Tue, Jul 18, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Ancient whodunit

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

AFP, ATHENS

A conservator works on a human skull in a lab at the American School of Archeology in Athens earlier this month.

Photo: AFP / Aris Messinis

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 escaped.

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 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 675 and 650 BC 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.

CSI

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 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 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.

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