A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Wolf Rites of Winter
Archaeologists digging a Bronze Age site on the Russian steppes are using evidence from language and mythology to understand a remarkable discovery
Around 4,000 years ago, on the steppes north of the Black Sea, a nomadic people began settling down in small communities. Known today as the Timber Grave Culture, these people left behind more than 1,000 sites. One of them is called Krasnosamarskoe, and Hartwick College archaeologist David Anthony had big expectations for it when he started digging there in the late 1990s. Anthony hoped that by excavating the site he might learn why people in this region first began to establish permanent households. But he and his team have since discovered that Krasnosamarskoe has a much different story to tell. They found that the site held the remains of dozens of butchered dogs and wolves—vastly more than at any comparable site.
Nerissa Russell, the project’s archaeozoologist, says, “I remember saying early on in the dig that we were finding a lot of dog bones. But I had no idea how important they would turn out to be.” When the team got to work analyzing all the animal bones in the lab, they identified the remains of about 51 dogs and seven wolves, as well as six canines that could not be classified as either. At other Timber Grave sites, dog and wolf bones never make up more than 3 percent of the total animal bones found. At Krasnosamarskoe, they made up more than 30 percent. “I don’t know of any other site in the world with such a high percentage of dog bones,” says Russell. She and her team found that most of the dogs were unusually long-lived, up to 12 years old in some cases, which meant they were probably not raised for food. “Were they treasured pets, hunting dogs, or pariahs? We don’t know,” she says. “But they are so old that these were dogs that had been around for a while and had some kind of relationship to these people.”
To add to the mystery, the bones were cut in unusual, systematic ways that did not resemble ordinary butchering practices. Snouts were divided into three pieces and the remainder of the skulls were broken down into geometrically shaped fragments only an inch long. No one would have made these cuts to simply get meat off the bones.
Anthony and his wife, archaeologist Dorcas Brown, knew it was a unique discovery. Brown, in particular, suspected the canines were probably sacrificed there as part of a ritual and decided to examine the research literature broadly on the subject of rituals involving dogs. What she discovered was that there was indeed a body of work on just such ancient practices. In an unusual move for prehistoric archaeologists, they decided to consult historical linguistics and ancient literary traditions to better understand the archaeological record.
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