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Dogs Sniff Out Iron-Age Tombs In Croatia

Canines are the best biotechnology to hit archaeology in eons
By Karen B. London PhD, October 2019, Updated June 2021

It’s a real life sixth sense story in which dogs smell dead people. Trained canines lent their noses to archaeologists, sniffing out multiple tombs dating back to the Iron Age.

Vedrana Glavaš, a researcher from the University of Zadar in Croatia, found three burial chests containing human bones as well as various artefacts in a prehistoric necropolis. She then contacted a dog trainer with the hopes of bringing in dogs to help find additional tombs, and the success came quickly. The four dogs found six additional burial sites and correctly identified the sites that had already been discovered. The discovery of burial sites by dogs is discussed in a scientific paper in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.

These dogs are Human Remains Detection (HRD) dogs whose primary work is sniffing out graves in crime investigations. The same odors from decomposition which they are trained to find for their law enforcement work are present in far older human remains. The tombs they uncovered are roughly 2500 to 3000 years old.

Human remains have a distinctive chemical profile that the dogs can detect. The porous rock around the tombs that had already been excavated likely absorbed enough of the odor for dogs to find them, too.

Using dogs to find tombs at archaeological sites has advantages. The technique is far less destructive than other options, and it works in many locations where other methods are not effective. Archaeology is yet one more field in which dogs and their noses can do what people and technology cannot.

photo by Zlatko Bala/Department of Archaeology, University of Zadar

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life