As I mentioned, I’ve been returning to some material I discovered in researching my piece on cemeteries for Lapham’s Quarterly, material which wasn’t suitable for the essay but which nonetheless captivated me. I had already wanted to write something about the history of dog burial when David B. Metcalfe shared a very excellent post from the blog The Eyeless Owl, under the heading “If You Dream of a Dog and He Bites You…”
This heading, along with the great material that followed, reminded me once again of one of the more stellar infographics I came across while researching cemeteries, from an article on Roman burial in England. The article, “Dedicating the Town: Urban Foundation Deposits in Roman Britain,” was written by Peter and Ann Woodward, and appeared in World Archeology in Mar. 2004. In order to test various hypotheses regarding Roman Britain’s burial practices, the Woodwards turned to archeological evidence in Greyhound Yard, Dorchester, where various pits and shafts had been excavated over the years. In order to demonstrate the contents of these various pits, they included a graphic of the recovered remains in three shafts, prepared by Henry Buglass:
Buglass’s image is for me one of those unintentional moments of art, disguised through this schematic depiction of bodily remains in the earth. It’s analogous, for me, to those early Sumerian tablets, some of the earliest extant writing by human hands, which record simple business transactions (such as the buying and selling of sheep), but yet which radiate, over the span of years, what Walter Benjamin would call an aura.
The appearance of actual human remains was quite rare, with only one of the three shafts containing a human cranium. Instead, what they found were copious quantities of animal remains. Some of these—rodents, birds, and frogs—were classified by the Woodwards as “pitfall victims”; that is, animals who were not deliberately buried but were trapped in these pits or were otherwise accidentally buried in them.
What I found of most interest was the high number of dog remains that were found in these pits—burials which were definitely deliberate. Shaft 6 contained the remains of at least 17 dogs, and shaft 13 had 9 dogs and 4 puppies.
What accounted for this prevalence of ritual dog burial? The Woodwards explain:
Dogs held a special place in the rituals and iconography of Iron Age and Roman Britain. Depictions of such creatures occur commonly, usually in the form of small figurines, and the skeletal remains of the animals themselves often were deposited in auspicious places. Such places included temples and shrines, and also deposits located in deep shafts or wells. Several systems of symbolic referencing seem to have been involved. First, dogs were traditionally associated with healing and aspects of fidelity and protection of humans—the guarding instinct. The association with health appears to have been linked to the fact that dogs could induce rapid healing by licking their own wounds, and those of humans. A somewhat contrasting group of associations included those with death and hunting, and links with chthonic themes and the underworld.
The dog, then, as a Roman symbol, is closely linked to our bodies in any number of ways, and seems poised to accompany us through various stages of life—the dog provides bodily protection to keep us out of harm, offers an almost supernatural ability to heal us through its bacteria-killing saliva, and finally accompanies us on the final journey to the underworld.
To this one could add one more association with dogs and healing: early anatomists could not dissect actual human corpses, and so their understanding of the human body was limited to the animal kingdom. Galen in particular, the founding father of anatomy, regularly dissected both apes and dogs in an effort to understand human anatomy better.
It’s hard for me to think of our own dog’s saliva as particularly healing, especially after watching the various trash he roots around in and eats whenever we take him walking in the park. So it’s nice to be reminded—through a rather beautiful graphic of some excavated burial plots in Dorchester from fifteen hundred years ago—that as he methodically and seriously goes about licking my hand every night, he’s watching out for me.