National Geographic reports that a team of excavators in Germany may have uncovered the world’s oldest purse in a grave near Leipzig. The excavators found more than 100 dog teeth dating to sometime between 2,500 and 2,200 BC.
Though the handbag itself, likely made of leather or some kind of fabric, wore away over time, the arrangement of the teeth suggests that they may have decorated the outer flap of a bag or purse, according to archaeologist Susanne Friederich of the Sachsen-Anhalt State Archaeology and Preservation Office.
“Over the years the leather or fabric disappeared, and all that’s left is the teeth. They’re all pointing in the same direction, so it looks a lot like a modern handbag flap,” said Friederich.
The excavation site, a 250-acre area set to become a coal mine in the near future, contained other evidence of Stone Age and Bronze Age settlements, including graves, tools, spear heads, amber jewel, and bone trinkets. Excavators also uncovered finds from later periods, including the grave of a woman buried with about a pound of gold. The gold dated from around 50 BC, more than 2,000 years later than the purse.
In spite of all of these other finds, the purse is particularly significant. Friedrich explains, saying “it’s the first time we can show direct evidence of a bag like this.”
It is not particularly surprising that such a bag would have been studded with canine teeth. Dog teeth are actually quite common in Stone Age burial sites in northern and central Europe. The prevalence of dog teeth suggests that people in the Stone Age kept dogs as more than just pets. They may have kept them as livestock. The studded handbag alone likely required the teeth of dozens of canines, and it is unlikely that so many teeth were collected from pets.
Archaeologists have found evidence of similarly studded items at other burial sites, as well. Necklaces and hair decorations are often found at Stone Age burial sites. Patterns of mussel shells and wolf and dog teeth suggest that some corpses were buried with studded blankets and other items, though this is not as common. It is possible that graves with such items were somehow more significant than those without.
Dogs were not just significant to prehistoric Europeans. Ancient Americans have also been found buried with dogs, particularly in the Southwestern United States. Archaeologists often find these dogs buried with jewelry alongside people, suggesting that they may have had a privileged, perhaps religious, place in prehistoric American culture.