Dogs for the Dead

Six years ago,  the  Department of Transportation in Washington State stumbled upon a huge, unforeseen problem on the Port Angeles waterfront.  The department was in the midst of constructing a major new dry dock in the city when its workers suddenly began turning up ancient human bone.  Subsequent  investigations by archaeologists, historians, and elders of the Lower Elwha tribe revealed that a Klallam village known as Tse-whit-zen once stood on part of the prop0sed dry-dock site.

But here was the real sticking point.  The site also contained a major burial ground brimming with Klallam  graves:  nearly 335 people had been laid to rest there.   Moreover,  some had clearly perished between A.D. 1780 and 1800,  when diseases such as smallpox,  measles and influenza carried by Spanish mariners  swept through the region for the first time,  decimating Native American villages.  As David Rice,  a senior archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,  later told The Seattle Times,  a number of the graves contained more than one skeleton and bore signs of  rare forms of ritual treatment, “which would be a spiritual attempt at trying to stop this event.”

In the end,  the Department of Transportation did the right thing.  It decided to abandon construction of the dry dock,  after sinking nearly $60 million into the project.  But the department clearly learned a crucial lesson from the disaster,  and now it’s trying out a very new approach to its archaeological surveys of proposed development sites along the Port Angeles waterfront.  It has brought in dogs–not just the garden-variety Fido, but four animals trained at the Institute for  Canine Forensics in Woodside,  California.  These are corpse-sniffing dogs.

This was the first I had heard of such canines being used to detect human remains in archaeological sites.  But I think they could potentially save developers,  archaeologists and Native Americans  a whole world of grief.  According to the staff at the Institute for Canine Forensics, dogs can smell human remains that are buried as much as nine feet below the surface.  And they can detect remains as old as 2000 years.  “Human remains have a scent that never,  ever goes away,  especially a bone,  even after it dries out,” one of the institute’s staff members told The Peninsula Daily News.

As the owner of a Labrador retriever,  I’ve witnessed time and again the astonishing olfactory prowess of dogs,  and I don’t doubt they could be trained to sniff out very ancient remains.   If the Port Angeles project pans out–and I can’t imagine why it won’t– I  think bringing in such trained dogs should become a standard procedure when North American archaeologists are surveying proposed development sites for possible ancient Native American cemeteries.

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3 thoughts on “Dogs for the Dead

  1. Very interesting! My human is a volunteer at a site in SW Florida that goes back over 2000 years. The last major inhabitents were the Calusa, wiped out by the Spanish in the 1600’s. Our digs are mindful of disturbing ANY burial site and this would be a great aid if it works in a very wet environment.

  2. Derek Beery, the archaeologist for the city of Port Angeles, has put your question to one of the trainers at the Institute for Canine Forensics. She says that the dogs are capable of underwater detection, particularly in marshlands, though, “they are curious about alligators and water mocassins…”

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