As I scanned the headlines that fateful morning, I felt a chill go down my spine and my blood run cold. I read, re-read then read it again, shaking with disbelief as a terrifying and sinister thought began to emerge: they were talking about us.
We were in the DAILY MAIL.
As an archaeological Projects Director, I pride myself on being on the right side of what’s loftily known as ‘the public understanding of science’, so reading about the ‘SEVEN FOOT hell hound with flaming eyes’ we had apparently discovered at Leiston Abbey knocked me for six. How on earth did this happen, how could we contain it, and was this the end of any shred of archaeological credibility I would ever have?
Devil Dogs are a recurring storytelling motif common to communities all over the world. Perhaps it was inevitable that our discovery of an exceptionally large male canine skeleton, in an area of Suffolk with a well-known local black dog myth, would be picked up and embellished with relish.
This East Anglian Devil Dog variant story dates to a notorious happening in 1577 at Holy Trinity Church in Blythburgh, less than seven miles away from Leiston Abbey, when Black Shuck supposedly burst in through the doors, killed a man and boy, caused the church steeple to collapse, and left scorch marks on the north door which can be seen at the church to this day. Folklore has kept the tale in common currency ever since, and its so well-known that it even featured in that most modern of storytelling art forms: a pop song on the Number 1 debut album by the rock band The Darkness.
Our dog was excavated in one of the demolished monastic kitchen buildings at Leiston Abbey, and we could tell by the relative position of the underlying stratigraphy that the dog had been carefully laid to rest sometime after the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1537.
But exactly when he was buried we couldn’t tell, and as the public flocked to watch the excavations trench side, this uncertainty fanned the ‘Black Shuck’ flames. ‘Are these the bones of Devil Dog, Black Shuck?’ ran the story in the Daily Mail, and whilst we were completely convinced that they weren’t, the headline could only be read as a challenge. If these weren’t Black Shuck’s bones, then what could archaeology tell us to bring us nearer the truth?
When it comes to finding out about the past, the painstaking process of excavation is only the tip of the iceberg. The assessment and analysis of finds, known as ‘post-excavation’, is often when many of the best discoveries are made – when the pieces of the puzzle are brought back together into an overarching story that makes sense of all the available evidence. For our dog skeleton, this meant undertaking a full metric analysis by a Zooarchaeologist and sending a small sample of bone to a specialist radiocarbon dating laboratory in Florida.
Our metric analysis gave us an indication of the size of the dog (standing at 72 cm from shoulder to floor) giving us a sense of what he may have looked like (modern breeds in this range include Great Danes and Mastiffs). And further ‘biographical’ details could be recovered from the skeleton, such as heavily worn teeth and osteoarthritis in his ankle joint, all indicating that he was an elderly dog at death.
Radiocarbon dating was unfortunately much less informative, indicating a date of either 1650-1690, 1730-1810 or post 1920 (Beta-383664). Though these dates established that the skeleton was certainly later than the fabled story of Black Shuck’s reported sighting in 1577, they were no help in providing an accurate calendrical date for the burial of the skeleton. Any further light on this mystery would have to come from trench itself, and for that we needed to look again at our records of the finds and layers through which the grave had been cut.
Far from being the final resting place of a bloodthirsty hell-hound, it was clear that our dog skeleton had been laid to rest with care and consideration. Our geophysical survey showed the skeleton was located in what had been a substantial building, probably a monastic kitchen, which had long been demolished by the time our dog had been buried.
The grave cut through layers of rubble and mortar – the tell-tale signs of post-Dissolution debris – but crucially was also sealed by layers and finds relating to the later post medieval and early modern use of the site as a farm. If, as these stratigraphic layers suggested, the dog was alive around the end of the 18th century, then his careful and respectful burial provides an illuminating glimpse into changing social attitudes towards working animals during the industrial revolution.
Today, we are quite used to thinking of dogs as family pets, but this is a very modern sensibility. The household breeds we take for granted now were not always regarded with such sentimentality, and were considered working dogs first and foremost. The fierce parliamentary debate around the 1796 Dogs Tax records the moment this all began to change, with a nation coming to see dogs not as possessions to be taxed, but as essential members of the family. As the principled arguments against the tax stacked up, it didn’t matter that funds were urgently needed to finance the on-going war against France. To tax a dog meant no more sense than to tax a child or a spouse.
Armed with this historical background, combined with the biographical analysis of the dog’s skeleton, a picture emerges of a working dog that lived long into ‘retirement’. By the end, he would have walked with a limp, been unable to run, and would have struggled to be much use on a working farm. But far from being cast aside, our dog was extremely well looked after right until the end. And by the care that was spent laying his body to rest, we can only infer the sorrow and loss that must have greeted his death.
Were these the bones of a ‘SEVEN FOOT hell hound with flaming eyes?’
But actually, I like the real archaeological story even more: the story of huge farm dog, whom I imagine was known far and wide, for having a bark far worse than his bite.
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