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Researchers: Williamsburg colonists buried pets

A finding from the College of William and Mary may change attitudes about how colonists treated their pets.

Laboratory analysis at the college has found that some bone fragments recovered this summer in unmarked graves on campus belonged not to humans but to dogs, buried two centuries ago.

The finding is apparently unprecedented. Colonists were not previously known to have buried their pets in formal graves.


Here is a picture of the Colonial-era dog graves.

"I don't know of any instance of the formal, intentional interment of animals in the 18th Century, either dogs or cats," said Joanne Bowen, a research professor in the William and Mary anthropology department, as quoted in a release.

The pair of graves, discovered in July amid campus construction, were "carefully excavated rectangular shafts," befitting a human burial site, the release states. The graves were aligned to the east and west, consistent with Christian burial rites of that era.

"When we first identified the sites, we treated the remains as human because they were buried like people," said Joe Jones, director of the school's Center for Archeological Research, in the statement.

The actual bone fragments were tiny -- hence the confusion over what sort of bones they were. The graves were excavated and the bones analyzed. The graves were found to date from the late 17th to mid-18th centuries.

Researchers have believed that colonists "didn't think of their dogs and cats in the same way we do now," Bowen said. Formal pet graves don't appear until the 19th century.

(Interesting aside: Apparently some prehistoric Native Americans did bury dogs with a measure of ceremony. But those graves are oval and not aligned east to west.)

Jones said that "despite a long history" of research and scholarship on the topic, "we know of no documented or undocumented examples of dog burial features like this" on Colonial sites.

Until now.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  September 3, 2010; 11:13 AM ET
Categories:  Research  | Tags: William Mary dog graves, Williamsburg dog graves, colonial dog graves, colonialists buried dogs in graves, dogs found in graves  
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