Doggo Detectives Discover 3,000-Year-Old Burial Sites In Ancient Croatian Settlement

Indiana Bones, doggo detective and archaeologists' best frend. Javier Brosch/Shutterstock

Don’t underestimate our doggo pals. Yes, they may be lovely furry emotional support systems (that have us wrapped around their little paws) but they are also valuable tools in the fields of medicine, law enforcement, and, as it turns out, archaeology.

Researchers are hailing dogs as an excellent way to identify prospective archaeological sites in a less destructive manner than just digging after their canine colleagues discovered a handful of tombs in Croatia that date back 3,000 years by sniffing out the human remains within.

That dogs are super-sniffers is no secret. Thanks to smell receptors that are 10,000 times more accurate than humans’ they are regularly used to bust drug smuggling, find lost people, and help solve cold-cases. They can even smell our emotions and sniff out cancer.

Human remains detection (HRD) cadaver dogs are also used by police to sniff out corpses in criminal cases, so it’s not a huge jump to get them to sleuth out thousands-of-years-old remains too.

Researchers Vedrana Glavaš, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Zadar and Andrea Pintar, an ethologist (animal behavior expert) specializing in using K9 pups to find human remains, have published a paper in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory detailing just how valuable the doggy detectives are at identifying prospective historic burial sites.

“This method is excellent because dogs locate the scent of a decayed human body, which is specific to human beings,” Glavaš told Total Croatia News. “No other creature smells like a human.”

One of the dogs sniffing out the tombs. Image supplied by Vedrana Glavaš, Department of Archaeology/University of Zadar

This is the first published research on using dogs in the field of archaeology, Glavaš told IFLScience. They have previously been used to find Civil and Revolutionary War-era remains, but it's the first time they've been tested locating truly ancient remains. Amazingly, they came up trumps, revealing six new graves dating back to 700 BCE at an on-going archaeological dig of the prehistoric hillfort Drvišica in the Velebit mountains in Croatia.

Glavaš, who has worked on the dig since 2014, wanted to test the viability of using dogs as identifiers of graves as potentially being both more accurate and less destructive than traditional methods. A mutual friend put her in touch with Pintar, who wanted to test how far back in history her dogs' noses could go. "I was open-minded enough to tell her: 'Well, we can test the dogs on a prehistoric archaeological site,'" Glavaš told IFLScience.

For archaeologists, detecting tombs can often be difficult if there are no obvious markers, so prospecting for sites can involve ground-penetrating radar, LIDAR remote sensing, and plain old-fashioned digging. Dogs trained to sniff out the very specific scent of human remains, however, can pinpoint a location with incredible accuracy, and though training a K9 doesn’t come cheap, it’s cheaper than satellites and lasers.

"The graves on Drvišica hillfort are actually circular tombs up to 5m in diameter. In the middle of each tomb, a small stone chest was placed, and inside of each chest, up to 5 individuals buried. The dogs usually indicated the direct position of the stone chest, or inside the circular structure (which is actually, next to the chest)," Glavaš told IFLScience. Image supplied by Vedrana Glavaš, Department of Archaeology/University of Zadar

Four female dogs (Belgian Malinois and German shepherds) were used, all trained and operational in HRD, in blind (where dog and handler didn’t know the location of a prospective grave but the leader of the excavation did) and double-blind (where nobody onsite had any knowledge of possible burial locations) tests. Of the 19 sites indicated by the dogs to have the unique scent of human remains, 10 have been confirmed as burials, and five so far have been excavated revealing tomb structures and burial chests, including one filled with the bones of children.  

This "demonstrates that HRD dogs are a valuable tool for locating burials like other non-destructive archaeological search methods," they conclude in the study.

Glavaš and Pintar have also developed and written guidelines and standards for dog training methodology and how these very good boys and girls should be used correctly in order for it to become an accepted and trusted method of finding sites within the field of archaeology. 

“Many archaeologists are looking for burial sites of settlements,” Glavaš told The Guardian. “I think dogs can solve their problems.”

Panda is a very good girl and found a tomb. Image supplied by Vedrana Glavaš, Department of Archaeology/University of Zadar

[H/T: The Guardian

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