Ashkelon Dog Cemetery

 About 50 km south of Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean coast, near the ancient city of Ashkelon, archaeologists from the 1985 Leon Levy expedition were excavating beneath a hill when they discovered the skeletons of more than a thousand dogs dating from the fifth to the third century and Skeletal remains were found. centuries BC. The discovery was unprecedented as so many dog graves had never been found in a single location anywhere in the ancient Near East and there was no apparent reason for their burial. This discovery piqued the curiosity of many scholars who have attempted to explain the motives behind the dog burials at Ashkelon.

The dogs were buried in shallow, seemingly unmarked pits, with their tails placed between the hind limbs on their sides. Many of these dogs were buried under roads and in narrow alleys, necessitating small pits that would confine them nearby. Some dogs were laid with their legs pulled tightly together, resembling a tied posture, before burial. Of note is the lack of burial offerings, and the dogs showed no particular orientation to their location. The skeletal remains showed no obvious butcher marks, and there were minimal signs of violence. Analyzing the stratigraphy of the burial, 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, it appears that they have died and been buried slowly over a long period of time.

Lawrence Staiger, the American archaeologist who led the excavation, said 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. They believed that these dogs were worshiped in a seaside temple near the burial site (although no trace of said temple has been found). Thus, they were considered sacred and were given an honorable burial when they died. There is also evidence of a possible cultural connection between dogs and the Middle Eastern goddess Astarte, further strengthened by Herodotus, who mentions that the oldest temple in Ashkelon was dedicated to Aphrodite, whom the Greeks associated with Astarte.

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 importantly Anubis, and were revered in special temple complexes. Dogs were especially revered in Achaemenid Iran and were considered the second most important creature after humans by the Zoroastrians. In ancient Greece dogs were primarily associated with Asclepios, with a mythological tradition that he was looked after by a dog during his childhood. Dogs were involved in healing rites at the temple of Asklepios at Epidaurus. They were also associated with the goddess Hecate and were often sacrificed during funeral rites.

The absence of clear physical evidence on dog bones buried at Ashkelon does not preclude the possibility of ritual killing. In the ancient Near East, various methods of murder were employed, such as poisoning and drowning, which left no visible marks on the victims' bones. The notable prevalence of puppies among dogs may have given preference to smaller dogs, yet some scholars argue that high mortality rates among the young were not unusual in pre-veterinary settings.

The same scholars (Wapnish and Hesse) rejected the theories that the dog had a cult and that the burials were religious. Instead, he claims that the dogs were semi-feral urban dogs whose burial at a prominent site was simply the result of local custom rather than any religious motivation. He proposed that the act of burial must have actually mattered to the people of Ashkelon, and that corpses and tombs had no significance whatsoever. He also refused to call it a cemetery, arguing that "dogs were buried where there was room, not where the place was prepared to receive the dogs." He wrote, "The goal was not to create a cemetery or preserve the memory of the animals, but simply to interment them."

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