“When Cadaver Dogs Pick Up a Scent, Archaeologists Find Where to Dig”

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The Story

“When Cadaver Dogs Pick Up a Scent, Archaeologists Find Where to Dig”
by Cat Warren
The New York Times, May 19, 2020

The Pitch


I met Jim Gorman at a canine science conference in October, and we discovered a mutual interest in the use of dogs in archaeology. I’d like to pitch a feature story for The New York Times science section about the use of scent-detection dogs as a noninvasive method to help locate prehistoric human remains.

The story focuses on a site in Croatia where an archeologist and a well-known cadaver dog trainer teamed up a few years ago to test whether dogs could help locate human remains dating from the eighth to the first century B.C. The two women’s co-authored study, recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, is the most controlled and sophisticated to date about the use of dogs to locate the scent of historic human remains. It pushes back the timeline of what well-trained human remains detection dogs can detect—by many centuries.

The three tombs at the Iron-Age necropolis on the top ridge of the Velebit mountains overlooking the Adriatic Sea had been robbed, probably for the gold, and perhaps within a couple of hundred years after they had been placed there. University of Zadar archeologist Vedrana Glavaš arrived to study and start to excavate the site in 2014.

The limestone-slab burial chests her team found still contained amber beads, belt buckles, bronze pins, teeth and small phalanges. Those contents are now at her university for study. As far as Dr. Glavaš knew, only limestone slabs and a bit of soil remained at these three tombs at the Drvišica site.

But Dr. Glavaš—along with well-known cadaver dog handlers and trainers Ms. Pintar and her husband, Christian Nikolić—decided to collaborate in a “what if?” exercise. Ms. Pintar and Mr. Nikolić and their human remains detection (HRD) dogs have extensive experience and success in locating clandestine graves and the sites of mass executions from conflicts in the Balkans from World War II to the mid 1990s.

Ms. Pintar loves dogs and knows her own dogs’ capabilities. But she’s also a skeptic. And she was “100 percent sure” their dogs couldn’t or wouldn’t find the scent of human remains that might be more than 2,700 years old.

Then, she and her husband ran the dogs one at a time. The three Belgian malinois and a German shepherd picked their way across rocky landscape and around the scrubby and sparse vegetation.

Dr. Glavaš hadn’t told either dog handler where the already excavated tombs were, and the jumble of limestone boulders made them far from obvious. Yet as the dogs worked meticulously across the ridge in turn, each told their handler that they smelled human decomposition. It had to be wafting from within the porous and cracked limestone at the excavated sites. The gave their final indication, “here’s the source” either near the burial chests or inside them.

Ms. Pintar said she got goosebumps. All of them were shocked. After the test search, they discussed next steps over a beer at a local pub. “We decided not to talk to each other for one month,” Dr. Glavaš said, “because we needed to think a little bit about what just happened.”

They came back later that year for the first controlled tests, and then a full year after,

working the dogs on both blind and double blind searches. Thus far, the dogs have helped locate four confirmed burial sites that the archeologists didn’t know were there before the dogs alerted on them. Two others that the dogs alerted on, and that archeologists suspected were burials have been confirmed. Others are marked for future excavation.

In addition to preliminary interviews with Andrea Pintar and Verdana Glavaš, I had a brief interview with bioarcheologist Kenneth Nystrom of SUNY New Paltz. Dr. Nystrom is analyzing bone fragments and teeth from burial chests. The chemical analysis is still outstanding, but what’s becoming clear is that each chest held multiple bodies, often a mixture of adults and children. I also intend to interview forensic anthropologist Dr. Arpad Vass who originally helped identify the volatile organic compounds that come from human remains, and other forensic chemists. This piece will also address a few of the larger questions raised: We know that certain human remains compounds can survive for thousands of years in the right environment. A Roman-age sarcophagus found in Germany contained the wellpreserved skeletal remains of a child. Adipocere, or human fat, played a central role in that preservation. Was that what the HRD dogs at Drvišica were scenting? What do we know about the people who were buried there? Were they pastoralists, who came there seasonally?

I have access to high quality photos and videos of the dogs’ work, as it was thoroughly documented from the air and the ground for the study.

A bit about me: I’m a professor at North Carolina State University, where I teach science journalism, editing, and creative nonfiction. I’ve been a writer and editor for most of my career. Before going back to get my doctorate, I was a newspaper reporter for eight years across the country, including at the Hartford Courant. I also know a great deal about scent-detection dogs. I’ve trained and deployed cadaver dogs for a number of years. My first mainstream book, “What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World” (Touchstone) became a New York Times bestseller and was long listed for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers published my adaptation of that book in October. I’m happy to send clips.

I’d love to do this piece for The New York Times. I look forward to hearing from you.

All the Best,

Cat Warren

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