The Oberkassel puppy

13,000 years ago, a puppy was born in what is now Germany. The puppy was not healthy, and had to be nursed by its humans through three bouts of distemper when it was four to five months old. That is a disease that still kills dogs, especially puppies, to this day.

Sadly, when it was about six months old, the puppy died. It was found in Oberkassel near Bonn in 1914, along with two humans, a woman in her mid twenties, and a man aged about forty. They were all buried with honour and ceremony, sprayed with red rock powder, covered with basalt blocks so that nobody would disturb them.

We don’t know much more than that. We know that the the two humans were related, but not closely. We know that a tooth from another dog was buried too, along with a carved bone pin, a sculpture of the head of an elk carved into an elk antler, a bear’s penis bone (lots of male animals have penis bones, though humans don’t) and a red deer tooth. No other humans or animals were buried in the immediate area.

It seems to me that the most likely scenario is that the two humans were leadership figures in their village, their clan, their tribe, whatever the larger social unit was. He had a couple of healed broken bones. She had had at least one child. They both had bad teeth. There’s no obvious cause of death – no marks of immediate violence.

I would bet that man, woman and dog died together in an accident that left no trace on their bones; asphyxiation caused by fire or flood, perhaps. And their grieving kin laid all three of them to rest together, speaking words we can never hear, in a language we will never know, for them to be found 14,000 years later.

The Oberkassel puppy is the earliest known example of a domesticated dog. It was ill for much of its short life, and could not have been useful to its humans as a hunter or guard. They spent a lot of time looking after it, because they loved it.

Don Hitchcock’s web page has lots more information, links and photographs. The best recent academic source on the Oberkassel puppy is by Luc Janssens of the University of Gent and colleagues: “A new look at an old dog: Bonn-Oberkassel reconsidered”, Journal of Archaeological Science (2018),

The Lackprofil of Klingenberg

Here I am, at the age of nineteen, at the bottom of a ditch. I spent four months in the summer of 1986 working on an archæological site near Heilbronn in Germany, in the village of Klingenberg, as a volunteer on the payroll of the Land of Baden-Württemberg. (Actually the only time in my life when I have been directly paid by the taxpayer, though I’ve had plenty of taxpayer-funded work since.)

The site was a promontory fort that had been identified by cropmarks in photos taken a few years earlier. Two curved ditches had cut off the end of the hill from potential invaders. The excavation, overseen by the genial Dr Biel, was to record and rescue the remnants of a mesolithic settlement of the Michelsberger culture before a housing estate was built on it. (Pictures are from Dr Biel’s article, which is in German.)

The field, incidentally, belonged to the Count of Neipperg, who died last year at the age of 102. In the summer of 1986 he was in his mid-sixties, and would occasionally drop by to keep an eye on things. His great-great-grandfather, the dashing Adam Albert von Neipperg, famously seduced and later married the Empress Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s second wife. (The Count who I knew was descended from Adam Albert by his first marriage.)

Archæology has a dreadful career structure. I was doing it to scratch an itch in my year off between grammar school and university, and never planned to go into it long term. But it’s truly fascinating to find artifacts left behind six thousand years ago. Some of the clay from buildings or ceramics still had visible thumbprints made by people who died a thousand years before Stonehenge was built. It makes you think.

The picture at the top was taken by my then colleague Jan Grabowski (who has since become rather well-known for other reasons) as we created a rather wonderful thing under the direction of Dr Biel: we took transverse sections of each of the defensive ditches, and then placed canvas against them, splashed varnish over the canvas liberally to make it stick to the exposed soil, let it set and then peeled away the canvas with the soil still sticking to it, to preserve the appearance of the transected ditch. The varnish fumes got quite overpowering and we were allowed only a minute or so in the pit at a time. I’m in the less exciting outer ditch; both are on display in the museum in Stuttgart.

You can see that the version of the inner ditch on display in the Stuttgart museum is reversed.

It may not be clear from the above, but the end of the settlement at Klingenberg was not a happy one. The black marks from the inner ditch are the remains of a burnt palisade, which had broken and fallen inwards. At the bottom of the ditch we found an enormous aurochs horn, which mush have adorned the fortification as a show of strength to outsiders, ultimately unsuccessful. We found one corpse untidily dumped in a rubbish pit. A forgotten conflict, whose only remaining record was the marks in the soil and the charcoal in the ditches. As I said, it makes you think.