The curious case of the dog in the…

By adam corsini on 6 Mar 2013

Right now, as this blog is being written, the skull of a roman dog is sitting in a display case at the Glades Shopping Centre in Bromley. Yet, this is no ordinary dog. It’s one whose history and circumstances of death are surrounded in mystery.

In 1984 as archaeologists uncovered remains of  a Roman villa in Keston, they came across a large circular feature; larger than your average pit, as they removed layers of soil, extraordinary discoveries began to be revealed. Having already dug a depth of around two metres, the archaeologists suddenly found the shaft’s first animal bones; sheep, dog, ox and piglet. The bones weren’t your usual food waste, but instead were almost complete skeletons, albeit jumbled up. Beneath these, the actual first complete skeleton was found; that of a pig.

The archaeologists dug further. More bones appeared. Dog, dog, sheep, another dog, more pigs, dog, dog, dog. All complete skeletons. All seemingly placed in position, rather than being thrown in or naturally dying.

The archaeologists continued. More dog bones surfaced. What was this pit? It size and scale like no other on this four acre site. This shaft almost four metres in diameter and now reaching a depth of around four and a half metres. How deep would it go? What could they possibly find next?

Horse.

And not just the one. Two complete horses, deliberately laid around the edge of the shaft along with the complete skeleton of an ox. Down further still and more skeletons; dogs, oxen, sheep, pigs. When they finally reached the bottom, in the centre of the pit surrounded by the skeletal remains was a single, broken, iron spearhead.

So what was going on?

Well, in times of puzzlement like this, the archaeologist tends to reach for their safety word and cry ‘ritual!’ Truth be told, archaeology sometimes can’t provide us with a definitive answer. However, there are some interesting points to note which, with a little bit of logical imagination, perhaps help us understand the practices of these Keston inhabitants.

First, these animals were almost certainly placed in position, rather than falling into the shaft. Second, the people here were agricultural farmers, meaning that they were both relying on a good crop for survival and would have had access to several kinds of animals. Third, Romans are known to make sacrifices to their gods.

Sacrificing sheep and oxen were part of the ritual practice in the worship of the goddess Magna Mater –  the Earth Mother. In Autumn, to mark the end of agricultural and military campaigning seasons, horses were sacrificed to the God Mars. Finally, in April, there was the Robigalia, where dog sacrifices were carried out to protect fields of grain from disease.

Although no solid evidence that these animals were sacrificed to these deities for these purposes, I find it curious that these connections can be made. Perhaps we’ll never know for certain why these animals died, but almost 2000 years later, their story lives on.

Certain remains will be on display at the Bromley Museum on Saturday 6 April as part of the Unearthing Bromley project.

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