A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The board is now closed.Questions answered by Professor Agelarakis have been posted below.
I was wondering why you suspect typhoid or typhus to be the cause of the Athenian plague?
I and 5 other crew members came down with typhoid in Egypt, and it certainly wasn't a pleasant experience [high fever (104 F/40 C) & dehydration]!
I suspect a contagious and virulent infectious condition with the capacity to cause epidemic pathogenicity possibly through consumption of contaminated food and water and even via an aerosol form. I believe, at the moment, of an opportunistic disease flourishing under social and physical environments of aggregate, characteristic of a phenomenal population overcrowding behind the long walls, never experienced before in Athens.
Although I couldn't even try to describe the drama experienced by the Athenian population under siege, the circumstances of the war must have caused them tremendous psychological pressures with the constancy of fear for their lives, followed by very low moral, exhaustion (exposure, malnutrition/under nutrition, stretching to the limits of their medical substrate, etc.), coupled by the loss of loved ones in the war, and the permanent destruction of their physical properties and land resources by Spartan polemic activities. Such conditions if you add the feelings of helplessness-- left even unprotected from the gods, must have resulted to a sense of incredible misery and I assume lack of hope. These characterizations, as you know, might seriously affect the potential of a population under stress to successfully keep in check any feasible balance between health-illness- disease. Add to that the incredibly poor sanitary (drinking water + sewer) conditions (also include food contamination), and imminent dangers from a chemical war, however crude, conducted by the Spartans.
In light of the above and "thinking laud", referring to a few examples that could possibly describe the pathogenetic causative agent(s), it could be the case that: a) the same pathogen affected host organisms differently (fatal versus non fatal) based on lets say the condition of the host's immune system and/or genetic make up; b) via mutations there could have been two strands (A, and B?) of the same pathogen exercising differential virulence and severity on their hosts (fatal versus non fatal); c) there was not one but a small group of pathogens acting under the circumstances in a synergistic way and with somewhat overlapping disease manifestations/symptoms; and d) the causative agent could be a zoonosis.
Of course, any attempts to diagnose specific disease entities must remain at least for now at the hypothetical level(!), including the case for typhus/typhoid, until it is possible to retrieve more data for testing (i.e. through archaeo-anthropologically recovered micro organismal DNA).
Now, on your personal experience, I should like to remind you that under no circumstances could you compare your personal experience, of the last summer, with that of 2500 years ago in Athens, not only by means of the complexities of the socio-politico-physical contexts but also of available medical support and know how. Remember that you suffered less because of available medical buffer mechanisms, the fact that such conditions were possibly expected (from previous experience, hence, there was a high level of preparation), and that there was available support and help from a selected few colleagues etc.--unlike a case of an epidemic where most of the population is affected relatively simultaneously with all cultural buffer-mechanisms for alleviating pathological stress being crushed. And certainly, I hope, you had not received, from the Oracle at Delphi the message that even the gods would abandon you...
Prof. Anagnostis Agelarakis
Do you know of any recent preliminary/published scientific data
testing for disease in the ancient world?
I would like to refer your inquiry to the American Paleopathology Association. The APA is, as I strongly suggest, the best international source for palaeopathologic and palaeoepidemiologic issues/questions, with a diachronic and global reach. APA presents a very fertile and productive cross-, and interdisciplinary research and scholarly environment, for interested individuals, through its organization, international affiliations and membership, its multiple databases (including bibliographic) and research/procedural protocols, its annual meetings/conferences, and newsletter. Please write to "Paleopathology Association", 18655 Parkside, Detroit, MI, 48221-2208, or web search for: paleopathology association.
Is it considered immoral for archaeologists to dig up the graves of those who have been buried?
I can only comment on some points relative to the particular site I am working on. Given that these anthropological remains were discovered under construction processes in private real estate, thanks to the presence and watchful eyes of monitoring archaeologists of the 3rd District of the Greek Archaeological Service, a course of action had to take place according to the law systems of Greece. Subsequently, construction was halted and methodical archaeological excavations took over, aiming to better identify, salvage, and preserve the architectural, artifactual, anthropological, and palaeoenvironmental records which could be potentially retrieved from the site. I should parenthetically mention, at this juncture, that it would not be possible, in Greece, to capriciously deny legal permits to develop private property, based on suspicions of underlying archaeological finds, or circumstantial evidence, but unless, as in this case, serious archaeological discoveries could be substantiated through systematic excavations.
Consequently, once such a singular discovery was made--based on Greek tax payers money and as administered under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture--incredible responsibilities were generated not only to the Greek public and to its past and future generations, but to humanity at large. And there are protocols to be followed as to the procedures and processes for bringing to completion such endeavors.
Taking you a step further, please consider that these men, the bones of which I have the incredible honor of respectfully studying, fell in war freely, defending their ideals, aspirations, and democratic heritage of their city, Athens. They were younger and older, poorer and richer with families, loved ones, and dreams for life, but they fell. And yet, even if they offered their life courageously, they must had hoped that they could have returned safe home to see their loved ones, once more...
Hence, what a tremendous task I should have in front of me, to try to derive deductive assessments from studying the heroes' bones and telling of their lives through science, looking for so many answers, choosing not to forget, and in that sense of the possibility--metaphorically speaking, of "yelling" a last good buy, on their behalf, to the rest of us.
I wondered whether the cavalrymen who were drafted from a class of citizents rich enough to own a horse, were burried along with their servants who followed them to battle. The last ones suffered great casualties in case of defeat. These were most often slaves but we know from the ancient sources that they were praised for the braveheartedness they showed in difficult instances and sometimes they were even granted their freedom as reward.
I don't know if we have any evidence concerning the way they were treated when they died in battle. It is unlikely that they received an equal place next to their master and analogous honours, but do you think it is possible that the anthropological study of the material could differentiate them as a separate class ( ex on the base of dietary habits or musculature)?
Thinking out loud, if I may, for the purpose of this argument, Thucydides' written records, describing the end of the first year's (of the Peloponnesian war) funerary rights and habits in Athens, clearly indicate interment of Athenian warriors (considered as heroes by the Athenians), by tribe (of the 10 tribes), and of the symbolic 11th empty coffin for the ones the bodies of which had not been retrieved for any number of reasons.
Under the specific circumstances (Athens during the Peloponnesian war), I do not know where (spatial location) and under what burial rituals (as far as status) servant warriors, as you describe, would have been interred, although I would assume that they should have also been cremated.
Forensic anthropology and anthropological archaeology, as well as palaeopathology and archaeometry would offer some of the best avenues for seeking to retrieve such data /evidence. Nevertheless, there are multiple inherent problems in doing so considering that the cremated osseous record presents a very complex environment, often characteristic of certain limitations, for conducting extensive, in depth, skeletal biology, anthropological forensic, and palaeopathologic analyses, when and if lets say compared with dry bones, or even better with mummified remains.
Hence, with an optimistic view, as always, for deriving deductive assessments to our questions and hypotheses (often competing explanatory ones) I shall hope for a continuum of immersion into the specific attributes of preservation of this collection, a constant reassessment and testing of our methodological background and approaches, the fine-tuning of techniques and applications we use.
Did the Ancient Greeks use spears, javelins, or battle axes?
Please let me share with you what I know so far on this subject, since I am not an expert in ancient military weapons. The Greeks, among other weapons (such as bow and arrow), military tools and machines which they were implicating in war, were using most often for a body to body combat swords and spears and possibly less often axes, and of course they were protecting their bodies by using a "panoply" of defensive tools and clothing.
What is going to happen to the bones once their study is finished?
Please consider that my responsibility is the study of the human remains, which is cross-disciplinary and with an estimated duration of several years. Once this process is completed, and the bones return under my direct supervision to Athens, Greece, it will then be up to the appropriate Greek governmental authorities and agencies to address all subsequent issues concerning the human bones.
How did you get interested in this type of science? How do you think the soldiers died during the war (what kind of wounds were inflicted)?
I was fascinated by the Greek mythology stories my maternal grandma Zoë was narrating and some times reading to me when I was four years old--and possibly younger. Then, it was my teachers who taught me so much in School, and visits to Museums and archaeological sites all over Greece that were so inspiring. Later, I studied Classical Archaeology at the University, while the summers I was working in archaeological excavations and Museum labs. But it wasn't until I found my two Mentors (Drs. Evy, and Ove Persson, at the University of Lund, in Sweden) that I was hooked to Human Osteology and Paleopathology.
I assume that a great number of the soldiers (hoplites) died primarily by fatal spear wounds (which penetrated their shields and body armor or by blows directed toward the face, arms and hands, lower abdomen and thighs), once after facing each other, in formation, from a short distance, singing their respective war song started running toward each other, in phalanx formation, until they crashed and then pushed into to each others bodies. Once the spear heads and part of the spear shafts had broken, they used part of the remaining wooden shafts which were equipped with an equally functional point located at their base. Once spears were used and lost they were using their swords, as well as their shields (or the hoplon--from which they received their name=hoplites). We know that in desperate situations they were using their bodies, still protected by a breast-plate, their helmets, etc., considering that the battle was done face to face. We also know that many were wounded, and that many of them died later (a day to several weeks later) due to trauma and infections that could not be managed. Fortunately, many were saved by the medical practitioners. Horsemen, archers and javelin throwers had different experiences.
How can you identify the bones when you have only fragments?
Although as you correctly point out, bones are fragmented, it is still possible to identify and retrieve, from most of them, important information through Forensic Anthropology. The first stage of identification starts through evaluations of preserved anatomical features and characteristics. Some fragments can be identified immediately, and some are non-identifiable because: a) they are very-very small; b) they represent a segment of smaller bone that did not have, originally, any diagnostic anatomical features; and c) bone fragments are badly preserved. And yet, we may know what bone may be represented (i.e. the upper arm bone), but still not be able to say if it is of the right or the left side. However, the greatest number of bones have something to reveal, and therefore, if there are any preserved characteristics whatsoever, we try to identify these fragments to the greatest level of precision possible. Hence, trying to identify such bone fragments may take considerable time (sometimes we need to examine them again and again over the course of several hours to a few days).
What kind of machines, tools, technology do you use to identify the bones?
We use a variety of tools and techniques for bone identification. There is a procedural protocol, however, which must be followed under all circumstances, from the beginning to the end of the project(s), for the things that must be done and the things that must be avoided. First of all you must have available appropriate laboratory spaces, exclusively allocated for such a long term project, that comply to the highest existing guidelines for safety (for the collections and the people that work there), avoidance of contamination, security and restricted access to the collections--except of the immediate personnel, good means of communication, consideration of all ergonomics, internal climate control (temperature / humidity / lighting). It is basic that you have vacuum hoods and tools for cleaning and consolidating bone fragments--if needed, prepared comparative human skeletal structures, reference books and compendia, and the relative supportive substructure that is required for the functions of a Forensic Anthropology lab. Let me give you some examples of low technology materials / tools which we use. These include but are not limited to small brushes and dental tools, acid free paper, plastics, specific repository trays and cabinets, electricity, gas, and compressed air outlets, distilled water supply and sinks, movable lights, etc. Let me also give you some basic examples of some other tools / techniques we use. Computers and scanners, digital cameras, low magnification portable optics (sometimes aided by different spectra of lighting), stereo-microscopes (some projecting to larger monitors), scanning electron microscopy, x-rays, thin sectioning tools, cut scans, trace element analyses, cellular and molecular level studies (if possible), etc.
But one of the most important "tools" we use is our brain for visually absorbing and hopefully identifying the anatomy / pathology / trauma / genetic traits / etc., marking bone fragments. Further, as always, we need a good team of colleagues that are experts in specific areas and can help as we advance.
How many times did you visit the site?
I visited the area where the site is located many-many times before it was uncovered. Ever since, I must have been in the region about 5 times.
Please remember that the larger area of the site is currently located under a very developed, urban, segment of Athens, Greece.
Can you determine the average weight, height, and age of the soldiers? At what age did people during that time die?
Forensic Anthropology allows one to coax out of the human skeletal record a great deal of information, and weight, height, and age are included. However, when working with cremated bone fragments any issues that are straight forward otherwise, are becoming, immediately, more complex. I will try to decipher as much as possible, and certainly what you describe could be determined.
During the Classical period in Greece (5th c. B.C.) life expectancy could reach for many people today's averages. But it all depended on the circumstances. For example the epidemic that stroke the Athenians, after the first year of the Peloponnesian war, removed a great number of people abruptly shortening their expected longevity.
Do the bones indicate any diseases the soldiers may have had during their lifetime? Does testing indicate any familial relationships (brother, son...) among the dead?
A. If bone structures and their components are adequately preserved, then it is usual that we identify the changes brought about by disease (from genetic and congenital to acquired and degenerative), physiological stress (issues of occupational habits and/or labor diversity between females versus males), and trauma, severe enough, and/or long lasting to affect their teeth and bones. In cremations things are more complex, as usual, but certainly not overwhelming.
DNA probing can attest to blood relations. In the case of the Athenian soldiers it is well known that they were fighting arranged by tribe. Further, the dead were also buried by tribe. Also consider that in the Athenian tribe arrangements of the phalanx formation, father and son, brothers, uncle and nephew, and cousins were fighting next to each other in order to enhance morale, for drawing courage and respect from each other, and for minimizing fear and agony by the presence of loved, familiar, faces, and for reducing the prospect of "second thoughts" while marching toward the enemy.