Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Royal tomb discovered in Daskyleion, Turkey?


The current round of excavations at the ancient town of Daskyleion (or Dascylium) are in their 22nd season, and this persistence has been amply rewarded by the recent amazing discovery of a stone built tomb under a tumulus. Dr. K ─░ren, of Mugla University and director of the excavation, has announced that two tumuli have been excavated and one appears to have the hallmarks of a ‘royal burial’.
The ancient city of Daskyleion, situated to the southeast of Lake Dascylitis on the bank of a river, was rediscovered in 1952. Preliminary excavations took place from1954-1960 and have continued since 1988. Excavations have shown that the town was settled by the Bronze Age, a good fit with the history of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who mentions the settlement at the time of the Trojan War. Strabo, on the other hand, says that it was settled by Aeolian colonists after that war (13.1.3).

According to legend the town is named after Dascylus, father of King Gyges, famous from Herodotus’ history. When the Persians took over the Lydian Empire Daskyleion became the seat of the Persian satrapy of Hellespontine Phrygia and the residence of the Pharnacid dynasty. Although sections of the terrace walls of the acropolis have been found, the most important archaeological finds to date have been several fifth-century reliefs, showing Magi performing sacrifices and stele, one with an Aramaic inscription. Persian suzerainty came to an end with the capture of the town by Parmenion, general of Alexander the Great, after the battle of the River Granicus in 334.

So the discovery of a ‘royal tomb’, thought to date from around 2,500 years ago is of great interest, since we know that the site was the seat of the famous Pharnacid dynasty. The entrance to the tomb was found in the side of the tumulus which faced the town. The tomb consists of an antechamber in front of a burial chamber containing two skeletons. Speculation of the ‘royal’ nature of the occupants lies not only in the grandiose nature of the tomb (the marble door to the tomb was approximately 9.5 meters into the tumulus) but also in the fact that the bodies were wrapped in purple. The marble ‘couch’ on which the skeletons lie is stained purple – the colour traditionally worn by Persian and other royalty.

Other finds include the remains of carved wooden furniture, ceramic perfume bottles, glass and silver jewellery and gold coins. The archaeologists intend to carry out DNA analysis of the skeletons and there is the possibility that they will be subjects for facial reconstruction.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Exciting new finds from a Macedonian necropolis

It’s the time of year when archaeologists announce the most important finds of the season, and it has been another extremely productive season for Greek archaeologists working on the necropolis near on the ancient Macedonian capital of Pella.
More than 1,000 tombs have been discovered at the necropolis since excavations began in 2000, and yet it is estimated that only 5% of the site has so far been excavated. This season has seen the discovery of 37 ancient tombs dating back to the iron age and down to the Hellenistic period.
The tombs are incredibly rich in finds, reflecting the wealth of Macedonia over several centuries. As in previous seasons, there is consistent placement of iron swords, spears and daggers, plus vases, pottery and jewellery made of gold, silver and iron in the tombs, allowing the dead to have access to their precious belongings in the afterlife. Macedonia was (and is) an area of Greece rich in minerals, with access to various gold and silver mines, and therefore there is an abundance of gold grave goods from the 6th century onwards.
Further information on the grave goods excavated in this and recent seasons is needed before conclusions can be drawn, but it is looking increasingly that the excavations outside Pella will prove that the Macedon kingdom advanced towards the Axios River region much earlier than previously anticipated. Many scholars had proposed that this area did not come under the Argead dynasty of Macedon (the dynasty that will later produce Philip II and Alexander the Great) until after the Persian Wars, but the consistency of the type of grave goods and the form of burial seem to suggest that the accession of the area should be pushed back into the 6th century BC.
The discoveries at the site included the bronze helmet with gold mouthplate, shown here, from a tomb of a warrior from the 6th century BC which also included the warriors weapons and jewellery.
 The gold mouthplate is particularly fine. A visit to museums in Macedonia will show the prevalence of the use of such mouthplates or ‘lozenges’.  The use of them, and on occasion more full gold masks (such as at Sindos) has drawn parallels with the Mycenaeans, in line with the fact that there are many other aspects of Macedonian life and funeral practice that have parallels with Mycenaean culture. But there are other theories about the mouthplates too. The most obvious is that they are to be connected with the coin that was placed in the mouth in order to pay Charon, the ferryman whose job it was to guide souls across the river Styx.
Another intriguing theory has arisen via a remark by an author who, in the 12th century, was detailing heresies of early Christian sects and remarked that one of the accusations of heresy against the Phrygian Christian movement known as the Montanists was that they sealed the mouths of their dead with plates of gold like initiates into the mysteries. This is very interesting, since we know that Macedonia was a region of Greece that wholeheartedly embraced various mystery cults to an extent that some southern Greeks viewed as suspicious. Orphic texts were discovered in the famous Derveni burials, and legend has it that Philip II met his wife Olympias, future mother of Alexander, whilst they were celebrating the mysteries on Samothrace.  The important point here, of course, is that initiates were not allowed to divulge anything about the mysteries to those who had not been initiated. Perhaps the gold lozenge is there to stop them from doing so, even in death? It is to be hoped that further research will enable us to understand whether there is a link between the use of the gold lozenges and particular cult.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Girl Reconstructed: 'Myrtis', a victim of the plague and the Peloponnesian War

The long and drawn-out struggle between Athens and Spartan known as the Peloponnesian War has always fascinated me. Chronicled by Thucydides, who himself played a part in the conflict, the war represented a bitter struggle between a sea-power and land-power and their respective allies which proved catastrophic for the eventual losers, the citizens of Athens.

The war lasted from 431 to 404BC and ranged across the Greek city states of the mainland, islands and even Sicily. Thucydides’ unfinished account is detailed and impressive and still causes controversy over its veracity, particularly of the speeches he reports. Fortunately for us, archaeology continues to throw light on this period and sometimes we get a neat fit between text and the archaeological record. My group and I recently stood at the well preserved bridge of Amphipolis whilst I read Thucydides’ account of the Spartan general Brasidas’s relief of the town in 424 and his entry via that very structure.

Earlier in his account of the war Thucydides had given us a very chilling account of the plague that had struck Athens in 430BC. In Book II Chapter 7 we hear that many Athenians had fled inside the city walls from the countryside when the Spartans invaded Attica, and that then plague broke out inside city. He describes the horror of the outbreak and the symptoms of the illness, and also how normal burial procedures could not be adhered to in the face of so much contagion:
“All the burial rites before in use were entirely upset, and they buried the bodies as best they could. Many from want of the proper appliances, through so many of their friends having died already, had recourse to the most shameless sepultures: sometimes getting the start of those who had raised a pile, they threw their own dead body upon the stranger's pyre and ignited it; sometimes they tossed the corpse which they were carrying on the top of another that was burning, and so went off.”

Therefore when Greek archaeologists discovered a mass grave near the ancient Athenian cemetery of Keramikos whilst the new Athens subway was being built in 1995, the question was raised as to whether this could have been connected with the plague of 430BC. The grave contained the bones of 150 men, women and children.

Scholars had long suspected, based on Thucydides account and of what they knew of conditions in the city in the late 5th century, that the plague was actually typhoid fever, and the well-preserved remains in the grave meant that scientists had the opportunity to test DNA from the teeth of some of the skulls in the grave so that they could identify the cause of death. Professor Manolis Papagrigorakis of the University of Athens undertook this study in 2006 and it was indeed found to be typhoid fever that had killed the occupants.

Since some of the skeletons were exceptionally well-preserved it was decided that facial reconstruction would be possible. Professor Papagrigorakis and his team chose three subjects, one of whom was an 11 year old girl. The girl was not one of those who had contributed DNA - the team had not wanted to damage her intact teeth.

Facial reconstruction is an interesting and controversial part of archaeology. As a science to reconstruct the face of a particular individual it really started with the work of Wilhelm His (1831-1904) in the 19th century and then was taken forward by the Russian palaeontologist Mikhail Gerasimov in the 20th century. However, it was really the ‘Manchester’ team, led by Richard Neave in the later 20th century that saw the subject advance as an essential tool in forensic science and archaeology.

Using a 3-D technological program called the ‘Manchester method’ for the reconstruction process, Papagrigorakis and his team worked with the girl’s complete skull, jaw, teeth and milk teeth and believes that the results are 95 percent close to reality. The underlying tenet of facial reconstruction is that the skull forms the armature for the facial flesh and therefore dictates its form. This is supplemented by information collected from data on such things as the varying fleshiness due to age, gender, ethnic origin etc.

It was the job of Greek archaeologist Efi Baziotopoulou, who excavated the Keramikos site, to contribute information to suggest the colour of the girl’s hair and eyes, and she even provided her with a name: Myrtis. Her hair has been styled in a manner familiar from classical vase paintings and reliefs, and her dress based on the tunics of the times.

Myrtis is now the subject of an exhibition "Face to Face with the Past", and because of her death from typhoid fever Myrtis has even been made a representative of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to raise awareness of child health issues. The exhibition has proved very popular in Greece, though it has to be said that facial reconstructions are still an issue of controversy. As Musgrave, a member of the Manchester team, has pointed out there are archaeologists and museum curators who are increasingly concerned at the ethics of working with human remains, and some people find these types of reconstructions distasteful. He believes that it is not offensive to the dead if the reconstruction reveals their stories or historical or scientific truths. It is clear that this new study from Keramikos will add to knowledge of the population of Athens at this time and how they suffered during the war, though it could be argued that there is little to be added by the physical reconstruction of this unfortunate child’s features.

It is not known how many Athenians were killed by the plague during the Peloponnesian War – some scholars put the loss as high as a quarter of the population. What is known though, is that it killed their famous statesman: Pericles, one of the architects of the war. The loss of their most able general at such an early stage in the war was a real disaster for Athens. And of course, as Thucydides pointed out – the plague did not touch Sparta or its allies, so it is interesting to speculate on just how much it did affect the early stages of the war.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Classical Greek hydria found in Nessebar, Bulgaria


Bulgarian archaeologists have made an exciting find during their excavations n the Necropolis of Mesambria in the Black Sea city of Nessebar.  A small stone built tomb was opened to reveal a bronze hydria dating back to 4th century BC.

Mesambria (sometimes spelt Messembria) was a Greek colony of around 510 B.C. on the site of an older Thracian settlement. The Black Sea was an important area to the southern Greeks as it gave access to corn producing lands and also mineral rich areas. Mesambria remained a Greek city until annexed by Rome in 72AD.
The hydria is the first find of its kind from the excavations at the necropolis and will doubtless lead to speculation of the status of the person whose remains lie within it.
The hydria was, as its name suggests, a vessel for water, but hydria often have a secondary purpose as a funerary urn. The cremated bones of the dead would be placed within the hydria, and then buried within the tomb.
The hydria from Mesambria is well-preserved with three decorated handles and was once also decorated with applied metal figures. Luckily the metal figures, though they had become detached from the body of the vessel were also discovered in the tomb. The figures are of a winged male and female, a common motif on hydria – see the example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, below. Also found within the tomb was a strigil, suggesting that the occupant was male.
4th C hydria from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
According to Aneliya Bozhkova, co-director of the excavation, cremation was very rare in the Necropolis of Mesambria and in the area, and so this may raise questions as to the ethnicity of the occupant of the tomb. The excavations continue.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Tomb II at Vergina.... the mystery rumbles on

Professor Jonathan Musgrave's recent article in the International Journal of Medical Sciences on the occupants of tomb II at Vergina is sure to ruffle a few feathers. A while ago I attended a lecture by Professor Musgrave on this very subject, and only last week I was standing outside tomb II with my group, discussing his findings, so I was pleased to see the article at last, complete with wonderful illustrations of the ancient remains.

Since Manolis Andronikos' amazing discoveries in the Great Tumulus of Vergina in 1977 there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the identity of the occupants. Andonikos firmly believed that one was none other than Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, and cited such evidence as a 'royal' diadem, a hunting scene depicting Philip and Alexander and other circumstantial evidence. The identity of the other occupant, a young woman, has been more problematic, not least because Philip had 7 or 8 wives (Macedonian kings practised polygamy).  If the tomb is a royal one, and if we accept that Vergina is actually ancient Aegeae, the resting ground of all Macedonian kings of the Argead line (except Alexander the Great - but that's another story) then the couple in the tomb must be either Philip II and one of his wives, or Philip III Arrhidaeus and his wife Eurydike. Andronikos was convinced it was Philip II, and Musgrave's evidence seemed to support his view.


Tomb II - the male was in the main chamber, the female in the antechamber
Musgrave and other members of a British team examined the bones at the time of their discovery and seemed to confirm Andronikos' view of the male. The skeleton was of a male in his mid to late 40s - but this could be either of the two Philips. However, they noted that the skull appears to have a healed fracture on the right cheekbone and a marked asymmetry in the wall of the right maxillary sinus. We know that Philip II lost his right eye at the siege of Methone in 355-4 BC and this injury which would be consistent with the damage to the skeleton. It has to be said that another team also examined the remains and thought that this damage was caused by the warping during cremation.

However, other archaeologists consider that several aspects of the tomb and its very rich contents point to a period some years later, after Alexander's conquests of Asia and this would preclude the possibility of the male being Philip II. For example, the appearance of some salt cellars dated only in other contexts to between 320-280. They propose therefore that the occupants of the tomb should be Philip II's son Philip III Arrhidaios, and his wife Eurydice.

Professor Musgrave has now had a chance to re-examine the bones, and his findings are extremely important. He points out that the colour and fracture lines of the bones suggest they were cremated 'green' (with flesh still around them) rather than 'dry' (after the flesh had been decomposed by burial). We know that Philip II was cremated very soon after he was assassinated, and the funeral pyre has been excavated at the site, whereas Arrhidaios was murdered on the borders of Epirus and Macedonia in 317 BC and sources suggest his remains were subsequently exhumed and reburied between four and 17 months later at Vergina. Given that the the funeral pyre indicates that the bodies were cremated at Vergina, Arrhidaios could not have been exhumed, moved and then cremated 'green'.

Furthermore, the literary sources indicate that Arrhidaios was buried along with his wife Eurydice and her mother Kynna and this tomb contains remains of only two individuals. The female remains belong to a woman aged between 20 and 30 and Eurydice is thought to have been no more than 19 years old when she died.

So, the mystery of the occupants of Tomb II continues...... in another post I shall move on to the question of the identity of the female!
A tiny ivory portrait, believed to be of Philip II, from the tomb at Vergina