A form of simple dog burials began in the Levant region (now Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Syria) during the sixth century B.C.E. and continued for over six centuries. These purposeful burials have been found in more than a dozen sites, including one that has over 1000 dogs. Previous consideration of these canine burials had led to the conclusion that they were evidence of rituals related to various cults, including the healing cults and or that they symbolized the sacred status of dogs. A recent analysis proposes a new interpretation of these burials.
“Late 1st Millenium B.C.E. Levantine Dog Burials as an Extension of Human Mortuary Behavior” by Helen Dixon challenges previous work on these burial sites. Dixon has concluded that the thousands of burials in this region at that time represent something altogether different than previous researchers have suggested. She reports that the manner in which the dogs were buried is similar to the way some people in that region were buried at the time. The burials match methods used for lower class and poor people, perhaps because they were the easiest ways to bury loved ones. Dixon puts forth the theory that similarities in burials show a close social relationship with the dogs, indicating that a new attitude towards dogs had recently developed in the region. The treatment of dogs with mortuary behavior similar to that given to humans but not to any other animals does suggest a unique social status of dogs in these regions in the first millennium B.C.E.
Dixon therefore considers these dog burials a sign of the close and caring relationship between the people and dogs living there. Her research evaluates various other theories about dog burials and concludes that many of them are inconsistent with the data. For example, the idea that the dogs were buried simply to avoid disease or a bad smell in commercial centers where dogs were traded does not match with the individual graves found. Such a reason for burial would likely have meant mass graves in larger pits. The idea that dogs were sacred is not supported as signs that dogs were worshipped or revered have not been found. There are no associated temples or artifacts in the canine form, making it unlikely that dogs were revered.
The conclusion of this study is that dogs’ treatment in death indicates an extension of behavior usually directed towards humans. One line of evidence supporting the idea that the people genuinely cared for these individual dogs is that the burials at the various sites were not performed by members of a single cultural group, but by different groups: Phoenician, Aramaean, Judahite, Israelite and Philistine. Any sacred rituals would be likely to differ among those groups.
The most famous site included in the study is Ashkelon, an area in southern coastal Israel where at least 1250 canine burials have been found. The uniformity of the dog burials was striking to the researchers who spent over 7 years excavating the graves. The dogs were all positioned carefully in graves without tombstones or grave goods and placed with their feet and tail tucked under them as though in a sleeping posture.
There has been a considerable amount of research into ancient dog burials in many areas of the world showing that people treated dogs with a reverence similar to that afforded to other people. As the author writes in her conclusion, “That the dog might be considered to have a special relationship with humans is not a radical suggestion.” She mentions that at the time being explored in this study, a symbiosis between humans and dogs had existed for 10,000 years or more. Still, she says, “the change in treatment afforded the dogs in death is remarkable.” She goes on to say that although it is not completely clear what roles these dogs played in society while they were alive, their ritualized burials are a reflection of their important social identities at this point in our shared history.