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The terracotta dog statue found beneath the streets of central Rome, Italy.		Source: Soprintendenza Speciale Roma

Tombs Unearthed in Rome Produce Unusual 2,000-Year-Old Dog Statue

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Utility workers laying pipes under the pavement of the Via Luigi Tosti in Rome’s Appio Latino quarter found something ancient and historically significant. While chipping out tunnels they discovered a set of underground rock tombs, which were recognizable by their distinctive sizes and shapes. Within one of these was found a striking Roman terracotta dog statue.

The construction site in central Rome where the terracotta dog statue was found along with a few human bone fragments within the ancient Roman funerary complex. (Roma Today)

The construction site in central Rome where the terracotta dog statue was found along with a few human bone fragments within the ancient Roman funerary complex. ( Roma Today )

The Roman Dog Statue and the Hidden Tombs of the Via Latina

Officials from the utility firm Acea reported this discovery to the authorities, and archaeologists were quickly dispatched by Rome’s heritage department to investigate. While verifying the existence of the ancient funerary complex, which has been dated to the late-Republic/early-Empire period, the archaeologists unearthed a rare and most interesting item. Inside a funerary urn, they found the unique terracotta dog statue .

It is not unusual for ancient burials to produce a wide variety of burial objects. But the striking and precisely crafted dog statue was nevertheless an unexpected discovery.

“The discovery casts new light on an important context,” Daniela Porro, head of Italy’s Special Superintendence for archaeology, art, and heritage in Rome, told the Italian news agency ANSA . “Once again, Rome shows important traces of the past throughout its urban fabric.”

Notably, the spot where the tomb was found was at the intersection of the Via Luigi Tosti and the Via Latina. The latter was one of the earliest of all Roman roads , and was approximately 125 miles or 200 kilometers long when it was first constructed. Ancient Roman cemeteries and tombs were often constructed next to such roads, with the grand and elaborate tomb of Caecilia Metella along the Via Appia Antica providing an excellent example of this custom.

The remnants of the ancient burial complex are comprised of three separate tombs, one of which held the ceramic funerary urn that contained the terracotta dog statue (along with some human bone fragments). 

The canine statue was small enough to fit in the palm of a person’s hand. It resembles the type of decorative part that was often used on Roman drainage systems installed on sloping roofs. There is no drainage hole on the terracotta head , however, meaning it was either broken off or may never have been there at all, if the dog statue was actually used for another purpose.

One of the ornately decorated 4th-century AD arcosolia in the hypogeum of Via Dino Compagni (Via Latina Catacomb) in Rome, almost next to the site where the terracotta dog statue was unearthed. The figure in the frescoes is Tellus, the Roman goddess of the earth, after whom this tomb is also named. (C. / Public domain)

One of the ornately decorated 4th-century AD arcosolia in the hypogeum of Via Dino Compagni (Via Latina Catacomb) in Rome, almost next to the site where the terracotta dog statue was unearthed. The figure in the frescoes is Tellus, the Roman goddess of the earth, after whom this tomb is also named. (C. / Public domain )

Since the terracotta piece was found in a burial, the obvious implication is that it was an item treasured by the person whose cremated remains were stored in the urn. While the features of the dog’s face have been well-preserved, it is not possible, the archaeologists say, to identify the breed of dog it represents.

As for the tombs, they were constructed from a concrete base that had been installed at the edge of an abandoned rock quarry . The existence of the quarry was made obvious by the cuts in the rock surrounding the burial chambers. They were located only 1.6 feet (.5 meters) below the surface of the modern street, and unfortunately showed some signs of damage that apparently was caused by previous utility work in the area.

One of the tombs featured a wall made from tuff, which is a type of rock that forms from cooling volcanic ash. Another tomb had been cut to form walls that resembled nets, with lines and squares carved into the rock. The third tomb had been mostly destroyed, leaving nothing but a base that curiously showed signs of having been damaged by fire.

No intact skeletons were found inside these tombs. However, the skeletal remains of a young man who’d been buried in the bare earth was found next to the burial chambers. Testing will need to be done to establish the age of this individual, who conceivably could have been buried decades or centuries after the original tombs had been installed.

The archaeologists estimate the funerary complex was built sometime between the first centuries BC and AD. They were found not far from the underground ruins of the spectacular Ipogeo di Via Dino Compagni , a lavishly decorated tomb from the fourth century AD that features frescos or murals containing both Christian and pagan religious imagery.

Dogs in ancient Rome were pets, companions, security guards, and war dogs. (Sergii Figurnyi / Adobe Stock)

Dogs in ancient Rome were pets, companions, security guards, and war dogs. ( Sergii Figurnyi / Adobe Stock)

Dogs in Ancient Rome

The terracotta dog’s head statue may have been mass produced for commercial purposes according to a generic design or may have been made in the image of a dog that was beloved by its owner (presumably, the person it was interred with inside the urn). There is no way to determine as of now which of these possibilities is true, although future discoveries of similar artifacts could offer meaningful clues.

Meanwhile, dog experts contacted by the Daily Mail were not able to offer much help identifying the type of dog featured on the statue.

“It could be representative of a large breed or a small, toy breed ,” a spokesperson from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said, noting that the nature of the sculpture made it difficult to determine scale. The RSPCA spokesperson also pointed out that dog breeds have evolved quite a bit over the last two thousand years, which complicates the identification process even further.

The Romans kept and bred dogs as pets, for hunting purposes, for use in warfare, and for guarding property or livestock. In other words, their relationships to dogs were essentially the same as the relationships between dogs and humans today.

One highly popular dog in Rome was the gigantic Molossian hound , which had originally been imported from ancient Greece. This dog is now extinct but may have been the progenitor of modern breeds of mastiff. Other dogs widely found in Empire-era Rome would have included breeds that were similar in appearance to Irish wolfhounds, greyhounds, Maltese, and lurchers.

Since none of these creatures is still around in their ancient forms, it may be impossible to make a positive identification of the breed of dog featured on the terracotta statue. But that doesn’t detract from the importance of the find, which expands knowledge about the types of artifacts people treasured and collected during ancient Roman times.

Top image: The terracotta dog statue found beneath the streets of central Rome, Italy. Source: Soprintendenza Speciale Roma

By Nathan Falde

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