Canine Detection

Since their self-domestication, dogs have been invaluable to humans with their companionship and work ethic. Applying Canine Detection in Support of Collaborative Archaeology maintains that dogs can identify human burials. Canine detection is a non-invasive archaeological method similar to “geophysical remote sensing methods.” Canine detection is often used for pre-construction archaeological surveys.

Image 1: Archaeologist and dog

Since 1998, The Institute For Canine Forensics (IFC) has trained Historic Human Remain Detection dogs (HHRD). Working breeds such as Labrador retrievers and herding dogs make successful HHRD canines. Training HHRD dogs takes multiple years and requires them to maintain regular training. A dog’s sense of smell enables them to identify cremation remains and human remains with or without bones. Canines are trained to alert their handler when they come across the scent of human remains. Often, canines alert their handlers by laying down, barking, or sitting.

IFC uses canine detection and collaborative archaeology to protect indigenous burial sites. Collaborative archaeology focuses on the historical record, community oral history, and ground penetrating radar (GPR). IFC works directly with indigenous descent communities to ensure possible burial sites are respected. There is a strong emphasis on rebuilding a relationship between indigenous communities and archaeologists, which was ruined in the 20th century. Archaeologists and IFC ensure there is awareness of indigenous trauma and history that impacts current interactions. IFC is committed to only surveying and publishing results with the permission of indigenous communities. 

HHRD canines working with IFC have successfully detected indigenous burial sites. Most of these projects have occurred in California and are supervised by indigenous peoples. While there may be some error in Canine detection, the dogs have helped keep indigenous burial sites safe from construction disturbances. 

Image 2: Fabel

Canine detection is a worldwide archaeological method. In Croatia, dogs alerted archaeologists to six burials at a 3,000-year-old site on Velebit Mountain. Sophie Valluv, an archaeologist, trained her dog Fabel to be an HHRD canine. Initially, Fabel was trained to assist Valluv in a master’s thesis on canine detection. Valluv and Fabel conducted 120 searches for human remains detection. Fabel could differentiate human remains from animal remains and discovered a 1,600-year-old burial. Another HHRD dog named Dax discovered animal bones in Montana that were 3,500 and 5,000 years old. Canine detection and HHRD canines are invaluable to the archaeological use of non-invasive methods of identifying human remains and burial sites.


Grebenkemper, John, Adela Morris, Brian F. Byrd, and Laurel Engbring. “Applying Canine Detection in Support of Collaborative Archaeology: Advances in Archaeological Practice.” Cambridge Core, July 9, 2021. 

Neimark, Jill. “Can Archaeology Dogs Smell Ancient Time?” SAPIENS, August 17, 2022. 

Image Credit

Image 1: Modern Dog Magazine

Image 2: DigItScotland

Examining Medical Archaeology

Medical archaeology is a relatively new subfield that analyzes materiality such as surgical tools, human bones, and ancient DNA to study the history of healthcare and medicine. Archaeology proposes engaging questions about medicine and health in relationship to artifacts, features, and structures. Medical archaeology also bridges the gaps in knowledge found in textual formats such as medical history. As an anthropology major and pre-med student, I was delighted to examine medicine through an archaeological lens. Overall, this research was a fun break from wrapping my head around organic chemistry concepts.

Image 1: DNA

There are many archaeological finds relating to ancient medicine and health. For example, a 7th-century BC female skull excavated at Thrace shows definitive evidence of cranial surgery. The skull revealed scraping of cranial bone in width, length, and depth. Meanwhile, in Egypt, the Ebers papyrus details physicians’ medical practices. The papyrus suggests the use of Tar in healing skin conditions and rashes. Additionally, the papyrus notes the use of cannabis for healing fingernails. These archaeological finds suggest advanced healing practices and surgery during antiquity. 


A more modern example of medical archaeology is The Archaeology of 19th Century Health and Hygiene at the Sullivan Street Site In New York City. The site focuses on backyard features and artifacts from four house lots. During the 19th century, medicine was the primary medical treatment for illness. Types of treatment available were home remedies, prescribed medicines, and over-the-counter patent medicines. Patent medicines were more affordable than prescription medicines. 

Some Sullivan Street households were Dr. Robson and a lower-class family at 93 Amity Street. Dr. Robson’s assemblage included only medical bottles. Meanwhile, 93 Amity Street only contained patent bottles. Hygiene was increasingly becoming a priority and was associated with moral status. Hygiene items such as soap containers, basins, and toothbrushes were discovered at each Sullivan Street residence. Once more, there were more items discovered at Dr. Robson’s than at 93 Amity Street. Therefore, access to prescription medicine and hygiene products was based on class and wealth. 

Image 2 medicine bottles

What is archaeological science? Archaeological science is an innovative method of approaching historical health and medical practices with archaeological materials such as skeletal remains and ancient DNA. Skeletal and ancient DNA analysis is used to uncover biological sex, health conditions, and diseases. Iron deficiency, known as anemia, is detected in small holes in the skull and ancient DNA analysis. Interestingly, Ancient DNA has been discovered on objects such as a Paleolithic pendant and in sediment from Pleistocene caves. Overall, Extracting ancient DNA is challenging and easily degraded with modern DNA. Archaeological science is so fascinating because it carries archaeology into the future of scientific research and analysis.

Image 3 Illustration by Martin Rowson

Additional Reading


Baker, Patricia Anne 2016Chapter 1, Chapter 7. Essay. In The Archaeology of Medicine in the Greco-Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Diamandopoulos, Demetrios 2014Medicine and Archaeology. Essay. In Medicine and Healing in the Ancient Mediterranean. Oxford: Oxbow Books. 

Howson, Jean E. 1993The Archaeology of 19th-Century Health and Hygiene at the Sullivan Street Site, New York City. Northeast Historical Archaeology 22(1): 137–160. 

Ludlow, Hannah 2020Ancient Skin and Haircare. Project Archaeology., accessed September 9, 2023. 

Massilani, Diyendo, Mike W. Morley, Susan M. Mentzer, et al. 2021Microstratigraphic Preservation of Ancient Faunal and Hominin DNA in Pleistocene Cave Sediments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119(1). 

Saraceni, Jessica Esther N.d.Woman’s DNA Recovered from Prehistoric Pendant. Archaeology Magazine., accessed September 9, 2023. 

Image Credit

Image 1 Google

Image 2 Howson

Image 3 Martin Rowson