Archaeologists confirm that dogs can successfully sniff out ancient tombs from 800 BC

In a new effort to find ancient tombs and burials, archaeologists are turning to the oldest form of detection technology that humans have been using for thousands of years: dogs.

That’s right, when it comes to finding human remains or drugs or prey during the hunt, man’s best friend has the best nose in the business. But until now, they’ve never been employed to find prehistoric burials.

Dr. Vedrana Glavaš, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Zadar in Croatia, wanted to know if cadaver dogs, also known as human remains detection dogs (HRD), could sniff out ancient tombs and put several dogs to the test in an experiment that could have positive implications in the archaeological field, especially in areas where new technologies are more difficult to deploy.

One such place is the area around the 8th-century BC hilltop fort of Drvišica, where Glavaš and her team are currently excavating a necropolis where they have already found several tombs.


The hilltop fort of Drvišica in Croatia, where several nearby tombs are located. Image via YouTube.

Inside these tombs are burial chests, which contain bone fragments such as fingers and teeth, which were the best preserved of the remains. Could dogs find ancient tombs even though few human remains are left and every stage of decomposition ended thousands of years earlier?

Dogs are already used to find mass graves from World War II. They’ve also been employed to locate lost graves from as long ago as the 1800s. But we’re talking about prehistoric graves.

In a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. Glavaš and fellow researcher Andrea Pintar wrote:

“Many non-destructive methods for locating burials are available to archaeologists, including field survey, aerial photography, infrared satellite imaging, GPR (ground-penetrating radar), and resistivity,” the researchers wrote.  “Although all of these methods offer the potential for remotely identifying sites, they all have limitations and do not always yield the desired results. Scholarly literature from the field of forensic archaeology frequently indicate human remains detection (HRD) dogs or cadaver dogs as a useful tool in locating clandestine burials. Nevertheless, this investigative tool is less frequently employed in prehistoric or historic archaeological contexts.”

Glavaš and Pintar point out in their study that human remains can continue to produce an odor for a very long time, even longer than most people think.

Human decomposition odor can be preserved in the soil, under favorable conditions, for several millennia. In a wet and humid environment, adipocere can be formed on the body as a product of body fat conversion into a lipid mixture in different soil types.

Indeed, they even noted that a stone sarcophagus containing the remains of a Roman child still contained this adipocere.

The fact that decomposition odors can still remain in the soil millennia after death means that dogs should definitely be able to pick up the scent and locate ancient tombs that have long since been forgotten.

“Dogs’ noses obviously don’t make mistakes,” Glavaš told The Guardian.

She’s right. A dog’s nose is a powerful device that is 100,000 times better than our own, giving dogs the ability to basically form a 3D picture based on smell alone.


A dog’s nose is very sensitive to scents of all kinds, which is why they are useful for detection. Image via Wikimedia.

“Dogs noses are specifically adapted to function much better than ours,” Michael T. Nappier, of the Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine explained to PetMD. “They have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, versus only about 6 million for us. And the part of their brain dedicated to interpreting these is about 40 times larger than ours.”

So you can bet that if there is still a scent in the air or in the soil, a dog will find it. In this case, the team used multiple dogs for confirmation.

“We always use at least two dogs to confirm the position,” Glavaš said.

The team employed four female cadaver dogs of various ages and experience levels for the experiment. First, the team wanted to know if the dogs could detect tombs that are already known and have been excavated.


A cadaver dog sniffing the ground in search of ancient tombs. Image via YouTube.

The dogs are trained to either bark or lay down when they find what they are looking for. Making it more difficult, existing excavated tombs had been exposed to sun, air, and rain. The dog handlers also did not have previous knowledge of the exact locations of the tombs.

The results were nothing less than a complete success.

Amazingly, the dogs easily found the tombs, but most surprisingly, they also found five previously undiscovered tombs, which the archaeologists excavated since they were located near where they were already working.


A dog finds an ancient tomb that has already been excavated. Image via YouTube.

In addition, the dogs indicated that there are several more potential sites where the team plans to excavate as soon as they get more funding.

In spite of dry karst base, low soil quantity, and exposure to exogenic environmental factors (sun, rain, wind), this research has demonstrated that HRD dogs can be considered as a valid non-invasive search method to locate burial grounds as well as to locate exact burial positions. This is strongly suggested by a total of 9 indications where the dogs indicated the exact position of the burial chest. At this point of the research, only the positions with at least two indications (i.e., double corroboration of the position of the grave) were taken into further consideration for visual inspection and excavation. Singular indications will be excavated in future research seasons.

Area searched by the dogs. Image via Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.
Red dots in this photo indicate where the dogs signaled a site location. Image via Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.

The study concluded that the use of dogs would be an efficient way to avoid using invasive search strategies to make discoveries.

The excavated burials were dated, based on radiocarbon dating and material culture analysis to the eighth to the first century BC. This research has demonstrated that HRD dogs are able to detect very small amounts of specific human decomposition odor as well as to indicate to considerably older burials than previously assumed…dogs can be used as a part of a noninvasive search strategy to locate burial sites in archaeological research.

Locating burial grounds using HRD dogs has great potential in preventive archaeology and archaeological surveys where traces on the ground surface are not readily visible, as is the case with the majority of settlement sites. Therefore, the HRD dogs can be considered as a valuable and usable tool as other non-invasive prospection methods and a valid search method in burial archaeology.

Durham University archaeology researcher Angela Perri, who studies the historical relationship between humans and dogs, believes that using dogs to sniff out ancient tombs is very promising.

“It would be interesting to push the boundaries on that and see just how old you could get,” she said. “It seems like a pretty great way to move forward in archaeology. We’re still finding new ways of having dogs help us.”

As for Glavaš, this study only reinforces her belief that dogs can be of service in her particular field.

“Many archaeologists are looking for burial sites of settlements,” she said. “I think dogs can solve their problems.”

And even if there are no burials to be found on a site, at least the dogs would provide companionship and loving support, just as they always have since humans first domesticated them.

See the dogs in action below:

Featured Image: YouTube screenshot

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