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The Bones "Fallen Heroes"
February 16, 2000

In late December 1998, Anagnostis Agelarakis, who has worked in Greece since 1978 on anthropological archaeology and has considerable experience with cremations, was notified by Greek authorities that he had been chosen to study the remains. He went to Greece the following summer to supervise the packing of the bones, which were wrapped in acid-free paper and placed in plastic bags according to excavation unit. Cushioned with styrofoam, the bags were placed in a custom-made fire-retardant packing crate that was flown to New York under his care.

Carefully packed, heavily cushioned bags containing the bones were identified with waterproof ink on tyvek labels. © ARCHAEOLOGY/Joshua Nefsky

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Most of the bones came from three of the polyandreia. The remains are not mere ashes but recognizable pieces of arm and leg bones; jaw, skull, vertebra, and pelvis fragments; and whole ankle and wrist bones. The polyandreia had been looted in antiquity, further fragmenting the bones and displacing them from their original positions. A quick look at the bones from ten excavation units, randomly chosen from all four polyandreia, revealed that all diagnostic bones were from males.

Preliminary examination of the bones from one excavation unit. © ARCHAEOLOGY/Joshua Nefsky

That the bodies were cremated poses great difficulties for forensic analysis. The chalky, white appearance of the bones indicates they were exposed to temperatures of around 800 degrees Celsius. At such temperatures bones warp and shrink up to one-third, enamel layers on teeth explode, and the organic component of the bone, including DNA, is destroyed. If there is an upside to this, it is that any pathogens from the plague that swept through Athens--Agelarakis suspects it was typhus or typhoid--would have been destroyed as well.

Agelarakis measures the thickness of cortical bone on a mid-shaft tibia fragment. © ARCHAEOLOGY/Joshua Nefsky

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Nonetheless, it should be possible to gather significant information from the bones about the people buried in the polyandreia: the number of individuals present, age range and sex (from morphology and metrical analysis), body structure and physique, health (as reflected in pathologies; trauma; and general skeletal biology, for example growth checks, known as Harris lines, on long bones), and diet (through trace-chemical analysis). Indications of occupational activities, such as bony modification of the calcaneus (heel bone) that might reflect constant mounting and dismounting of horses, will be of particular importance in identifying the remains. Cross-checking the remains from each polyandreion may reveal any differences, or uniformity, in such characteristics. Agelarakis, now on leave from his teaching duties, hopes to complete an initial examination by the end of this spring.

Agelarakis uses a probe to indicate tooth sockets on a maxilla fragment. © ARCHAEOLOGY/Joshua Nefsky

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