for National Geographic News
A medieval Hungarian town full of ritually sacrificed dogs could shed light on mysterious pagan customs not found in written records from the era, a new study suggests.
Roughly 1,300 bones from about 25 dogs were recently discovered in the 10th- to 13th-century town of Kana, which had been accidentally unearthed in 2003 during the construction of residential buildings on the outskirts of Budapest.
Researchers found ten dogs buried in pits and four puppy skeletons in pots buried upside down. (Related picture: "Dog Mummies Found in Ancient Peru Pet Cemetery.")
These sacrifices probably served much like amulets to ward against evil—for instance, to protect against witchcraft or the evil eye, said study leader Márta Daróczi-Szabó, an archaeozoologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.
About a dozen other canines were found buried under house foundations. These animals likely served as "construction sacrifices," Daróczi-Szabó said.
During the Middle Ages it was customary in Hungary to lock sacrificial animals inside new houses or to slaughter the beasts as people moved in.
Sometimes dogs were beaten to death on the doorsteps or a chicken's throat was slit.
Dogs were popular sacrificial animals in medieval Hungary, Daróczi-Szabó said. They were seen two different ways: They symbolized loyalty, but they also stood for the deadly sin of envy.
"There was a very big difference between the hunting dogs of the nobility and the scavenging pariah dogs of everyday life," she said.
Previous evidence of animal sacrifices—seen even under churches, in Budapest and elsewhere in Hungary—had been mostly isolated cases, Daróczi-Szabó noted.
But the new findings, described this month in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, show that "sacrifices were not a rare phenomenon, as one may have thought from isolated finds," she said. "It was practiced regularly in a Christian village."
The fact that pagan customs such as animal sacrifice persisted for centuries side-by-side with the church is surprising, noted University of Edinburgh archaeozoologist László Bartosiewicz.
Christianity came to dominate the region after the first king of Hungary, Stephen I, began his rule in A.D. 1000. Under his reign, pagan rituals such as animal sacrifices were explicitly banned.
"One wouldn't expect these practices in Christian times," said Bartosiewicz, who did not participate in the new study. "It's exciting to see what was sacred and profane back then.
"The great number of sacrifices we see [in Kana] will significantly improve our chances of interpreting what their meaning was," he added.
"It's probably the find of a lifetime. I can't imagine lucking upon anything else of this scope."
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