Ancient Greek Cemetery Provides a Fascinating Window into Everyday Life and Death
A team of archaeologists is excavating a huge cemetery of the common people in Attica, Greece. They’ve found some fascinating phenomena of the ancient world contained within—including “gifts from the living to the dead” and a body whose hands were shackled in iron.
The researchers, working with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, are carefully digging and analyzing remains from the cemetery, which dates from the 8th to the 5th centuries BC in the city of Phaleron in the Faliron Delta region. So far they’ve excavated about 1,500 skeletons, including 358 babies and toddlers who were buried in jars.
Part of the cemetery. (Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center)
Phaleron is 4 miles (6.5 km) south of Athens. It was a port in the Classical Era. The burials in the cemetery are mostly from the Archaic Period.
The archaeologists said the burials were of people from small villages and settlements in the Faliron Delta and perhaps as far away as the rock of the Acropolis, which is about 4 miles (6.5 km) from the cemetery.
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In the very middle of the cemetery they found the bound man.
“I am standing right next to a skeleton, a human skeleton, that has a very interesting aspect to it,” says archaeologist Eleni Drakaki in the YouTube video below. “The hands of the skeleton are tied with iron bonds or perhaps some type of iron chain.”
Dr. Drakaki said the team will try to relate the skeleton to the social and historical events of the period, though she did not elucidate any further in the video.
Forbes published an article that states the man was interred in one of two mass burials in which people were buried face down with their hands shackled. The author of that article, archaeologist Kristina Killgrove, says the cemetery is important in understanding the rise of the Greek city-state and the subjugation and violence that attended it.
Example of an unusual burial position with the body being interred face down. (The American School of Classical Studies at Athens)
The site had been excavated about a century ago, when some of the shackled remains were unearthed. But it wasn’t until 2012 that archaeologists went about systematically and scientifically studying the site. The Niarchos cultural center built a sophisticated archaeological village with technical facilities for the 78 researchers and laborers.
The archaeologists have found three main types of burials in the 240,000-square-meter (287,000-square-yard) cemetery: the vase burials with the babies, funeral pyres, and open burials. They also found a few stone-lined cists.
Top left: Pit grave, dug into the soft sandy soil. Top right: Pot burial, with smaller vases as funerary offerings. Bottom left: Funeral pyre. Bottom right: Larnax, for child burial and smaller vases as funerary offerings. (Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center)
They found a wooden coffin that was carved from a tree trunk that was in excellent condition, having been preserved in layers of sand, water, and clay. The researchers intend to do extensive research on it and the remains of the man in it.
They have also found pots that were meant to accompany the dead to the afterlife, which archaeologist Anna Alexandropoulou called the “the gifts of the living to the dead.”
“Some of these amphorae are decorated with horses and birds,” says Dr. Alexandropoulou in the video. “The horse is a sign of the nobility of that age. We are now at the end of the 8th century.”
Burial sets: Pot burial vases and offerings (7th-6th century BC) (top) and Corinthian vases (bottom). (Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center)
Analysis of the bones of the people buried in Phaleron show that they suffered stress, especially to the upper limbs and spine—evidence of hard labor and therefore the lower social strata of the people buried there.
Further evidence of their humble station was that many of the people, both children and adults, apparently also suffered from chronic malnutrition and had vitamin deficiencies and anemia.
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The video and an article about the project are at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center website. The articles states:
“According to this primary estimation, the absence of a large social stratification, the high rate of child mortality, as well as signs of pathological conditions or traces of arduous daily work evident on skeletal material, point to a population which constituted, in its majority, the basis of the social scale [the lower classes] in Attica during the Archaic period.
Additionally, for understanding the cultural parameters surrounding death rituals, the grave goods have no meaning when disconnected from the dead. The customs of burial and funerary offerings reflect the values and perceptions of the living and can therefore act as a guide for an interpretive approach to the social group in Faliron.”
The skeleton of a person who suffered from anemia. (Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center)
The researchers have excavated just a small part of the cemetery so far and have much to study, including why the deviant burials were done, what the children’s remains can tell them about the lives of kids of the time, and what other details the skeletons can tell them about the people’s diet.
The burials of children and adults from lower classes, whose lives often have been ignored in historical texts, will tell something about society at large. The researchers will clean and inventory the 1,500 skeletons and assess their age at the time of death and any injuries or diseases.
Featured Image: Detail of the cemetery showing pot burials and a funeral pyre at the foreground. (The American School of Classical Studies at Athens) Insert: Black-figure plate, with a prothesis scene, of which survives only the head of the deceased on the funeral bed and two women mourning him. (Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center)
By Mark Miller