Many people with a furry friend have noticed that dogs exhibit a keen interest in the odors of the world, something scent dogs are actually specially bred and trained for. These amazing working dogs have highly refined noses and they’re put to work in settings like airports (for contraband interdiction), disaster sites (for finding victims and survivors), and war zones (for mine sweeping). It requires years of training and a lot of patience, as well as a willing canine. Trainer Gary Jackson decided to put the power of a dog’s sense of smell to the limits to see if it was possible to train a dog to seek out ancient human remains. What he ended up with was the world’s first archaeology dog!
Dogs are already used in the detection of human remains, which put out a very distinct odor signature. Cadaver dogs, as they’re known, can find not just whole human bodies but also body parts, and can detect the site where a human body was stored even if it’s been moved. They’re incredibly valuable for law enforcement and criminal investigation, as well as the tragic task of recovering dead bodies from the sites of disasters. Training them, as you might imagine, can get a little eccentric at times; not everyone drives around with coolers full of (donated!) human remains, after all.
Jackson wanted to know if it was possible for dogs to find ancient human remains, which would be a much tougher task. With all the soft tissue long gone, the classic scent signature might be as well, and the bones are significantly dry. Yet, Migaloo the rescued black lab was willing to give it a go (with a little motivation from her favorite ball), and she’s turned out to be an archaeology star, successfully finding 600-year-old graves. She passed a test in an ancient burial site, used with special permission from Aboriginal elders, with flying colors. Her test case proves that dogs definitely have applications in archaeology, and could become extremely useful team members.
In case you’re wondering, no, Migaloo isn’t allowed to dig up her finds. That delicate task is left to trained archaeologists who can safely extract bones along with objects of interest in their substrate, carefully filtering through dirt and other materials to remove fragments of beads, material, and other man-made materials while preserving the integrity of the bone as much as possible.
So the next time you see a dog sniffing around at an archaeological dig, don’t be so quick to assume it’s someone’s pet along for the work day…
Photo credit: pmarkham
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