they immediately suspected them of belonging to executed prisoners buried in the prison-hospital courtyard. Instead, they turned out to belong to a canine victim of Australia's Victorian Snake Bite Commission. Further excavation revealed the skeletons of six dogs buried together in a pit, all of which appeared to be young and robust.

"We originally thought they might be police dogs or guard dogs at the jail," says Geoffrey Hewitt, an archaeologist at La Trobe University. But archival research turned up remarkably specific information on the dogs' fate.

According to newspaper accounts from 1877, two doctors from the colony's Snake Bite Commission tested a secret snake bite antidote on six dogs at the jail. The animals were injected with tiger snake venom, followed by an injection of the secret antidote. "It clearly didn't work," says Hewitt, and the dogs were buried in the prison courtyard.

Further work on the skeletons includes DNA testing as well as osteological analysis that may help determine their breeds. Hewitt notes that the dogs weren't alone in the courtyard. The skeleton of a prisoner executed in 1917 or 1918 was eventually found just a few feet from them.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America