Shackled skeletons at ancient Greek cemetery puzzle archaeologists
The mass burial site in Faliro, a port of Athens in classical times, includes people who were tossed face-down into a pit, their hands shackled behind their backs.
Kristina Killgrove reports for Forbes that to learn more about these deviant burials and their relationship to Greek state formation, an international team of archaeologists is cleaning, recording, and analyzing the skeletons.
Excavation at the site began nearly a century ago, with a mass grave – often referred to as containing the “captives of Phaleron” because of the presence of metal handcuffs – excavated by the Greek Archaeological Service.
But large-scale excavation of almost an acre of Faliro was carried out between 2012-2016 by the Department of Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, led by archaeologist Stella Chrysoulaki.
The modern excavation garnered massive publicity in Greece because of its scale and funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, but little news has trickled out in the English-language media.
Archaeological excavation was careful and detailed, with conservators on site and with several skeletons removed in blocks for future micro-excavation. Digitization of the archaeological field records, photographs, and maps is done, but this is just the beginning for the skeletons themselves, whose preservation and analysis has to be done by specialists in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology.
The report says the skeletons found were buried in a variety of ways. Most were interred in simple pit graves, but nearly one-third are infants and children in large jars, about 5 percent are cremations complete with funeral pyres, and there are a few stone-lined cist graves. One person was buried in a wooden boat used as a coffin.
The shackled skeletons have puzzled researchers as there are very few instances of shackled deaths in the ancient world and could indicate punishment, slavery, or a death sentence.
Examining and analyzing 1,500 skeletons by bioarchelogists and geoarchaelogists is a time-consuming and costly process and significant funding is needed.
The research team believes that the analysis of the skeletons can give us a window into a critical time in ancient Greek history, just before the rise of the city-state. The four main objectives following conservation of the skeletons:
1) To investigate the shackled and other deviant burials, including the individuals tossed into mass graves and decide whether they are a casualty of the political upheaval that preceded the rise of Athenian democracy.
2) To study the burials of children, to learn more about infancy and childhood in the ancient world.
3) To learn more about people’s diet in this ancient city, and to find out if its inhabitants succumbed to diseases easily passed through sailors and other travelers from distant lands.
4) To go beyond the analysis of elite individuals buried with elaborate grave goods by focusing on the more simple burials, to shed light on all social classes of ancient Athens.
Heads of the Faliro Bioarchaeological Project are bioarchaeologist Jane Buikstra, founding director of the Center for Bioarchaeological Research at Arizona State University, and geoarchaeologist Panagiotis Karkanas, director of the Wiener Laboratory at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
The two researchers aim at making project accessible through a website that would also include summary blog posts, photos, and preliminary results. Public talks around the U.S. are planned, as well as Wiener Laboratory open-house, school, and museum events in Athens.
They also plan to make the database available to researchers around the world. This will allow bioarchaeologists to use cutting-edge analytical methods, such as ancient DNA and isotope chemistry, in order to tell the important stories of the people of ancient Faliro.