Construction in Rome Reveals Well-Preserved, 2,000-Year-Old Dog Statue

clay figure of dog with pointy ears, color with large emblem and long shaggy fur
Archaeologists unearthed a terracotta figurine of a dog at an excavation of one of Rome’s oldest streets. The statue is estimated to be around 2,000 years old. Italian Ministry of Culture

Archaeologists excavating an ancient burial complex beneath the Via Latina, one of Rome’s oldest streets, have unearthed a terracotta statue of a dog, three tombs and an intact funerary urn, reports Roma Today. City workers discovered the site, which dates to between the first century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., while laying water pipes in the Appio Latino quarter.

“Once again, Rome shows important traces of the past in all its urban fabric,” says Daniela Porro, head of the Special Superintendency of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape of Rome, in a statement, per a translation by the London Times’ Philip Willan.

In ancient times, some terracotta statues served as part of the drainage system used on sloping rooftops, containing chiseled holes that allowed water to pass through, notes Alex Greenberger for ARTnews. The clay used to make the newly uncovered dog’s head is similar to the baked ceramic material found in centuries-old gutters and pipes in the region. But this particular figurine doesn’t contain holes, meaning it was probably created as a decorative fixture or gift.

Construction workers contacted authorities after discovering artifacts while digging about one and a half feet below street level. Archaeologists brought in to investigate found three tombs built on a concrete base. One was made of hardened volcanic ash, while another featured a net-like design on its walls, reports Nathan Falde for Ancient Origins. The third tomb showed evidence of fire damage along its base.

archaeologist working inside a trench of dug out burial site
An archaeologist examines ancient tombs discovered where workers were laying water pipes. Italian Ministry of Culture

Next to the tombs, the team discovered the remains of a young man buried directly in the “bare earth,” as well as an urn containing bone fragments, writes Ian Randall for the Daily Mail.

Per Rebecca Ann Hughes of Forbes, experts say the site was compromised by underground utility work completed before Rome implemented laws to protect its ancient heritage.

Built more than 2,000 years ago, the Via Latina extended some 124 miles southeast of Rome to the city of Capua, according to the Daily Mail. The thoroughfare began at what later became Porta Latina, a gate that was part of the Roman defensive walls built by Emperor Marcus Aurelius between 271 and 275 C.E.

Though the tombs are an important discovery, the well-preserved dog’s head statue has dominated coverage of the finds. The palm-sized artwork shows a pointy-eared canine wearing what appears to be a collar with an emblem and clasping a small object between its paws. 

Exactly what kind of dog the statue depicts is unclear.

“It could be representative of a large breed or a small, toy breed,” a spokesperson for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals tells the Daily Mail.

The representative points out that dog breeds have changed dramatically over the past two millennia, adding, “During the Roman period there was selective breeding of dogs for desirable qualities and for specific functions, such as hunting, guarding” and companionship.

According to Ancient Origins, a popular dog breed in ancient Rome was the large Molossian hound, which was originally imported from ancient Greece. Now extinct, the dog is believed to be the foundation for the modern mastiff. Other breeds seen across the Roman Empire included ancestors of Irish wolfhounds, greyhounds and lurchers.

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