Shackled Skeletons Unearthed in Greece Could Be Remains of Slaughtered Rebels
Phaleron is a small town just four miles south of Athens that most visitors are unaware of. In addition to being a port of Athens in classical times, Phaleron has one of the largest cemeteries ever excavated in Greece, with over 1,500 skeletons. Phaleron, which dates from the 8th to 5th centuries BC, is critical for our understanding of the growth of the Greek city-state. And, in particular, for comprehending the associated brutality and subjugation.
People were forced face-down into a pit with their hands shackled behind their backs in two mass burials at Phaleron. An international team of archaeologists is cleaning, documenting, and examining the Phaleron skeletons to learn more about these deviant burials and their relationship to the Greek state formation.
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 Phaleron 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.
An 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.
There is significant variation in how people were buried at Phaleron. Most were interred in simple pit graves, but nearly one-third are infants and children in large jars, about 5% are cremations complete with funeral pyres, and there are a few stone-lined cist graves. One individual was even buried in a wooden boat used as a coffin – the fact that this lasted nearly three millennia shows that preservation at the site is remarkably good.
The shackled skeletons, easily the most compelling remains from Phaleron, have received researchers’ attention for decades, as they are among the very few instances of shackled deaths in the ancient world and could indicate punishment, slavery, or a death sentence. But the study of these “captives” has to take place within the context of the entire cemetery, and analyzing 1,500 skeletons is a massive task.
Taking the lead on the Phaleron 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. Their immediate goal for the skeletons showcases the crucial link between the excavation of human skeletons and analysis: curation.
Before the 1,500 skeletons can be made available for researchers to study, each set of remains needs to be cleaned, the bones inventoried, their age-at-death and sex estimated, and basic pathologies recorded. Setting up a database of this magnitude takes time and effort, as does correlating the skeletons with their archaeological context, and it takes significant funding too. That’s where the bottleneck is at the moment. Buikstra has a grant for approximately half the funds for curation of the skeletons but needs a match for the project to move forward.
In the long-term, though, Buikstra is sure that the Phaleron skeletons will give us a window into a critical time in ancient Greek history, just before the rise of the city-state. The research team has four main objectives following the conservation of the skeletons:
1) To thoroughly investigate the shackled and other deviant burials, including the individuals tossed into mass graves. Are they a casualty of the political upheaval that preceded the rise of Athenian democracy?
2) To study the burials of children, made primarily in pots, to learn more about infancy and childhood in the ancient world. Since children don’t often make it into the historical record, studying their skeletons helps reveal their brief lives.
3) To learn more about people’s diet at this ancient port city, and to find out if its inhabitants succumbed to diseases easily passed through sailors and other travellers 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.
Buikstra and her team plan to make the project accessible through a website sponsored by the Ephoreia of Piraeus, Western Attica, and the Islands, Ministry of Culture, Greece, and the ASCSA. This website will 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.
Making the database available to researchers around the world is also part of Buikstra’s plan. 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 Phaleron.