Dogs and horses buried with Iron Age people

Late Iron Age people in northern Italy were sometimes buried with their dogs or horses – possibly just because they loved them.

Archaeologists have often suspected that the ancient, worldwide custom of including animals in human graves was associated with higher socioeconomic status, beliefs about the afterlife or traditions in certain families. But after thorough investigation, researchers are now starting to wonder whether such “co-burials” were simply an expression of love to a devoted non-human family member, says Marco Milella at the University of Bern in Switzerland.

He and his colleagues revisited the bones excavated from the 2200-year-old Seminario Vescovile burial ground just east of Verona in Italy, where the Cenomani people lived in metal-making communities before and during the Roman conquest.

Most of the 161 graves found at the site contained just the remains of a person, but 16 also included animals, either whole or in parts. Of those, 12 were pork or beef products, apparently meant as food offerings to the deceased, says Zita Laffranchi, also at the University of Bern.

The other four people, however, were buried with dogs or horses or both of these animals, which weren’t used for food in that population. They included a middle-aged man with a small dog, a young man with parts of a horse, a 9-month-old baby girl side-by-side with a dog and – most unexpectedly – a middle-aged woman with a pony laid on top of her and a dog’s head above her own.

“At first the excavators were surprised to find human legs under a horse, and the first idea was: we have a horse rider here, we have a warrior,” says Laffranchi. But the woman was buried without weapons, suggesting her relationship with the 1.3-metre-tall pony wasn’t related to warfare.

The team found no particular trends in the ages of the people who were buried with animals, and DNA analyses suggested they weren’t genetically related to each other. Chemical analysis of these cadavers didn’t reveal any differences in diet – which would be linked to socioeconomic status – compared with those in human-only graves, either.

The findings point to the possibility that people from ancient populations felt so connected with their animals that their loved ones chose to bury them together, say the researchers. “And why not?” says Milella. “We definitely cannot exclude that.”

Another explanation could be that the animals had symbolic meaning for the afterlife, the researchers add. For example, in the Gallo-Roman religion, the Celtic goddess of horses, Epona, was believed to protect individuals after death. And Gallo-Romans also apparently sometimes linked dogs with the afterlife. In fact, burying dogs with infants might even have been intended to protect the parents from the loss of future babies.

Even so, the animals in the graves seem to have benefited from good human care rather than being disposable stock – especially the dogs, which appear to have been fed human food and show signs of wound treatment and healing.

As such, it is also possible that people were buried with animals for both symbolic and affectionate reasons, says Milella.