Ancient Egyptian relief carving of a dog.

Ritual and Burial: The Strange and Elaborate Ways Humans Prepared Animals for the Afterlife

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The practice of animal burial is one that dates back to prehistoric epochs. Many cultures around the globe have buried animals for various reasons: sentimentality, religious rituals, superstition, and more. Archaeological studies of animal burials aren’t just to catalogue what the ancient humans ate or which animals they domesticated, but these finds also shed light on the very lifestyles, beliefs and spiritual customs of ancient societies.

This article touches on only a few of the surprising ways humans have buried animals through history.

Illustration of the Hindu epic Ramayana depicting Ashwamedha (horse sacrifice).

Illustration of the Hindu epic Ramayana depicting Ashwamedha (horse sacrifice). Public Domain

Countless types of animals were interred in the past, the large and the small. Around the globe, a myriad of  animals were either buried alone or alongside humans because they held a value to the society, they were seen to be connected to a power, or they served as a symbol or offering.

The Dog - Man’s Best Friend

The prehistoric connection of man and his ‘best friend’ the dog has been revealed through animal burial.

Studies of ancient dog burials in ancient Siberia from 10,000 years ago demonstrate the bond the humans and animals have shared. Dogs were often buried in sleeping positions, and laid to rest with tools or ornaments, or toys. The dogs were buried with their presumed owner, and still other dogs wore necklaces with deer teeth pendants.

The location of prehistoric dog burials reveal that hunter-gatherer societies buried their dogs, but farming societies did not. This suggested to researchers that the farmers may not have seen the dogs as important to life and survival as the hunters did.

Dogs held a high status in ancient China. There is rarely found an ancient tomb that does not have evidence of consecration by canine sacrifice, and domestic dogs and horses were vital to tradition and ancient Chinese society. Dogs were ritually killed and wrapped in reed mats or lacquered coffins, and were sometimes adorned with bells. The sacrifice was thought to drive out pestilence, bring calm weather, or ward off evil.

Cats are well known for being venerated in Ancient Egypt, but dog burials were also prevalent, and they were mummified in the traditional manner.

Dog Mummy, 305 BC - 395 AD.

Dog Mummy, 305 BC - 395 AD. (Brooklyn Museum/ Creative Commons )

Dogs certainly featured in Iron Age burials in Britain. Dogs were seen as companions and guardians of humans. They were high-value sacrifices to the gods as protectors, easily able to track or navigate the way through the afterlife.

Excavations at the Ashkelon National Park in Israel revealed the largest dog cemetery in the ancient world.

Ashkelon National Park, Israel.

Ashkelon National Park, Israel. ( CC BY 3.0 )

The Horse - Divine Status, Speed and Strength

The horse has embodied many qualities to many different cultures globally, and was largely seen as divine.

The Uffington White Horse, a prehistoric hill figure.

The Uffington White Horse, a prehistoric hill figure. Public Domain

Vast horse burials, with skeletal remains numbering in the hundreds, have been found, such as the mass horse burial site in China. The tomb of a high status man was filled with 600 horses, arranged neatly in rows.  

Hundreds upon hundreds of horse skeletons in the "Sacrificial Horse Pit", a burial site believed to have belonged to the tomb of Duke Jing of Qi (547 to 490 BC).

Hundreds upon hundreds of horse skeletons in the "Sacrificial Horse Pit", a burial site believed to have belonged to the tomb of Duke Jing of Qi (547 to 490 BC). ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Today homeowners in Ireland are sometimes surprised to find horse skulls under the floorboards of their homes dating to the 16 th and 17 th centuries. These equine deposits were thought to provide good luck to the homestead, or protect it from evil. It is said that due to the hollow skulls beneath the ground the acoustics of the structure were improved; when danced upon, the skulls would resonate.

Sketch plan of the kurgan burial mound at Kostromskaya in southern Russia.

Sketch plan of the kurgan burial mound at Kostromskaya in southern Russia. Public Domain

Cats – Venerated Hunters

The wooden coffin of a mummified cat [left] and a CT scan revealing the ancient cat skeleton inside.

The wooden coffin of a mummified cat [left] and a CT scan revealing the ancient cat skeleton inside. Credit: University of Manchester

As adept hunters and symbols of grace and poise, cats were held in the highest esteem in Ancient Egypt, as avatars of the deity Bast, goddess of protection, dance, joy, music and love, protector from disease and evil spirits. Some cats were given the same mummification and burial as humans.

Mummified cat from Ancient Egypt.

Mummified cat from Ancient Egypt. Public Domain

But the ancient Egyptians were not the only culture to bury felines with elaborate ceremony and in recognition of status or symbolism.

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