Dogs have been a part of human life in ancient Israel and the Near East for almost as long as the archaeological record of the region. The remains of a presumably domesticated dog dated to 10,000 B.C.E. have been found in a cave in Iraq, and a puppy skeleton has been found in northern Israel next to that of a boy in a grave attributed to the Natufian period (12,000-8500 B.C.E.). However, the most extraordinary archaeological evidence of close relations between man and dog in antiquity is the fifth-century B.C.E. dog cemetery found at Ashkelon, in Israel.

Located on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, this cemetery contains the remains of at least 700 dogs, according to Ashkelon excavator Lawrence Stager of Harvard University.a They appear to have been interred with great care, usually in the same pose, with legs flexed and tail tucked in around the hind legs, as shown in the photo. Zooarchaeologists Paula Wapnish and Brian Hesse, who examined the skeletons, noted that they bear no signs of butchering and their ages are appropriate for the mortality rates of an average urban canine population. The dogs apparently died of natural causes.

No one can say for sure who buried these dogs in Ashkelon’s cemetery or why. None of the objects found at the site indicates any specific dog cult or anything else that might explain why the city’s residents took such care of their canine dead. No shrine or temple has been found near the graveyard. The city, moreover, had a heterogeneous population—Persians, Phoenicians, Egyptians and Greeks lived at Ashkelon during the fifth century B.C.E. (the Persian period)—making it difficult to guess which culture was responsible.

Egyptians are known to have worshiped the animals, but none of the dogs found at Ashkelon suggests mummification, which would be typical of Egyptian burials. Persians also favored dogs; Persian Zoroastrians rank dogs next to humans in their cosmology and accord them an honored place in human burial rites. But though the local Persians might have influenced their neighbors in Ashkelon to favor dogs, they themselves are unlikely to have been directly involved in the cemetery, for they never placed human or canine corpses in earthen graves that were not lined with stones. The Ashkelon graves have no stone lining.

The Greeks also held dogs in high regard and occasionally honored individual dogs with epitaphs and graves, but the Greek population at Ashkelon, like the Persian and Egyptian communities, was simply too small to have the authority to dedicate so significant a piece of real estate to the burial of dogs.

The most likely candidates are the Phoenicians. More Phoenicians lived at Ashkelon in the fifth century B.C.E. than any other group; if anyone had the authority to open and run a dog cemetery, they did. In addition, ancient Phoenicians (like other Near Eastern peoples) celebrated the healing powers of canines, perhaps because of dogs’ well-known habit of licking their wounds. Dogs were associated with the Phoenician healing deity Resheph or Resheph-Mukol (later associated with Apollo). They apparently lived in the precincts of temples dedicated to these gods and may have participated in some way in temple rituals. Indeed, a mid-fifth-century B.C.E. plaque from the Phoenician city of Kition, on Cyprus, lists dogs as part of the paid staff at a temple of the healing deity Mukol. According to Stager, the Kition plaque inspires a rereading of Deuteronomy 23:18, “You shall not bring the hire of a harlot, or the wages of a dog into the house of the Lord.” The word for dog in the verse, klb, is often interpreted here as a derogatory epithet for a male prostitute (and thus as parallel to the harlot in the same verse). But the same term is used in the Phoenician text. Might Deuteronomy have been concerned with the compensation paid to a dog involved in the cult of a foreign god of healing?

—Michael Shurkin