Tuesday, 9 October 2007

canis canem

being ostensibly a frivolous but in reality a perfectly pertinent aside dedicated to our canine friends.

saturday’s cute story of daisy the daschund who recently dug up a 2 million year old mammoth bone on a beach in suffolk made me smile.

this picture of little daisy licking her lips completely dwarfed by a 13in bone is a classic of the 'funny things animals do' school of journalism which ensured the story was splashed all over the weekend papers.

her owner says, "it was obvious that it was some sort of bone and my first thought was that it might be from something like a mammoth. daisy looked quite pleased with herself, even though it was far too heavy for her to pick up. she loves gnawing on bones and always has the leftover lamb leg bone from our sunday roast."

on the face of it, this might seem a million miles from my usual ramblings on the theme of archaeology, art and contemporary culture, but bear with me on this. behind this cute story is the real 'tail' (sorry, couldn’t resist that...) of the significance of our furry friends in the story of archaeological exploration and discovery. dogs simply pop up all over history and some of our most familiar ancient sites are known to us only because of the stalwart nose and paw work of man's best friend...

my own years in field archaeology were filled to the eyeballs in peat, muddy trenches and wheelbarrows, lunches sprawled atop spoil heap mountains, hungrily devouring grubby sandwiches, masses of jammy doughnuts and slurping endless flasks of plastic-y tasting coffee, surrounded by a small gang of similarly grimy colleagues and a couple of lolling dogs. archaeologists like dogs, their lifestyles are compatible, their personalities and favourite activities happily coinciding - plus the ‘office’ doesn’t ban them from coming to work or even joining in. ‘site’ dogs’ antics and loveable peculiarities were an endless source of entertainment and company and as integral to the smooth running of an excavation and its team as any other essential piece of kit or scientific paraphernalia.

there were always amusing tales of famous sites being discovered by the lead archaeologist’s pet dog – barnhouse the incredible neolithic settlement i worked on in Orkney next to the stones of stenness was unearthed during a bout of strenuous digging by the lovely rufus, who despite his legendary status never objected to some of us entertaining ourselves on our breaks by dressing him up in overalls, yellow regulation waterproofs and plastic hat – confirming the long held belief in the importance of dogs on site to almost mythical status. if every profession has a mascot, archaeology’s is definitely canine.

even the briefest furtle into the archives reveals the veracity of this fireside anecdote, illustrating either the essential teamwork underlying the nature of the relationship between ‘man’ and dog, or exposing the serendipitous reality behind much archaeological ‘science’.

you decide…

in any case, this little entry is dedicated to all the dig dogs i’ve ever shared a sandwich with, shivered with under tarpaulin during many a downpour, or made to endure the indignity of wearing my totector safety boots to raise a cheap laugh…sorry rufus!!

dash, aurel stein and the silk route…

during a career that spanned almost six decades, stein pioneered the Silk Road and made three separate expeditions to chinese turkestan, central asia and afghanistan. accompanied always by a small fox terrier named dash -- a total of seven fox terriers, all named dash, served him over the years -- stein traveled a total of 25,000 miles, over freezing himalayan passes and across scorching deserts. with the support of the british and indian governments, he traced the ancient caravan routes, oversaw the excavation of numerous archaeological sites, and documented the spread of buddhism from india to china. his finds filled whole rooms in the british museum and delhi's national museum, and whilst his career and antics are not without controversy, the early years of the archaeological enterprise generally entwined and embroiled in colonialism, nationalism and the so-called ‘great game’, his contribution to our understanding of the region remains unparalleled.

robot & the lascaux cave paintings
one fine day in september, 1940, four french boys and a dog named robot set out on a walk near the village of montignac in the dordogne. heading south toward the great oak forest near their village, the boys soon came to lascaux hill. covered with trees and heavy undergrowth, the hill was a favourite of the little gang, the perfect place for pretending to be explorers. robot disappeared ahead as usual, and, after a bit of looking around, the boys found he had gone down a hole. they were sure he had found an entrance to a treasure-filled cave, and returning with a homemade lantern and sliding down a tunnel found themselves in a large room about 100 feet long and 40 feet wide. this room turned into a narrow passage and, as they entered that passage, they raised their lamp and discovered that the walls of the cave were covered with fantastic pictures of animals.
the boys decided to tell their schoolteacher about their discovery, and the rest is history - the cave paintings of lascaux are one of the wonders of the palaeolithic world, evidence not only of prehistoric art but of cultural sophistication.

benedict allen and the ice dogs of siberia

more recently there’s the intriguing tale of the continuing tradition of canine cruciality with explorer benedict allen, the ranulph fiennes of the anthropology/exploration world. allen has crossed the amazon basin, lived with isolated peoples in papua new guinea and walked the gobi desert with a group of reluctant camels.

on his first expedition, he was attacked by gold miners and left without food or possessions. isolated and near death’s door, allen eventually had no choice but to eat his own dog to survive…

there’s a heartwarming ending to this sad tale. his attempted solo crossing of the frozen bering strait from siberia to alaska, perhaps his toughest yet; solo, apart from his team of trusty sled dogs. while scouting a route forward through the jumbled ice pack, he lost the team and spent a dangerous night out alone on the ice not knowing if he would ever find them again. he told national geographic,

‘i remember turning on the camera and giving sort of an update, but thinking to myself: 'this could be a death sentence.' i needed my dogs.

no one in the world knew where i was, and it was reinforced to me how dependent we were upon each other. when i found them [still] waiting for me the next morning, i knew that they would go to the end of the world for me—and that feeling was the most important achievement. more important than any specific feat was the trust of these individuals who allowed me to see this place as a sort of home.

i thought that these dogs deserved to get back to their home. in the end, i was responsible for their lives, and i was absolutely determined that i would come back with these ten characters. more or less right then i decided to turn around with them and go back.’

aaahhh!! where would we be without dogs?

1 comment:

Hilary Jack said...

I dont know where we would be without our furry friends!!....especially frank and arthur! I was reading about early relationships between humans and dogs the other day .... In southern sweden many mesolithic dog burial grounds have been found, as dogs or "controlled wolves" came to have such a close and important relationship with humans. Invaluable as hunting companions and also regarded as a prestigious weapon........ Lawrence glyn strausse suggests that their importance in society at this time can be likened to the introduction of a new technology today !