Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Patroclus had owned nine dogs who ate beside his table. Slitting the throats of two of them, Achilles tossed them on the pyre.
—Homer, Iliad, Book 23

Sacrificing dogs to appease supernatural forces has been a part of religious traditions as different as those of ancient Greece, where the Spartans slaughtered dogs to ensure victory in battle, and Shang Dynasty China. Some inscribed oracle bones dating to this period (1766-1050 B.C.) mention the rite of ning, which involved dismembering a dog to honor the winds. Often sacrificed dogs were single offerings, as was the case of the dog killed at the Minoan site of Monastiraki in Crete, where excavation director Athanasia Kanta last year found a small bench with a skeleton of a dog (missing its head) and several conical cups arranged around it. Kanta interpreted the find as a sacrifice to appease the gods following a large earthquake—there are collapsed walls and fire damage throughout the site.


At the medieval town of Kaná in Hungary, excavators uncovered five overturned pots containing puppies, which may have been sacrificed to ward off evil spirits. (Courtesy Martá Daróczi-Szabó )

At the site of Sardis in Turkey, once the capital of the Lydian Empire (680-546 B.C.), excavators uncovered 26 small pits, each containing four pots—a cooking jug, deep cup, shallow bowl, and small pitcher, all used for common meals—along with an iron knife and the bones of a puppy. According to one of Sardis's long-time excavators, Crawford Greenewalt Jr. of the University of California, Berkeley, the burials are the remains of a ritual meal, perhaps dedicated to the Lydian version of the god Hermes. "I do not believe these deposits are evidence of cynophagy [eating dogs], which was not part of the normal ancient Mediterranean diet," he says.

Some dog sacrifices are on a more massive scale. In 1937, archaeologists excavating in the Agora, the main marketplace of ancient Athens, made a stunning discovery—a well containing bones from hundreds of people, including approximately 450 newborns, and from more than 100 dogs. According to Lynn M. Snyder, who is re-examining the animal bones from the well, the infants likely died of natural causes. But she believes the dogs were "most likely sacrificed as part of a purification ritual after a birth, whether successful or not." Several ancient Greek sources identify dogs as the victims of choice to cleanse the pollution caused by both death and childbirth.

But dogs weren't just sacrificed in antiquity. In Hungary, a team excavating a site in the medieval town of Kaná just outside Budapest, discovered more than 1,000 dog bones, about 12 percent of all the mammal bones at the site. From these, Márta Daróczi-Szabó, an archaeozoologist at Eoetvoes Loránd University in Budapest identified five puppies, buried in pots, that were sacrificed and placed into the construction trenches of several buildings. Daróczi-Szabó believes that the puppies and several other dog burials at the site were intended to ward off evil, a custom that survived in Hungary into the 20th century. Although similar sacrifices have been found at other Hungarian excavations, especially of religious sites, Daróczi-Szabó was surprised by the pots from the domestic contexts at Kaná. "From these kinds of sacrificial pots, dog remains are very rare," she says. "More often eggs or chicken bones are found. So I was very excited by these finds." Daróczi-Szabó believes they suggest the practice of dog sacrifice was quite common during the Middle Ages in Hungary. "Despite the formal institution of Catholicism by the first Hungarian king, István I (1000-1038), who banned pagan rituals, it shows that part of the population still maintained these rituals in spite of the ideological dominance of Christianity."