Ashkelon Dog Cemetery

Feb 5, 2024 0 comments

About 50 km south of Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean coast, near the ancient city of Ashkelon, archaeologists from the 1985 Leon Levi Expedition were digging under a hill when they unearthed over a thousand canine skeletons and skeletal remains dating back to the fifth to third centuries BC. This discovery was unprecedented as nowhere in the ancient Near East had so many dog burials been found at a single site and with no apparent reason for the burials. The discovery piqued the curiosity of many scholars, who have attempted to explain the motives behind the dog burials at Ashkelon.

A dog buried in Ashkelon. Photo credit: Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon

The dogs were interred in shallow, seemingly unmarked pits, positioned on their sides with tails nestled between hind limbs. Many of these canine burials occurred beneath streets and in narrow alleys, necessitating smaller pits that confined them closely. Some dogs were laid with tightly drawn-together legs, resembling a trussed posture before burial. Noteworthy is the absence of burial offerings, and the dogs showed no specific orientation in their placement. The skeletal remains exhibited no discernible butcher marks, and there were minimal signs of violence. Analyzing the burial's stratigraphy, as well as considering the age and sex of the dogs at the time of death leads to the conclusion that these dogs did not perish in a singular cataclysmic event. Instead, they seem to have died and been interred gradually over an extended period.

American archeologist Lawrence Stager, who led the excavation, maintained that the dogs belonged to a Phoenician healing cult in which they were trained to lick the wounds or sores of humans, in exchange for a fee. He believed that these dogs were worshipped in a sea-side temple located near the burial site (although no signs of the said temple has been found). As such, they were considered sacred and were given respectable burials when they died. There is also evidence of a possible cultic link between dogs and the Middle Eastern goddess Astarte, further strengthened by Herodotus who mentions that the oldest temple in Ashkelon was dedicated to Aphrodite, who the Greeks associated with Astarte.

A preserved grave from the Ashkelon dog cemetery. Photo credit: Haaretz

Dogs, and in many cases especially puppies, were associated with many different cults and rituals in ancient Near Eastern cultures. In Ancient Egypt dogs (and other animals) were associated with several deities such as Dwamutef, Wepwawet, Khentimentiu and most important Anubis, and were revered in special temple precincts. In Achaemenid Iran dogs were especially revered and were considered by the Zoroastrians as the second most important beings, after humans. In ancient Greece dogs were primarily associated with Asklepios, who according to one mythical tradition was watched over by a dog as a child. Dogs were involved in healing rites in Asklepios' temple in Epidaurus. They were also associated with the goddess Hecate and were frequently sacrificed to her during funerary rites.

The absence of discernible physical evidence on the canine bones interred at Ashkelon does not preclude the possibility of ritualistic killing. In the ancient Near East, various methods of killing, such as poisoning and drownings, were employed that left no visible marks on the victims' bones. The notable prevalence of puppies among the interred may imply a preference for younger dogs, yet some scholars argue that high mortality rates among the young were not uncommon in pre-veterinary settings.

These same scholars (Wapnish and Hesse) rejected the theories that there was a dog cult and that the burials were religious. Instead, they claim that the dogs were semi-feral urban dogs whose burial in one principal site was simply the result of local custom rather than any religious motivation. They proposed that the act of burial might have been all that truly mattered to the people of Ashkelon, and that the corpses and graves had no significance whatsoever. They also refused to call it a cemetery, arguing that the “dogs were buried where there was space, rather than a space being prepared to receive dogs.” “The goal was not to produce a cemetery or preserve the memory of the animals, but simply to inter,” they wrote.

# Wapnish, P., & Hesse, B., Pampered Pooches or Plain Pariahs? The Ashkelon Dog Burials, The Biblical Archaeologist
# Meir Edrey, The Dog Burials at Achaemenid Ashkelon Revisited, Tel Aviv


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