Category Archives: GREECE

Rusty saber, possibly wielded by medieval Turkish pirates, unearthed in Greece

Rusty saber, possibly wielded by medieval Turkish pirates, unearthed in Greece

A rusty medieval saber, or one-edged sword, unearthed at a fortified Christian monastery in northern Greece might be a deadly weapon that either raiding Turkish pirates or the monastery’s defenders wielded hundreds of years ago. The discovery of the saber is unusual, as iron weapons from this period usually quickly rust away.

Rusty saber, possibly wielded by medieval Turkish pirates, unearthed in Greece
Archaeologists think the one-edged curved sword — a type of saber — dates from a raid on the monastery that took place in the 14th century.

The style of this weapon, too, is unusual — but it turns out that such curved, one-edged swords were used both by Turks and Byzantines at around the time of the attack in the 14th century, said archaeologist Errikos Maniotis, a doctoral candidate at Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic, who studied the sword.

“It’s hard to determine if the sword belonged to the Byzantine defenders, or to the probably Turkish [raiders],” Maniotis told Live Science in an email. “They both used similar weapons in this period.”

Maniotis is working with Theodoros Dogas, an archaeologist for the Ephorate of Antiquities of Chalcidice and Mount Athos, the region’s government archaeological agency, to excavate the medieval site, which is called the “Monastery of Agios Nikolaos of Chrysokamaros” in honour a local saint.

The ruins are located on the coast of the middle of the three prominent peninsulas of Chalkidiki (also called Chalcidice), about 40 miles (64 kilometres) southeast of the city of Thessaloniki on the northwest coast of the Aegean Sea.

But although the location by the sea is picture-perfect today, it hasn’t always been a peaceful place. The sword could be from any one of at least three military events that took place in the region in the 14th century alone, Maniotis and Dogas said.

The ruins of the monastery are in the middle of the three prominent peninsulas at Chalkidiki. Archaeologists think it was destroyed by fire during a raid in the 14th century.

Medieval monastery

Historical records mention a monastery at the site from at least the 11th century, although it’s not known if it was independent or a metochi — an “embassy church” of the Mount Athos monastery, a powerful establishment on the easternmost of the Chalkidiki peninsulas, Maniotis said.

Archaeologists briefly excavated the site in 2000 and 2001, when the one-edged sword was found; but the excavations this year have established that the monastery was surrounded by a sturdy wall made of granite rocks between 5.5 and 6 feet (1.7 to 2 meters) thick, Dogas said.

Such well-built monasteries and churches were often used as a local refuge during attacks, such as pirate raids. These ecclesiastical centres might also have had riches of their own, such as religious items made of gold, and often held a supply of grain, he said. In fact, archaeologists have found grain seeds in the lower levels of a tower at the monastery, which indicated it might have been used for food storage, Dogas noted. 

The tower is now about 16 feet (5 m) high, but the research shows it was once much higher. There’s evidence the structure was badly damaged by fire at some point. Moreover, weapons, including axes, arrowheads and the one-edged sword, were discovered in the same archaeological layer as the fire damage.

This is “evidence that leads us to conclude that the tower was destroyed by strong fire after a raid,” the researchers wrote in an academic presentation given in Athens on May 27.

Archaeologists found a large number of glazed pottery vessels, mainly from the 14th century, in the same layer; and, based on their styles, the researchers reason the destruction probably occurred in the second half of the 14th century and possibly as late as the beginning of the 15th century.

The iron sword was badly damaged in the fire that destroyed the monastery and is badly corroded. But the assembly includes metal rings that were part of the scabbard that enclosed it.
Swords of this type, with a single sharp edge and a curve throughout its length, were used by both Byzantine soldiers who may have been defending the monastery and Turkish pirates or soldiers who may have been attacking it.
Well-built monasteries along the coast were often used as a refuge during pirate attacks, and archaeologists think it may have also been targeted for its stores of grain.

One-edged sword

Although the sword is distinctive, the archaeologists can’t tell for certain just who might have wielded it, or when. Sabers had been used in Turkish lands for centuries; for example, they are depicted in an illustrated Seljuk manuscript from the 13th century that is now held at the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul.

But research by the archaeologists has also shown such swords were used by Byzantine soldiers — perhaps those helping defend the monastery from a raid by Turkish pirates, for instance.

Icons of Byzantine saints from the 13th century depict curved, one-edged swords, and it’s known that Byzantine soldiers used the swords as early as the sixth century, after facing them while fighting the nomadic Avars and the Sassanid Persians, who had assimilated them from the warriors of the Eurasian steppes, the researchers wrote. 

Maniotis and Dogas have identified three military actions in the 14th century that could have led to the sword being used there: attacks along the coast by Turkish pirates, which included the kidnapping in 1344 of administrators from the Mount Athos monastery; the occupation of the region from 1345 until about 1371 by the forces of the Serbian king Stefan Dušan, who aspired to conquer Byzantine territories in the West; and the siege of Thessalonica by Ottoman troops from 1383 until 1387, when the Chalkidiki region was often raided for food.

Maniotis can’t say for sure, but he thinks the sword may be of Turkish origin, and that it was used in a pirate raid on the monastery. It’s now in poor condition, having been bent during the attack that destroyed the monastery, although several metal rings from the scabbard that once contained it can still be seen.

Nearly 18 inches (45 centimetres) of the blade of the sword remain whole, but not enough to determine by its shape alone whether it is of Turkish or Byzantine origin, the researchers wrote.

But it has historical importance in any case: “this particular sword is the only find from this category of swords in a closed archaeological assembly in Greece,” the researchers wrote. “It may in fact be one of the few swords of the late Byzantine period found in Greece.” 

The discovery of the sword and other artefacts from the excavations will be the subject of an upcoming research paper, Maniotis and Dogas said.

Man destroys $5m in ancient artefacts in museum row with girlfriend

Man destroys $5m in ancient artefacts in museum row with girlfriend

A man “mad at his girl” broke into The Dallas Museum of Art in Texas and destroyed three Greek artefacts, estimated to be worth up to $5 million and faces years in jail. 

Man destroys $5m in ancient artefacts in museum row with girlfriend
A man destroyed these Greek artefacts (Dallas Museum of Art) at the Dallas Museum of Art.

The destructive attacks follow a similar incident last week when an Italian man dressed as an elderly woman attempted to destroy the Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

A Destructive Artifact Rampage

The Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, Agustin Arteaga, told The New York Times that “three ancient Greek artefacts dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries BC were seriously damaged.”

Brian Hernandez, 21, was arrested on Thursday and put into the Dallas County jail with a bond set at $100,000. Hernandez used a metal chair to break into the museum on Wednesday night and reports say he unleashed a “destructive rampage”.

Once inside the museum Hernandez broke into a display case and shattered a 6th century BC Greek amphora (clay vessel) dating to 450 BC. According to HypeBeast police said this item alone was worth “about $5m dollars,” but other reports say $1m dollars.

Hernandez also smashed a 6th century BC clay bowl estimated to be worth about $100,000, and a ceramic Caddo effigy bottle valued at about $10,000.

Two of the items that were damaged at the Dallas Museum of Art — a black-figure panel amphora, left, and a red-figure pyxis and lid, right — are ancient ceramics from Greece. (Dallas Museum of Art )

When Being Mad Hurts History

When the museum security guards saw the CCTV camera feeds and realized what was happening, they quickly apprehended the unarmed Hernandez. Charged “with criminal mischief” amounting to more than $300,000, according to an article in Greek Reporter, police said 21-year-old Brian Hernandez broke into the institution at 10 pm PT on Wednesday night because “he was mad at his girl.”

On Thursday, Hernandez was slammed up in the Dallas County jail with a bail bond set at $100,000. Only time will tell if his criminal mischief charge will get him five years or life in prison.

At times like this, we can choose to focus on the losses or the wins. In this case, the perpetrator smashed 3 Greek artefacts, but it could have been a lot worse because the Dallas Art Museum holds many unique ancient crafts from around the world which have no estimated worth, for they are culturally priceless.

While He Got Greece, He Missed Africa and America

The Museum’s Arts of Africa department looks after the famous Senufo helmet mask. This Game of Thrones-esq headgear was worn by leaders of the powerful male-only Komo society. 

Responsible for maintaining social and spiritual harmony in Senufo villages in Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Burkina Faso, the mask was worn at funerals, initiations, harvest celebrations, and secret rituals.

Recent CT scans revealed “unexpected materials” both beneath the surface of the mask and within the attached animal horns. The scientists said these secret artefacts “empowered the mask.”

Closer to home, the criminal also missed 200 ancient and contemporary works of art in the first major exhibition dedicated to the art and culture of ancient Mississippian people

Although their vast earthen mounds are most often associated with giants, visiting foreign cultures, and other pseudo-historical narratives, the much misunderstood Mississippian peoples formed one of the first societies in North America. So while three Greek artefacts were destroyed, we can be thankful thousands of other pieces were left untouched.

The Senufo helmet mask is in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art. (Dallas Museum of Art )

When Adults Throw Uncontrollable Tantrums

All of us have thrown tantrums and destroyed objects. However, for most of us, this occurred before turning six and the violence was restricted to Lego castles and dolls’ dresses. Why then do some adults destroy whatever they want, whenever they spin out emotionally? While you might race to find a solution in the IQ score of the vandal, or accuse them of behaving like spoiled, impudent children, the reality is much more complicated. Quite interesting too.

In a 2017 research paper titled ‘ Design as Means of Countering Vandalism, Sokolov sought design solutions for protecting aesthetically valuable objects against vandals.

The main goal of culture, according to Sokolov, is the harmonious development of society. Vandalism goes directly against this, and the researcher proposed that there are two distinguished forms of vandalism: “meaningless and meaningful.”

Meaningful And Mindful Vandalism

Meaningful vandalism is when objects with aesthetic or cultural value are targeted and generally “do not have a pronounced goal.” On the other hand, mindless vandalism, which includes littering, is a violation of physical and spiritual ecology.

Meaningful and meaningless vandals have different goals, but Brian Hernandez belongs to the meaningful vandal group, which destroys the “values” of other cultures through “different emotional motivations, but with no clearly defined goals.” This diagnosis became clear when Hernandez told Dallas police his prime reason for smashing millions of dollars of history was: “I was mad at my girl.”

2,100-year-old burial of woman lying on bronze ‘mermaid bed’ unearthed in Greece

2,100-year-old burial of woman lying on bronze ‘mermaid bed’ unearthed in Greece

Archaeologists have unearthed the ancient burial of a woman lying on a bronze bed near the city of Kozani in northern Greece. It dates to the first century B.C. 

2,100-year-old burial of woman lying on bronze 'mermaid bed' unearthed in Greece
A photo of the burial of a woman lying on a bronze bed. She lived sometime during the first century B.C.

Depictions of mermaids decorate the posts of the bed. The bed also displays an image of a bird holding a snake in its mouth, a symbol of the ancient Greek god Apollo.

The woman’s head was covered with gold laurel leaves that likely were part of a wreath, Areti Chondrogianni-Metoki, director of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Kozani, told Live Science in an email.

The wooden portions of the bed have decomposed. 

Gold threads, possibly from embroidery, were found on the woman’s hands, Chondrogianni-Metoki said. Additionally, four clay pots and a glass vessel were buried alongside the remains. No other people were buried with her. 

This image shows how the bed would have looked before the burial. It is made largely of bronze but had some wooden parts that have since decayed away.

Archaeologists are now analyzing the skeleton to determine the woman’s health, age when she died and possible cause of death.

The artefacts found with her suggest that she likely came from a wealthy background, and may have belonged to a royal family.

“We do not know much about the history of this area [during the first century B.C.],” Chondrogianni-Metoki told Live Science. Thousands of years ago, Kozani was near an important city called Mavropigi (the site is now a village) that housed a sanctuary dedicated to Apollo, Chondrogianni-Metoki said.

This mermaid head was found on the bed.

Historical records show that during the first century B.C., Roman control and influence in Greece was on the rise.

The Romans destroyed the city of Corinth in 146 B.C. and sacked Athens in 86 B.C. In 48 B.C. a crucial battle in northern Greece known as the Battle of Pharsalus saw the army of Julius Caesar defeat a force led by Pompey; the victory resulted in Caesar becoming the de facto ruler of Rome. 

It’s unclear when exactly in the first century B.C. this woman lived or if she would have witnessed or heard of any of those historic events. The woman’s remains are currently housed at the Archaeological Museum of Aiani in Greece.

Live Science contacted scholars not affiliated with the research for further insights on the discovery, but none were available to offer comment at the time of publication.

The Theopetra Cave and the Oldest Human Construction in the World

The Theopetra Cave and the Oldest Human Construction in the World

The Theopetra Cave is an archaeological site situated in Meteora, in the central Greek region of Thessaly. As a result of the archaeological excavations that have taken place over the years, it has been revealed that the Theopetra cave was inhabited by human beings as early as 130,000 years ago.

In addition, evidence of human habitation in the Theopetra Cave can be dated without interruption from the Middle Palaeolithic to the end of the Neolithic period.

This is significant, as it allows archaeologists to have a better understanding of the prehistoric period in Greece.

Excavations at the Theopetra cave began in 1987 under the direction of N. Kyparissi-Apostolika.

The Theopetra Cave is located on the north-eastern slope of a limestone hill, some 100 m (330 feet above the valley), overlooking the remote village of Theopetra, and the river Lethaios, a tributary of the Pineios River, flows nearby.

According to geologists, the limestone hill was formed between 137 and 65 million years ago, corresponding to the Upper Cretaceous period. Based on archaeological evidence, human beings have only begun to occupy the cave during the Middle Palaeolithic period, i.e. around 130,000 years ago.

The cave is located on the slopes of a limestone hill overlooking Theopetra village.

The cave itself has been described as roughly quadrilateral in shape with narrow niches on its edge and covers an area of around 500 sq meters (5380 sq ft). The Theopetra Cave has a wide aperture, which enables the light to penetrate easily into the interior of the cave.

The archaeological excavation of the Theopetra Cave began in 1987 and continued up until 2007. This project was directed by Dr Nina Kyparissi-Apostolika, who served as the head of the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology and Speleography when the excavations were being carried out.

It may be mentioned that when the archaeological work was first conducted, the Theopetra Cave was being used by local shepherds as a temporary shelter in which they would keep their flocks.

It may be added that the Theopetra Cave was the first cave in Thessaly to have been archaeologically excavated, and also the only one in Greece to have a continuous sequence of deposits from the Middle Palaeolithic to the end of the Neolithic period. This is significant, as it has allowed archaeologists to gain a better understanding of the transition from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic way of life in mainland Greece.

Several interesting discoveries have been made through the archaeological study of the Theopetra Cave. One of these, for instance, pertains to the climate in the area when the cave was being occupied.

By conducting micro-morphological analysis on the sediment samples collected from each archaeological layer, archaeologists were able to determine that there had been hot and cold spells during the cave’s occupation. As a result of these changes in the climate, the cave’s population also fluctuated accordingly.

Another fascinating find from the Theopetra Cave is the remains of a stone wall that once partially closed off the entrance of the cave. These remains were discovered in 2010 and using a relatively new method of dating known as Optically Stimulated Luminescence, scientists were able to date this wall to around 23000 years old.

The age of this wall, which coincides with the last glacial age, has led researchers to suggest that the wall had been built by the inhabitants of the cave to protect them from the cold outside. It has been claimed that this is the oldest known man-made structure in Greece, and possibly even in the world.

A year before this incredible discovery was made, it was announced that a trial of at least three hominid footprints that were imprinted onto the cave’s soft earthen floor had been uncovered.

Based on the shape and size of the footprints, it has been speculated that they were made by several Neanderthal children, aged between two and four years old, who had lived in the cave during the Middle Palaeolithic period.

In 2009, the Theopetra Cave was officially opened to the public, though it was closed temporarily a year later, as the remains of the stone wall were discovered that year. Although the archaeological site was later re-opened, it was closed once again in 2016 and remains so due to safety reasons, i.e. the risk of landslides occurring.

The ancient computer may have had its clock set to 23 December 178 BC

The ancient computer may have had its clock set to 23 December 178 BC

In 1901, divers looking to research different species of fish next to the tiny island of Antikythera in Grece discovered an old shipwreck from ancient times which contained vast treasures.

The ancient computer may have had its clock set to 23 December 178 BC
CT scan of Antikythera mechanismHoroscopic Astrology

Besides all the treasure, a piece of corroded metal was found which had a very odd shape. Those who discovered it in 1901 didn’t have the knowledge nor the technology to understand what exactly they were looking at.

It was only after 120 years that scientists understood what they were looking for after splitting the object apart.

A CT scan performed on the artefact in 2005 revealed that there were many small bronze gears inside that when turned, would give some sort of value.

The vast knowledge of astrology that is discovered in the writings of ancient Greek historians is crazy and this is something that scientists took into consideration when looking at this mechanism. 

Many years ago a replica was created by Michael Wright who took detailed X-rays of the discovered computer whilst working as a curator of mechanical engineering at the Science Museum in London.

The replica helped us understand that the computer discovered in 1901 was missing a lot of parts as only 82 fragments have survived, that is a third of all the pieces necessary for the mechanism to work. 

Experts say that it had been created to calculate the theories of ancient astrologists. The idea of having a machine able to calculate and validate scientific theories in ancient times is absolutely mind-blowing. Most of the information known about this ancient computer was discovered in 2021 and now even more incredible things are being unveiled. 

Aristeidis Voulgaris of the Thessaloniki Directorate of Culture and Tourism in Greece now supposes the calibration date was around 23 December 178 BC.

Experts call this “Day Zero” or the day that the computer was first used. This reinforces beliefs of the ancient computer being built sometime around 200BC. That date is interesting as Voulgaris mentions a lot of important events that occurred in Greece during 178BC. 

This artefact let alone proves how vastly superior ancient Greeks were. Their technical abilities were far beyond what we initially thought. Other researchers have made their own independent calculations based on the data shown.

The calculations look at how accurate the computer’s astronomical predictions are. The ingeniosity behind the mechanism still leaves everyone baffled. 

There are still many unknown things about this ancient computer, such as the inscriptions on the original part discovered in 1901 which makes experts scratch their heads. It is possible that the computer was used for something else from what the experts are currently predicting, although they can’t see to discover any new functions or mechanisms. 

Historians have also been checking the archives to find some information about this ancient computer. There are many predictions and speculations made along the way, but no concrete information had been found.

Researchers such as Freeth Tony and Jones Alexander who have spent many years analyzing the artefact are trying to decrypt the inscriptions mean, as these may be further instruction on how to properly utilize the ancient computer. 

‘Folded’ iron sword found in a Roman soldier’s grave was part of a pagan ritual

‘Folded’ iron sword found in a Roman soldier’s grave was part of a pagan ritual

An iron sword deliberately bent as part of a pagan ritual has been discovered in a Roman soldier’s grave in Greece, an archaeologist has revealed. The deformed or ‘folded’ sword was buried with an as yet unidentified soldier about 1,600 years ago in the Greek city of Thessaloniki.

His ‘arch-shaped’ grave was found in the underground remains of a basilica – a large public building and place of worship – dating from the fifth century AD. 

Along with the sword, the man was found buried with a spearhead and a ‘shield-boss’ – the circular centre of a shield.  

The sword (pictured) was deliberately bent in some form of pagan ritual, according to a Greek archaeologist

The ‘astonishing’ findings have been shared by Errikos Maniotis, an archaeologist at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, who believes the man likely served in the Roman imperial army. 

‘Usually, these types of swords were used by the auxiliary cavalry forces of the Roman army,’ Maniotis told Live Science

‘Thus, we may say that the deceased, taking also into consideration the importance of the burial location, was a high-ranking officer of the Roman army.

It’s rare to find a ‘folded’ sword in an urban landscape, let alone in this part of Europe, Maniotis pointed out. 

Image of the underground remains of the ancient basilica – a large public building and place of worship

‘Folded swords are usually excavated in sites in Northern Europe,’ he said.

‘It seems that Romans didn’t practise it, let alone when the new religion, Christianity, dominated, due to the fact that this ritual [was] considered to be pagan.’

Archaeologists are yet to assess the remains of the soldier, described as likely a ‘Romanized Goth or from any other Germanic tribe who served as a mercenary’. 

‘We don’t know anything about his profile – age of death, cause of death, possible wounds that he might have from the wars he fought,’ Maniotis said.        

The soldier’s grave was one of seven found in the basilica, but not all of them were found to contain artefacts.

Along with the sword, the man was found buried with a spearhead and a ‘shield-boss’ – the circular centre of a shield.
Researchers have called it the ‘Sintrivani basilica’ after the upcoming station, which itself is named after an Ottoman fountain near the entrance (pictured)

According to Live Science, the basilica was discovered in 2010 during an excavation in preparation for the construction of a new subway line – the Sintrivani station, which is due to enter service in 2023.  

Researchers have called it the ‘Sintrivani basilica’ after the station, which itself is named after an Ottoman fountain near the entrance. 

Allegedly, the basilica was built over a fourth-century chapel, which might be the oldest Christian church in Thessaloniki, according to Maniotis.    

The church was damaged in the seventh century and abandoned in the eighth or ninth century, he added.  

Archaeologists have also excavated the basilica’s ‘beautiful’ mosaic floor, which ‘shows a vine with birds on its stalks’, including a mythical phoenix with a halo.  

The Trailblazing Archaeologist Uncovering the Untold Stories of Prehistoric Skeletons

The Trailblazing Archaeologist Uncovering the Untold Stories of Prehistoric Skeletons

Archaeology has always fascinated Efthymia Nikita. She was drawn to the mystery and joy of uncovering the buried past. In her first year of archaeology studies at the Aristotle University, in Thessaloniki, she happily joined a six-week dig at a Neolithic – late Stone Age – site in northern Greece. The multitude of findings included pottery, figurines, stone tools and animal bones. And, toward the end of the excavations, the remains of a human skeleton were found.

“Our team had experts for everything, who almost immediately could tell us exactly what we were looking at, no matter how fragmented it was,” Nikita recalls. “But we had no osteoarchaeologist on the team, so no one could say even the most basic thing about this skeleton: Was it a man or a woman? How old was he/she when they died? We knew nothing.” That, she says, is when she decided to become an osteoarchaeologist.

As its name suggests, osteoarchaeology is the study of skeletal remains, both human and animal, from excavations. It is a specialized field within the broader realm of bioarchaeology, whose purview “includes not only bones but also plants and any other organic material that may be preserved in the archaeological record,” Nikita explains.

Today, at just 38, Nikita is at the pinnacle of her profession, author of a textbook on osteoarchaeology that is considered the last word on the subject, and the developer of methods to analyze ancient bones. Despite her young age, she has been awarded prizes and honours and has received numerous research grants. The latest award bestowed on her is the 2022 Dan David Prize, the world’s largest prize given to scholars in history-related disciplines, which gives $300,000 each to nine different laureates, with another $300,000 going for scholarships for young researchers. The award ceremony will take place in May at Tel Aviv University. (Prior to 2021, the prize, which is granted under the auspices of the university, was given across a wider range of fields)

Our conversations – conducted via both Zoom and email – take place both from her office at the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia, where Nikita is an assistant professor in bioarchaeology and from her home nearby. She moved to Cyprus in 2017 from her native Greece when the institute, a research body specializing in science and technology, offered her a research and teaching position. She was joined by her husband, with whom she raises their 4-year-old son.

Osteoarchaeology is an offshoot of osteology, the scientific study of bones, which in the past was utilized to support racial theories of various sorts. “Even though human osteology started largely as a ‘race science,’ where scholars measured crania to separate humans into races,” says Nikita, “it actually proves the exact opposite. Despite the anatomical variation seen across human groups, which is largely associated with our adaptation to different environments, when you strip people of their skin colour, hair colour, material culture, etc., and you are left with nothing but their bones, there is a deep sense of connectivity.”

She has worked with human skeletal remains from the prehistoric period until post-medieval times in a range of locations: Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Britain, Greece, Cyprus, and Lebanon. “My work,” she says, “has made me realize even more clearly how much all human populations share and have always shared throughout their history. We see differences in the frequencies of different pathologies or dietary patterns or other bioarchaeological aspects, but the similarities are much more pronounced.” For example, the impact of harsh external conditions on human skeletons in the past and the present is very similar, however different the settings. “Since the skeleton has specific means to respond to stress, usually through the new bone formation and bone resorption, we see the same signs of ‘suffering’ on skeletons of individuals in very different contexts.”

The Trailblazing Archaeologist Uncovering the Untold Stories of Prehistoric Skeletons
The “Lovers of Valdaro” bone remains, some six millennia old, found near Mantua, Italy. Emotional neutrality is not always possible.

What you say brings to mind the work of pathologists, who try to determine the cause of death through the remains.

“Definitely. Osteoarchaeology draws methods and approaches from biology, genetics, anatomy, chemistry and geology. And, in particular, forensic anthropology, which deals with the study of recently deceased individuals, shares many methods and approaches with osteoarchaeology. In forensic anthropology, the key aim is to identify the deceased, as well as determine the circumstances of death. Therefore, great emphasis is placed on determining the age at death, sex, stature and ancestry of the individual to whom the skeleton belongs, but also different types of trauma that may manifest on the skeleton – such as sharp force or blunt force.

“In osteoarchaeology,” Nikita continues, “we also estimate age at death, sex and stature, and we assess various pathological lesions, including trauma. Almost all the methods we have for estimating sex and age at death have been developed with the help of modern skeletal collections where the sex and age of the deceased were known in advance. However, our aim is to explore what the living conditions were like in the past, rather than the circumstances of death.”

Estimating the age at death and gender can offer clues to the demographic profiles of different groups; for example, whether infant mortality was high, or whether men died younger than women. In any event, Nikita adds, “I appreciate that the study of human skeletal remains is a privilege and not a right, and such remains should be treated with dignity and respect. Although I try to be emotionally neutral, this is not always possible. For example, in cases where I have an individual with some serious pathology, it is impossible not to think how painful his or her life must have been.”

When you strip people of their skin color, hair color, material culture, etc., and you are left with nothing but their bones, there is a deep sense of connectivity.

Efthymia Nikita

Everyone dies in the end

In the year 900 B.C.E., a people known as the Garamantes occupied the core of the Sahara Desert; they lived in the region for the next 1,500 years. The prevailing view among archaeologists and prehistorians was that, given the external conditions, life there, in what is today the Libyan desert, was nasty, brutish and short. Nikita, together with scientists from Cambridge and Leicester universities, decided to examine this hypothesis by comparing data from skeletal remains found in the heart of the Sahara with similar remains from other African communities along the Mediterranean coast and the banks of the Nile. The analysis showed that life in the desert was not necessarily more difficult or shorter than life next to water sources and that nutrition, too, was apparently not more meager.

In terms of how strenuous life in the Sahara was, an analysis of the remains of the Garamantes “suggests a population successful at coping with a harsh environment of high and fluctuating temperatures and reduced water and food resources,” Nikita says. Few differences were found between men and women, though “the lower limbs were significantly stronger among males than females, possibly due to higher levels of mobility associated with herding.”

A second question related to life in the Sahara studied by Nikita involved the mobility of residents. The classical archaeological material evidence supported the assumption that a large number of individuals crossed the Sahara Desert, despite the extreme conditions prevailing there. But Nikita’s findings refuted this hypothesis. “Our study,” she explains, “examined whether the desert inhibited extended gene flow among populations. Gene flow was assessed by means of cranial morphology. On this basis, we found that despite the fact that this population was at the centre of various networks, the Sahara Desert posed important limitations to gene flow between the Garamantes and other North African populations.

Efthymia Nikita at an excavation site.

Another project examined differences between Garamantian women and men with regard to mobility. On the one hand, it was hypothesized that mobility among men might be higher, due to combat or commerce; on the other hand, women might have been more mobile, due to marriage, in whose wake they might have moved to other settlements to be with their husband’s families. The bones showed that mobility was equally low in both sexes: Neither men nor women moved about very much.

Classical archaeology can find graves and grave goods, describe the material culture and can suggest for instance whether the deceased was rich or poor. Osteoarchaeology can suggest whether a seemingly wealthier person really did live an easier life, Nikita explains. Skeletal remains may also reveal familial ties and provide a broader picture of past communities.

More recently, she examined “human mobility in Cyprus during the Early Christian and Late Byzantine-Frankish periods,” which relates to Nikita. “For a case study, we used the [burial] site of the Hill of Agios Georgios in Nicosia. The results identified one individual who likely originated outside Cyprus and several more [from Cyprus] who were nonlocal to the burial site.” In other words, there was mobility, but it was likely more regional than far-flung. “Regarding men and women, no significant difference was found and they are both represented among the ‘nonlocals,’ so we cannot attribute the mobility to some gender-based factor.” This could not have been determined only from analysis of inanimate objects found at the burial site. The study of bones, Nikita emphasizes, provides a broad demographic picture. In the end, everyone dies: rich and poor, exalted military leaders and slaves. Whereas, say, the examination of objects in cemeteries, can provide much information about the way the living buried the dead, the study of bones will tell an all-inclusive story.

For example, a study Nikita conducted together with colleagues, involved two Cypriot communities that, according to the evidence, engaged principally in agriculture during the 16th and 17th centuries – the transition from the Venetian period to the Ottoman. A comparison was made between adults and children and between women and men of the two populations. The researchers found that despite the similarity in the ways of life of the two communities, one of them experienced greater everyday physical stress. The researchers found more injuries and greater attrition of the skeletal remains. The disparity is discernible among the children as well: Among the population that led a harder life, the bones of the children showed that they, too, were not spared.”

Among the grounds for awarding you the Dan David Prize, the foundation states that you have made it your goal to tell the untold stories of those who have been forgotten, such as children and women, “in order to form a more well-rounded view of the past.” What motivates your research?

“I would say that anger is my main motivation… I am Greek, and I get frustrated when I hear our politicians refer to our ‘glorious past and ancestors,’ obviously referring to men, to distill a rather misguided sense of ethnic pride. While I respect the importance of feeling proud of one’s country and the fact that a country’s history is an important factor for such pride, it is our obligation as scientists to promote a deeper understanding of our history. Osteoarchaeology gives us direct access to our ancestors – not just the politicians and military men, but the everyday people who comprised the vast majority of our ancestors. With the prize money, my priority will be to expand osteoarchaeological research in the Eastern Mediterranean, in conjunction with historical evidence, but also to create a series of resources for educators, parents and the general public to effectively communicate our findings.”

Excavation of Byzantine shipwreck in Aegean reveals 5th-century ceramics

Excavation of Byzantine shipwreck in Aegean reveals 5th-century ceramics

Excavations of a Byzantine shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island Samos have revealed that the ship and its contents likely date to some time between 480 and 520 AD, the Greek Culture Ministry announced.

Excavation of Byzantine shipwreck in Aegean reveals 5th-century ceramics
A Byzantine shipwreck in Greece was dated to some time between 480 and 520 AD.

The shipwreck is located in the sea near the small Fournoi island group, which is southwest of Samos. The 15 amphorae found in the sand near the wreck, along with the wooden skeleton of the ship itself, were in remarkably good condition.

There are nearly 60 shipwrecks from various historical periods located in the region.

Despite the fact that the shipwreck was found in one of the steepest and most inaccessible areas of the islands, it was chosen for further study during the 2021 excavation season due to the fact that it was extremely well-preserved.

Experts believe that the ship’s wooden framing survived throughout the centuries because it was crushed under the rest of the ship and oxygen couldn’t reach it, stalling the process of decay.

Archaeologists found 15 amphorae at the site of a Byzantine shipwreck in Greece. Archaeologists worked throughout last year to clear sand and debris from the wreck in order to provide access for experts to conduct studies of the site.

This allowed archaeologists to discover the 15 amphorae, many of which have been linked to various areas across the surrounding region.

The distinct style of one amphora is linked to the city of Sinope on the Black Sea, and six other amphorae are thought to be from Crimea and Heaclea Pontica on the Black Sea. Some ceramics found at the site are also connected to Phocaea in Asia Minor.

These finds reflect the expansionist trade policy of the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I, who was the ruler during the time the shipwreck occurred.

Greek archaeologist Giorgos Koutsouflakis is heading the underwater excavations at the site, and his team includes 25 divers, among whom are students, archaeologists, photographers, and others.

In total, they have completed nearly 300 dives at the site and spent over 200 hours underwater excavating the shipwreck. Work at the site will continue into future seasons.

There are many ancient shipwrecks across the Greek seas, and archaeologists have found countless historic treasures in these sunken archaeological sites.

Off the Greek island of Alonissos, one such shipwreck has been transformed into an underwater archaeology museum, where divers can explore the shipwreck underwater.

At the 5th century BC wreck of Peristera, divers accompanied by guides can get a close look at the huge pile of amphorae, which extends to the sea bottom for a length of 25 meters (82 feet).

The shipwreck, which is one of the most important in all of classical antiquity, was loaded with thousands of wine amphorae from Mendi, an ancient city of Halkidiki, and Peparithos, today’s Skopelos, areas known in antiquity for their wine.