Dig unearths poignant evidence of beloved pet
July 28, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey
Luther Dietrich, a volunteer working on a City of Alexandria archaeological project, excavates the skeleton of a dog in a historic Old Town backyard.
When archaeologists excavate in the backyards of Alexandria we expect to find brick wells, trash pits, broken ceramics, and even animal bones discarded after someone's dinner. While excavating a site on South Fairfax Street we also found another type of animal bones. Careful removal of a "shrine" made of large stones and metal rods revealed a dog burial. Have you ever lost a pet and lovingly placed it to rest and marked the location with a stone?
After we removed the stones, we scraped the soil with trowels to discern any clues which would help us understand what this memorial marked. About six inches underground we discovered a full skeleton of a dog. The bones and teeth were well preserved and gave us the opportunity to do some historical detective work.
We first asked what breed of dog it might have been. Then we also wanted to know who buried the dog with such dignity. In order to answer the first question, several different researchers have taken measurements of the skeleton to determine its breed.
Michael Lammey has most recently analyzed this dog and others in the Alexandria Archaeology Collection. His paper outlines the analysis and process and discusses the history of dogs. The number of dog breeds has increased over the years. There were about 100 identified breeds in 1868, today there are more than 300.
When dealing with an archaeological dog, the skull is the most diagnostic in identifying its breed. There are 50 separate bones forming a dog's cranium. Lammey found that dog skulls show more variation in size and shape than other mammals.
By taking different measurements of the head, it is possible to place a skull into one of three size/shape categories. Dogs which have long, narrow heads are in the dolichocephlic group. A Collie or Russian Wolf Hound have this head type. Dogs, such as the Boston Terrier or Pekingese, with short wide heads are brachycephalic. And a skull which is midway between these two extremes is referred to as mesaticephalic. German Shepherds and Setters fit within this medium size skull category.
To determine the skull category, a series of measurements are taken. The length and width of the skull, face and cranium give three index numbers. The archaeological dog skull's index numbers can be compared to standard ones. The Fairfax Street dog was a mesaticephalic breed, probably a mixed Shepherd. Other skeletal remains indicate that the dog was a mature male with well worn molar teeth. He was probably stockier than the Shepherds of today.
Next week, oral history information will bring the dog's identity to light and illuminate the role of pets in historic Alexandria.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.