Ar­chae­ol­o­gists go hi-tech in 2,500-year-old Greek cold case

The lat­est dis­cov­ery of the 80 skele­tons of men is ‘un­equalled’ in Greece

Muscat Daily - - OPINION -

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, 6km south of down­town Athens.

The dis­cov­ery of the 80 skele­tons of men is ‘un­equalled’ in Greece, said site project direc­tor Stella Chrysoulaki.

The men, young and well-fed, 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 675BCE and 650BCE ac­cord­ing to pieces of pot­tery found in the grave, Chrysoulaki said.

At the time, Athens was just be­ing formed and the city was tran­si­tion­ing to­wards 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 class’, she added.

‘Crime Scene In­ves­ti­ga­tion’

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.

Prob­a­bly the most fa­mous of these TV se­ries, CBS’ CSI: Crime

Scene In­ves­ti­ga­tion, which chron­i­cles the cases of an elite team of po­lice foren­sics in­ves­ti­ga­tors, has spawned the short­hand CSI to de­scribe the tech­nol­ogy the agents use.

Karkanas’ team, though tech­ni­cally not crime scene in­ves­ti­ga­tors, will ap­ply sim­i­lar high-tech meth­ods us­ing some of the same tools.

They will per­form a bat­tery of tests - par­tic­u­larly gene, ra­dio­graphic and iso­topic analy­ses - to un­cover the mys­ter­ies hid­den in­side each skull and skele­ton frag­ment.

What­ever clues they gather will give them an idea of how old the men were, whether they were re­lated, where they came from, how healthy they were, and where they stood on the so­cioe­co­nomic lad­der of the times.

But un­like crime dra­mas, where in­ves­ti­ga­tors re­veal ex­actly how and why the crime took place, this cold case will likely not be re­solved for five to seven years.

1,500 skele­tons

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 of the com­plex only be­gan in 2012, when ar­chae­ol­o­gists dis­cov­ered a large ceme­tery con­tain­ing over 1,500 skele­tons dat­ing back to be­tween the eighth and fifth cen­tury BCE.

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.

Many of the skele­tons found were bound or shack­led, and face­down in un­marked graves, some­times in sandy holes barely big enough to hold a body.

Other skele­tons were buried in open pits, placed on fu­neral pyres and in jars, the pre­ferred coffins at the time for infants and small chil­dren.

Ac­cord­ing to re­searchers, the ceme­tery mea­sures about 4,000sqm and all 1,500 skele­tons will even­tu­ally be taken to the lab­o­ra­tory’s fa­cil­i­ties for proper study.

At least ten of the 80 men found are headed to the lab later this year, while the rest will stay as part of an up­com­ing exposition on the ex­ca­va­tion site.

One of the skele­tons al­ready at the lab, with his arms twisted be­hind his back, is a re­flec­tion of past Athe­nian vi­o­lence.

He could have been a ‘pris­oner of war, a crim­i­nal or a run­away slave’, Preve­dorou said.

A story to tell

Even the non­vi­o­lent deaths, or deaths with­out his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence - notably the hun­dreds of chil­dren’s re­mains found in jars - have a story to tell, Karkanas said.

The bones could re­veal the chil­dren’s life­styles and dis­eases, shed­ding more light on an­cient Athe­nian cul­ture and his­tory.

Most of the recorded an­cient his­tory on Athens and Greek life de­scribes the ‘elite and the vic­tors’, Karkanas added.

But to rely solely on those tes­ti­monies to un­der­stand the past would be like ‘read­ing news­pa­pers to­day to find out what’s go­ing on in the world right now’.


This photo shows ar­chae­o­log­i­cal find­ings stored in a lab at the Amer­i­can School of Arche­ol­ogy, in Athens on July 7


This photo shows a con­ser­va­tor work­ing on a hu­man skull in a lab at the Amer­i­can School of Arche­ol­ogy, in Athens on July 7

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