Archaeologists go high-tech to solve ancient cold case
ATHENS, Greece — More than 2,500 years ago, an Athenian nobleman named Cylon — the first recorded Olympic champion — tried to take over the city of Athens and install himself as its sole ruler.
According to Thucydides and Herodotus, Athenian and Greek historians who wrote about the coup, Cylon enticed an army of followers to enter the city and lay siege to the Acropolis.
They were defeated, but Cylon managed to escape.
Now archaeologists in Athens believe they may have found some of the remains of Cylon’s army in a mass grave in Phaleron, six kilometers south of downtown Athens.
The discovery of the 80 skeletons of men is “unequaled” in Greece, said site project director Stella Chrysoulaki.
The men, young and wellfed, were found lying in the unmarked grave in three rows, some on their backs while others were tossed facedown on their stomachs.
All of the men had their hands in iron chains and at least 52 of them had their hands tied above their heads.
They died from blows to the head, victims of a “political execution” that dates back to between 675 and 650 BC according to pieces of pottery found in the grave.
At the time, Athens was just being formed and the city was transitioning toward a democracy, Eleanna Prevedorou, a bioarchaeological researcher on the project, said.
And it was happening “against a backdrop of political turmoil, tensions between tyrants, aristocrats and the working people,” she added.
Bioarchaeological scientists use forensic research, such as DNA profiling, to investigate and ultimately uncover how humans lived and died by examining skeletons.
“We are going to use, roughly speaking, the methods made famous by television series on forensics crime science,” joked Panagiotis Karkanas, laboratory director and geoarchaeologist at the Malcolm H. Wiener Laboratory at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.
The mass grave was uncovered in spring last year in one of the largest excavation sites Greece has ever unearthed.
Though the site was found a century ago, large-scale excavation only began in 2012, when archaeologists discovered a large cemetery containing more than 1,500 skeletons dating back to between the eighth and fifth century BC.
More than 100 of them bore the marks of a violent death.
Other small-scale excavations since then have unearthed other treasures, including the group of men believed to be part of Cylon’s army.
At least 10 of the 80 men found are headed to the lab later this year, while the rest will stay as part of an exposition on the excavation site.