Archaeology Dogs: Cadaver Dogs on a 700 BC Site

Archaeology Dogs: Cadaver Dogs on a 700 BC Site

One of the archaeology dogs alerting on a grave.
One of Andrea Pintar’s cadaver dogs alerting on an archaelogical grave site. Photo courtesy of Andrea Pintar and Christian Nikolic.

How far back in time can a cadaver dog’s nose go? Twenty years? A hundred? Some dogs work as archaeology dogs, and the age of the graves they can detect might surprise you.

Cadaver dogs have successfully sniffed out Civil War and Revolutionary War-era graves. So the next step, using dogs at ancient archaeological sites, is not a far-fetched experiment. Andrea Pintar, a cadaver dog handler in Croatia, joins us today to talk about her archaeology dogs. Andrea has a team of dogs she affectionately calls her “four-legged pack.” They work on grave sites dating back to 700 BC.

Where are you from and what do you do for a living?

I was born in Croatia and live near the capital city, Zagreb. I’m an architect at a government agency. Last year I started to study at Cambridge Ethology Institute to get my certificate as a Certified Applied Canine Ethologist. I hope I’ll finish that in spring.

My second job is working with my team and my cadaver dogs for various European governments on finding remains of missing persons (usually crime victims or war victims). Before that I was an active mountain rescuer (within our national Mountain Rescue Service), working with dual search and rescue (SAR) dogs. Dual dogs search for both living and dead victims.

Andrea Pintar with one of her cadaver dogs.
Andrea Pintar with one of her cadaver dogs. Photo courtesy of Andrea Pintar and Christian Nikolic.

Tell us about your dogs!

We (my husband Christian Nikolic, our son Patrik, and I) live with 5 dogs. All of them are working dogs. All of them have some special skills which help us in our job. Let’s start from the oldest one:

“Sattve” is 9.5 years old, a Belgian Malinois. She is my 4th and last regular SAR dog. She was trained to perform as a search and rescue dog for both living and dead victims on all terrains, including disasters and water search for drowned persons. She has participated in so many missions and findings that I don’t count any more. She had a bad elbow injury, and for the last few years she has been working on less demanding terrains, searching for buried victims. She loves to work so much that I need to give her an opportunity to work. It’s a compromise for that kind of dog.

The next three dogs are cadaver dogs, specialized for grave search. “Mali” is a 4.5-year old female Belgian Malinois. “Panda” is a 3.5 y.o. female Belgian Malinois. “Arwen” is a 2.5 y.o. female German Shepherd.

As you can see, I prefer female dogs for sniff jobs. It’s a subjective choice. I’m much more comfortable with females. These three girls are trained as human remains detection dogs for searches of human remains in all stages of the decomposition process, including grave search, forensic searches, and historical searches (archaeology).

Our fifth dog is “Peper” is a 3.5 y.o. and he is the only male dog in the family. He’s Chris’s dog. He is a dual dog (like Sattve), working mainly as a tracking and disaster dog. Most of the time we use him for discovering “trafficking” victims (on ships and trucks).

Mali, one of Andrea's archaeology dogs.
Mali searching an archaeological site. Photo courtesy of Andrea Pintar and Christian Nikolic.

You’ve been a cadaver dog handler for 15 years. How did you get started?

I have been in SAR dogs training for more than 15 years. I’m an international SAR dog instructor, and sport dogs trainer. 10 years ago, I started with dual SAR dogs and that was my “step into” the cadaver world. For the last 5 years I have been predominantly involved in cadaver dog training.

I started as a SAR dog instructor in Croatian Mountain Rescue Service (CMRS) and was the chief instructor for 10 years. During that time I was involved in few hundred missions. My experience from told me that for this kind of work we need dual SAR dogs, because lots of missing persons are already dead when a SAR mission starts. That was the “kick” to start training dual SAR dogs.

So, I created the licensing procedure for CRMS SAR K9 teams not only for dogs, but their handlers, as well. With that approach, the success of our SAR missions went up to 70%. Now I can say that SAR dogs should be trained as dual dogs.

Everything is done using clicker training and positive stimulation.

I noticed that there is a need for cadaver/human remains detection (HRD) dogs, above and beyond the ones we use for SAR. So, I started learning, reading, and travelling around to find out training and work of cadaver dogs. I started working on criminal “cold cases” with my team and realized I had just scratched the surface of the “cadaver K9 world”.

I was lucky to meet some great people with the same interests I have, and now we have a good Cadaver K9 team. We work as a team because I could not do it on my own; all the documenting, search management, soil analysis… and many other things you need when you work out in the field.

I went to North Wales for a cadaver K9 seminar twice, and had a chance to see some good cadaver K9 teams working. My team and I also got the opportunity to work on few cold cases for some EU police forces. We also worked on WW2 mass graves. Our team cooperated with a wide range of law enforcement services around Europe (some I am not even allowed to name).

But as you probably know, the Balkan region is “explosive” and during our long history, we had a lot of wars. The last one was the Croatian liberation war in 1990s. And we did some mass grave work there as well. And we were successful.

During the spring of 2015, I spent some time in North Carolina, at the Western Carolina University (WCU), on their Forensic Osteology Research Station. It was a great experience for me.

From time to time I am called to do presentations or hold courses in Europe and Middle East, so I had the privilege to work with Qatar police, Turkish police and Gendarmerie, and the German police.

One of Andrea's dogs alterting on an unmarked WWII grave.
One of Andrea’s dogs alterting on an unmarked WWII grave. Photo courtesy of Andrea Pintar and Christian Nikolic.

You’ve started working your dogs as archaeology dogs. How did you get into archaeological research?

Well, I’m very interested in the possibilities of and opportunities for a dog’s nose. I need to feel and see what the limits of a dog’s nose are. Because of that I have so many working dogs at home.

Also, archaeology is complements architecture, so it seemed natural for me to follow that path in my education.

Over the last few years, when I was starting the project of grave search with my dogs and after few very complex criminal cases, after finding and opening a few mass graves from WWII, it was natural to go back into the past to understand what a dog’s nose can do.

You’ve tweeted about archaeological searches at Kornati islands and Karlobag in Croatia. Are those two different sites?

There were two sites: Karlobag and another site at Kornati islands. Kornati dates from 14th century.

The real challenge was “Drvišica” near Karlobag – that one is really very old, it dates back to 700 BC. And it was amazing.

The terrain at the Karlobag site.
The terrain at the Karlobag site.

Tell us about the site near Karlobag. Who is leading the research and what are they looking for?

Drvišica near Karlobag is a complex archaeological site which consists of a prehistoric hill fort with a necropolis dating from around 8th century BC., a Roman settlement, a late antique fortress, and a medieval church of St. Vid. Drvišica. It’s situated on the Adriatic coast near Karlobag, below Velebit mountain. It is the biggest site of that type in Velebit area.

Due to its specific geomorphologic and climatologic characteristics, Velebit is extremely difficult for ground reconnaissance. Navigating sharp fissures and Mediterranean scrub vegetation require great physical effort which very much complicates the work. Low vegetation prevents good visibility of the sites and makes it difficult to access the location, while fissures tremendously impede walking and therefore slow the research progress.

Even harder is locating the whole area of the prehistoric necropolis. The prehistoric necropolis of the Drvišica hill-fort was discovered on the north terrace of the hill. A total of three graves were excavated. The discovered artifacts and radiocarbon C-14 analysis dated them to the middle of 8th century BC.

How did your dogs get involved as archaeology dogs?

One of my friends (who is a professional diver and he works on underwater archaeology sites) put me in touch with an archaeologist, Vedrana Glavaš, PhD., who wanted to try dogs on one of the sites (Drvišica on Mt. Velebit) she was working on.

We were both eager to go out on the field and try, so we scheduled a date just 3 days later. It was in June 2015 that dogs gave clear alerts on unopened tombs. We left the site pretty confused because I was very skeptical about the whole thing.

Due to the fact that summer season was coming and it is not best time to search with dogs, because high temperatures and direct sunlight kills bacteria which produce smell, we made the agreement to come back with the whole team in early autumn for one week and to try to work more intensively on several sites. You see, to find a specific smell we need special weather conditions, an appropriate amount of moisture, shade, and “normal” temperatures, so bacteria can start doing their work.

The site is on a hill. Does the terrain affect how a dog picks up the odor? Do odors run downhill from a grave, for instance?

One of the facts that surprised me most was that the dogs’ alerts were directly on the headstone. I was expecting the primary smell pool to be downhill. When archaeologists opened the marked tombs, I found the reason why the smell was going nowhere: the bottom of the tomb is a natural big flat stone. Bodies were put on that stone, and the complete decomposing process happened on that stone. Geologically, Mt. Velebit is built of limestone and that kind of stone is porous and collects the smell inside. That can be the reason why dogs had an excellent opportunity to sniff and recognize the specific smell of human decomposition.

During the spring of 2016, we will try some other sites and different geological properties to find out what is going on and how the smell is preserved in different soil and bedrock environments.

How do your dogs alert to a find?

Sattve has barking alert. Mali primarily has passive alert but also can bark, and Panda and Arwen’s primary alert is also passive: they lie down and point their nose into the smell source.

Panda, one of Andrea's archaeology dogs.
Panda searching. Photo courtsey of Andrea Pintar and Christian Nikolic.

Radiocarbon dating indicates the graves date back to 700 BC. How old a grave can a dog still detect? Is 700 BC some kind of a record?

There is no written record of the oldest grave detected by cadaver dogs. However, I must emphasize that the age of the grave is not the crucial element in this kind of work. Dog handlers tend to stick only to the age of the grave. But, for positive results, you have to pay attention to important elements such as weather, type of soil, geology and so on.

Dogs are rarely used in archaeology world. I think the “Archaeology Dog Project” is just in its infancy. Dogs are perfect tools for archaeologists. Dogs offer a non-invasive method of searching the ground. Of course, dogs have limits, but now we need to find out what these limits are. The date of the site is obviously not among them.

Has the university been able to draw any conclusions about the people buried in the necropolis?

Unfortunately, tombs have previously been robbed. But, thanks to precise archaeological work researchers from the University of Zadar managed to collect some remains of the material culture that robbers didn’t see or weren’t interested in. These items, such as fibulae, pins, beads etc., show that Velebit’s communities held intensive contacts with contemporary Mediterranean world. All these items are currently stored at the Department of Archaeology at the University of Zadar, where Vedrana Glavaš, the main researcher of the Drvišica site, analyzes them. An interesting fact is the tombs were used for multiple burials. The results of the anthropological analysis showed at least two persons were buried in each grave – usually an adult and a child. However, the site is still being excavated and more data will be available after several years of research.

Currently, Dr. Glavaš and I are working on a research paper about our field work at the Drvišica site.

The Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia co-sponsored a brief film in English that shows Andrea’s dogs searching the site, their alerting on previously unknown graves, and the archaeologists excavating human remains. It’s worth a view!

Thanks so much for participating, Andrea — I think your work is absolutely fascinating.

Thank you. I don’t think much about whether my work is fascinating or not. I’m thinking how fascinating the possibilities of a dog’s nose are.

What’s the most unusual thing your dog has ever sniffed out?

Written by
Ann Marie
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    • I think they’re fascinating too, Carol. Andrea Pintar’s dogs have shown the world that we really don’t know the limits of a dog’s nose. I’m looking forward to further research. Thanks for commenting!

      • I don’t think the dogs are actually sniffing out DNA itself, but rather chemicals created by the decomposition process. As Cat Warren points out in her book, What the Dog Knows (soon to be published in German as Der Geruch des Todes), the precise chemicals to which the dogs react have been only partially identified by science. It’s still an open field! Thanks for commenting.

    • I thought so too, Cher. Both the dogs and the archaeology are fascinating, and I have to salute people who try out new techniques like this one. Thanks for commenting!

  • I’d like to see DNA testing and publishing on these remains, especially mtDNA and y-DNA that could then be submitted to FTDNA.

    • DNA analysis would certainly be interesting. I’m not sure what the archaeologist is planning for her future research and publications. Thanks for commenting, though!

    • Thanks, Javier. They amaze me too. Wouldn’t it be interesting to spend just one hour as a dog and see how dogs perceive their environment? I suspect it would be like landing on a foreign planet.

  • We will publish results of our excavations. We also have a plan to keep on working on this location – in september. Unfortunately, I don’t think we will have enough money for DNA analysis. But we have a plan to do it in the future. Best regards from Croatia!

    • Thanks for commenting, Dr. Glavaš. Will your publications also appear in English? If so, I’d be happy to announce them on my website. You might just find a readership beyond the academia!

  • Hi there

    This is a very interesting and informative interview. I think, most people are not aware of the huge work made by cadaver dogs and their owners.

    Keep up the good work

  • That’s amazing! Congratulations An Marie for this Interview and congratulations to Andrea for her wonderful dogs!

    • Who would have? I think the dogs surprised both the handler and the archaeologist. The dogs’ successes on this dig only underscore how little we know about the limits of a canine nose. Thanks for commenting, Jill!

  • Thank you so much for comments.
    I’m really didn’t expect such a big interest. When I train and work with my dogs I’m only thinking to not have influence on their reactions.
    From time to time we work on really hard criminal cases and it’s very important that dogs are clear in reactions.
    Sometimes I let that another experienced handlers lead dogs. Results are always the same. Also, on Drvišica all dogs had same clear reactions on same spots.
    Thank you that you found this article so interesting.
    I just enjoy to work with my dogs.
    Greetings to all from Croatia

    • I think, Andrea, that people are just amazed at what a dog’s nose can do. Your work with Dr. Glavaš is not only innovative, it highlights in a dramatic way the unexplored possibilities of combining forensic cadaver dog work with archaeology. Thanks again for participating in the interview and inviting us to see your dogs at work.

    • Dear Andrea, We have friends in the USA from SDONA who are very much wanting to get contact with you regarding HRD training. Because they do lots of that.
      please respond to this message, or how can we get in contact so I can give the details to my American friends?
      looking forward to your reaction,
      best regards
      Marcel Versterre
      rescue dogs

      • Thanks for commenting, Marcel. Andrea gave me permission to share her Email address with other dog handlers. I’ll send it to you. Check your Email.

    • Thanks for commenting, Megan! I took a look at your blog post and what you suggest sounds like lots of fun for both the dog and its owner. Engaging a dog’s nose means interacting with it in its own world, and I like that.

      If anyone in the United States is interested in taking tracking a step further, you could take a peek at my interview with New York Times bestselling author and cadaver dog handler Cat Warren. She talks about whether you and your dog might make a good cadaver search team.

      The United States — and Croatia apparently too — uses volunteer cadaver search teams to assist law enforcement. Germany doesn’t use any volunteers; all cadaver dogs are police K9s. I’m not sure how that works in the United Kingdom.

  • A very interesting article and very thought provoking, I work a cadaver dog in the UK who specialised in water search. He is being trained to do more land based work including archaeological bone. I was surprised at how quickly he learnt to identify it.
    Outside of the police there are very few civilian cadaver dogs in the UK so articles like this are very important to show how capable dogs are.

    • I think you’ve hit it right on the nose, Mike (no puns intended). Dogs are probably more capable than we realize. As more and more dogs start working in archaeology, we will learn more about their abilities.
      It’s interesting to hear that cadaver dogs in the UK are also being trained to work in archaeology.
      Thanks for commenting!

  • Great interview, interesting new methodology, and amazing dogs! Thanks for updating; I missed this back in 2016.

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