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Shackled Skeletons Might Tell Story of Ancient Athens

ancient greek skeletons
Shackled ancient Greek skeletons were found during construction on the SNFCC. Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture

Archaeologists are studying ancient Greek shackled skeletons found at the ancient cemetery in 2016 in the port city of Faliro in order to understand the rise of the Athens city-state.

Faliro cemetery is one of the largest such sites that has been excavated in Greece, as it contains more than 1,500 ancient Greek skeletons dating back to the 8th-5th centuries BC.

Skeletons of people with their hands shackled behind their backs in mass graves are considered important in understanding the policies of Athens at the time and how the city-state was established.

Excavations at the site revealed ancient Greek shackled skeletons

Excavations of the graveyard in Faliro took off a century ago. However, large-scale work was carried out between 2012 to 2016 by the Department of Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, led by archaeologist Stella Chrysoulaki.

Several ancient Greek skeletons were removed in blocks for future micro-excavation. Digitization of the archaeological field records, photographs, and maps has also been done. However, preservation and analysis has to be carried out 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 buried in large jars. About 5 percent of the remains found are of cremations complete with funeral pyres, and there are a few stone-lined cist graves. One person was found buried in a wooden boat utilized as a coffin.

The shackled skeletons have puzzled researchers as there are very few instances of shackled deaths in the ancient world. These could indicate punishment, slavery, or capital punishment.

Examining and analyzing 1,500 skeletons by bioarchelogists and geoarchaelogists is a time-consuming and costly process and significant funding is required.

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. There are four main objectives described below pertaining to the conservation of the skeletons.

The first objective is to investigate shackled remains and other deviant burials, including the individuals tossed into mass graves and determine whether they are a casualty of the political upheaval that preceded the rise of Athenian democracy.

Secondly, burials of children are analyzed to learn more about infancy and childhood in the ancient world.

Gaining additional knowledge about people’s diet in this ancient city is the third objective, as is determining whether its inhabitants succumbed to diseases easily contracted through sailors and other travelers from distant lands.

The final objective includes going beyond the analysis of elite individuals buried with elaborate grave goods and focusing on more simple burials in order 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.

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