A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
As they were talking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears. This was Argos, whom Odysseus had bred before setting out for Troy....As soon as he saw Odysseus standing there, he dropped his ears and wagged his tail, but he could not get close up to his master [and] Argos passed into the darkness of death, now that he had seen his master once more after 20 years.
—Homer, Odyssey, Book 17
A 1,000-year-old dog buried by Peru's Chiribaya people was a much-beloved pet. (Reuters/Mariana Bazo)
As anyone who has ever had a dog knows, there is little to compare to its faithful companionship. Evidence for love of dogs in the ancient world is abundant, from Homer's account of Argos waiting for his master to return from the Trojan War to the careful burials of cherished pets all over the world. And, as many owners also know, dogs live for treats. Even in the afterlife, their owners liked to spoil them. Behind the Stoa of Attalos, the main public building of the ancient Athenian market, a fourth-century grave was found containing the skeleton of a dog with a large beef bone near his head. And the Chiribaya people of Peru (A.D. 900-1400) also made sure that their pets had something to snack on after death. In 2006, archaeologists working in an ancient cemetery near the city of Ilo in southern Peru found the well-preserved remains of 80 dogs interspersed with the burials of about 2,000 people ("Peru's Mummy Dogs," January/February 2007). Each dog had its own grave next to its owner, some were wrapped in finely woven llama-wool blankets, and many had llama and fish bones next to their noses. The dogs ranged in age from puppies to adults, and most died from natural causes. Sonia Guillén, director of the Mallaqui Center in Ilo and the leader of the excavation, believes that these dogs were not only pets, but also were used to herd llamas and alpacas, which explains why they were highly valued even after death. Guillén is working to establish a link between these centuries-old breeds and modern Peruvian herding dogs.
A dog from a third-century A.D. cemetery in Carthage (Copyright Staffan Widsrtrand/Nature Picture Library)
The ancient Egyptians also cherished their dogs, not only as deities ("The Dog Catacomb"), but also as companions in this life--and the next. A mummy of a small dog that dates to the fourth century B.C. was found in the sacred Egyptian city of Abydos in 1902 alongside that of a man identified on his coffin as Hapi-Men. Both mummies are now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Hapi-Men and his companion, "Hapi-Puppy," were recently part of a project to reexamine several mummies from the museum's collection. Hapi-Puppy was taken to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital for a CT scan that confirmed he was indeed a dog (not a cat, as was also thought possible.) According to anthropologist Janet Monge, who led the scan study, Hapi-Puppy died at about two years of age, more like an adolescent than a baby, and had the same size, stockiness, and power of a Jack Russell terrier. "Hapi-Men must have loved his dog, and after his death, it seems that the dog pined away and died soon enough to have been mummified and buried with his master," says Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo. According to Ikram, this practice was not uncommon. "There are much earlier Middle Kingdom (2080-1640 B.C.) tombs that depict a man and his dog, and both are named so that they can survive into the afterworld together," she says.
Studying the remains of dog burials, even those from thousands of years ago, often has an emotional impact on researchers. "Perhaps of all the archaeological cases for pets I can think of," says Michael MacKinnon, an archaeologist from the University of Winnipeg, "I believe the Yasmina 'sick' dog is the most poignant." Along the north wall of the Roman-era Yasmina cemetery in the city of Carthage in Tunisia, excavations led by Naomi Norman of the University of Georgia uncovered a third-century A.D. burial of an adolescent/young adult in a carefully made grave topped with cobbles and tiles, and with the skeleton of an elderly dog at its feet. The dog was also buried with one of the few grave goods found in the cemetery, a glass bowl carefully placed behind its shoulder.
The Yasmina dog, which probably resembled a modern Pomeranian, is an example of a toy breed, and one of the earliest specimens to be identified as a Maltese. But what is more remarkable about the dog is that, despite a host of physical problems including tooth loss that likely required it to eat soft foods, osteoarthritis, a dislocated hip, and spinal deformation that would have limited mobility, the dog survived into its mid-to-late teens. It was clearly well cared for, and even death could not separate it from his owner, according to MacKinnon. "Whether the dog represents a sacrifice [perhaps meant to 'heal' the sick person in the afterlife] or just companionship is unknown, but these two aspects need not be mutually exclusive," he says. "There is a great connection between humans and animals in Roman antiquity. To me, this aspect of animals garnering sentimental value and being treated like humans is a key aspect of Roman culture."