Anagnostis Agelarakis (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
A devoted member of the Eleutherna team, Anagnostis Agelarakis combines the rare qualities of a rigorous and brilliant hardcore scientist and a compassionate, wide-eyed admirer of the ancient world with a deep love and respect for its inhabitants. At excavation director Nicholas Stampolidis's side for nearly two decades, Agelarakis has been instrumental in analyzing the individuals laid to rest at Orthi Petra. Since 2007, startling new information about the women buried at Orthi Petra has started to come to light (see "Makings of a Matriline"). Agelarakis graciously took the time for an exclusive interview, in which he reflects, as a team representative in New York, on the larger significance of the most recent seasons' anthropological discoveries.
The team unearthed three pithos (large ceramic jar) burials in 2007/2008, which contained the remains of wealthy and important women dating from the late ninth to the early seventh century B.C. Shown here is the seventh-century B.C. pithos (the other two already removed), in situ in the rock-lined enclosure, or dromos, built to house them. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
During the 2008 and 2009 seasons, the team discovered an elaborate, eighth-century B.C. rock-cut tomb with the remains of an important high priestess and her three female protégés, all of whom were related. Further research is expected to confirm that they were also related to the women buried in the pithoi. (Photo © Prof. N. Ch. Stampolidis)
How does the discovery of the women in the pithoi and the "dynasty of priestesses" change our view of women in ancient Greece?
I think it helps to boost the neoterismos and anagenesis, as we say in Greek, of a new generation of thinkers that are not locked into the more conservative, old-rooted, rigid concept that had women being described as oppressed, with limited "value" to the functions of society and public life, as the "furniture" of the house, who were married away and that was it. That is not the case here. It's not the case at all. The women decided where they were placed to rest. They excluded any males to be buried with them. Not to mean that they disliked them or anything like that. But this is very important. It reflects volumes of the significance of non-dependency on male dominated spatial allocation or contextual association. It reflects on significant female values and norms, shared by the larger socio-cultural system. It was a great understanding, and it was understood by all and respected as such. Females were the backbone of the society. Even in that linear continuum of pithoi, I see a spine. I see a center beam that is like the stern and the stem of a vessel. It's a continuous, unbroken line. And it was not ruptured over the course of three centuries!
So it doesn't sound like these spectacular finds really surprised you very much...
In a humble way I will say no, as much as I was really ecstatic. The women--they had to be somewhere! And that they had such high standing, it didn't surprise me at all. It may be that history is presented, in so many ways, as andro-centric [male-centric]--long lines of rulers, kings, pharaohs, emperors, despots, generals, heroes, and so on. But women were very important as well.
And the priestesses?
Look at the pantheon of the Greeks. Just consider Athena, goddesses of power, wisdom, beauty, and rigor, everything. And before her you have a female that saves the Greek pantheon--Rhea--who, through calculation and cunning, brings out a new era, a new time. And who advises her to do that? Gaia, another female, a supreme protogenes female of fertility, of power, of rejuvenation, of stability. I'm not diminishing the role of men. I'm just saying that it's time that we really see what is available to us and the potential of more integrated and interdisciplinary thinking. What was important was that we found the women right there, just a few meters away from A1K1, where in the 1990s we excavated the cremated remains of more than 100 aristocratic male warriors. These women were not in another, let's say "inferior" place, spatially speaking, of less importance and monumentality.
Can you say if the men from A1K1 were just as closely related?
Forensically, a direct lineage can't be assessed with the males from A1K1 because they were cremated. The funerary pyres reached temperatures from 700 degrees Celsius all the way up to 900 degrees. They were cremated to a very high degree of thermal alteration that with our current technologies, we can't retrieve adequate collagenous components that contain, usually, the best probabilities for DNA recovery. And teeth, unfortunately, don't preserve well for the same reasons. The enamel and underlying dentin burst and explode during pyre exposure, completely damaging the anatomic domain of the pulp of cavity.
That's amazing. It's hard to believe any remains would survive that...
This is the approximate temperature where if you have a wooden-frame home--God forbid it will burn--and the vast majority of materials either incinerate or melt in it, that's about the temperature that they had in their pyres as they also added fuels to the pyres. I mean, in the Iliad, when Patroklos is to be cremated, who's going to harvest and bring back the specific kind of wood, the main source of pyre fuel? The Cretans. Because it is said that they were the ones who knew how to do this in an expert way. So the fuel was obviously very rich in resins and then they added, most probably, other ingredients as offerings and libations, also the body's tissues are obviously further fuel, and so the pyre reaches very high temperatures.
Team member Antonis Kotsonas, the site's pottery expert, stands in front of A1K1, a tomb excavated in the 1990s that housed the cremated remains of some 141 aristocratic individuals, the vast majority of whom were fallen male warriors. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
The priestesses' tomb (entrance at left) is just a few meters away from A1K1 (entrance at right, partly covered by stones), which shows that the women buried here were just as highly regarded as Eleutherna's great male war heroes. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
A modern reconstruction of the Homeric funerary pyre unearthed at Orthi Petra in the 1990s will soon be installed at the site so visitors can understand the entire funerary complex. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
What happens to the remains?
The bone materials fragment, cleave up, warp, and change their anatomic morphology. Then they need to be picked up, washed, and placed in the urn. The remains have gone through several layers of human handling since the time of the ancients. And then after that, a number of taphonomic impacts affect the bones. So you don't have everything skeleto-anatomically speaking preserved and represented because some materials are consumed by the pyre, may be left behind in the pyre bed. They may even become embedded into the sediment of the pyre floor that bakes and becomes, pending on the nature and the geological attributes of the sediment, hard like ceramic.
So how much do you really know about the individuals from A1K1?
In addition to a vast domain of forensic anthropologic and paleopathologic data retrieved, we were able to establish components of the demographic profile such as biological sex and age-subgroup categories. The vast majority of males involved were young adults, the overwhelming majority of whom were skeleto-muscularly very robustly built. That isn't, however, just circumstantial evidence when you discover specific patterns of skeletal morphology that are characteristic for the overwhelming majority of males involved. Although we can't prove as of yet with specific genetic archaeometric methods that they were related. There were, in some cases, two, three, and, more rarely, four cremated males placed in the same funerary urn. And all of them were tacked next to each other and resting on their ancestors in the monumental time capsule of A1K1. That, alone, reveals in our interpretations of data from the archaeo-anthropological records that they were related to each other--if not necessarily by blood all the time, or even most of the time, then by social standing ante or post mortem; by valor, military prowess or honor, or dedication to Eleutherna's future. And most certainly related by a common fate, and in their eyes and minds to a common proud compatriot future in Hades. So, a blood relation in this case may not be the only string that ties in those men of Eleutherna.
In fact, if I may, the blood relation alone may be so overpowered by issues such as a common cause, the camaraderie, the interdependability and reliability and duty sensed for each other in life and in death. These are more meaningful and consequential reasons for a better "relative" to me and possibly to many ancient and modern soldiers that have seen or may see the real face of Ares. Further, possibly more importantly, let us not omit to mention that these Eleuthernian heroes represent, as members of a distinct community, a "par excellence" brotherhood of ancestors on top of which the legacy and record of Eleutherna as a polis proudly rested diachronically.
Why do you think the priestesses in the eighth-century tomb were not cremated?
Let me explain my views as to why a cremation is, in essence, something that may be done out of necessity. The warriors may have died an honorable death in battle, miles and miles away from home. It would take days, possibly several weeks, even months for the rest of the comrades to come back from the war front. And what would happen to the dead during that time? So, they needed to be mourned and cremated there, in close proximity to the battlefield, as a comrade, a brother, a loved friend. Then their ashes had to be returned home safely. It's a lonely way to go for males, but also a very proper and functional way, I say. You return the dead home, you repatriate them. This is an important component, I believe, of the significance of this ancient Greek burial custom.
On the other hand, it is also not only possible but rather proper that a male warrior who passed on in his native land because of, let's say, a wound or old age would also be cremated, to pay respect and to honor his legacy and to help him join the others at the other side the same way they went. But females, they have a warmer, more familiar way. They have another kind of mighty and enduring network. They want to be together. Their physical bodies are buried together, so they're also together for sure in the afterlife. The funerary customs we observe at Orthi Petra and elsewhere aren't just a distinction of cultural norms arranged according to gender diversity. Their specific implementation also has roots in obligatory conditions directed or imposed by the circumstances of death.
Along with elaborate cremations and pithos burials of wealthy individuals, the team has unearthed simple inhumations of the poor. To the left of the pithos is the skeleton of a dog that accompanied its master to the afterlife (also, see below).
The remains of this dog (right) were found alongside a child's burial, which is rich in mythological significance. Stampolidis and Agelarakis are reminded of the Mesopotamian goddess Gula, whose dog is symbolically linked with the underworld, and the Greek god Aesclepius, whose dog has healing power for the living. (Photos by Eti Bonn-Muller)
Basically, since the women's bodies didn't need to be transported over long distances, they were buried differently?
Exactly. Also, today, we only see aspects of reflections that are void of the total imagery and experience as it was seen and felt in antiquity. These women wanted to go to the underworld dressed as they were. Women think differently than men. Jewelry, attire, and so on is something that is worn on the body and can be seen. It makes a specific sound as you walk. It feels in such a way, and it relates who you are. And for eternity, they will be wearing these kinds of dresses. This tomb must have looked much different in antiquity than it looks today, everything unbroken, tucked in, clothing all over, with gold pieces on it. As the team excavated, anywhere a trowel, dental tool, or brush even scratched, there was a piece of gold, and another one, and another. There was splendor for eternity in the funerary ritual. And, most importantly, these women left their last breath in Eleutherna. All the appropriate burial customs and rights of passage to the other side could be implemented as appropriately mandated by the cultural tradition.
Why do you think pithos jars, in particular, were used for the burial of the other women at Orthi Petra?
One of the many roles of women was to manage the economy of the house, its property, wealth, textiles, wine, olives, olive oil, animals, and animal products. They were the ones who would have evaluated all of these things. Something like a pithos isn't foreign to what they were opening, touching, looking into throughout their lifetimes. It's not as "cold" as a rock bed, in that way. There's another warmth to that kind of material. It simulates the security of a shelter at the transitional juncture of burial. It also offers more practical protection from the circumstances of the soil flora and fauna, seasonal waters, and so on.
What's the next step in your research?
We, as a team, are continuing our research of the archaeological, anthropological, and paleoenvironmental records. As far as my responsibilities in the anthropological domain, it is prudent to continue with macroscopic, microscopic, and archaeometric processes to better understand the matriline, to find out if these women have the DNA bands that may show mother, daughter, daughter relations. Or, it could be the case, for example, that you have two sisters, and that only one of them had a female offspring who was interred. It would be rather impossible to know everything about the specific demographic dynamics of the particular group. We will know some facets, only, as we are limited by what we inherit through the archaeological and anthropological records at this particular point in time. Yet, we already know that it's a matriline, and as of now it seems that it may be uninterrupted. And, as you may imagine, some of the most exciting finds happen in the last days of one's field participation, even though the team as a whole continues its efforts and unpretentious commitment to project goals throughout the year in some form or capacity.
What happened, exactly, in the last few days of the 2009 season?
It was possible to identify the fourth female. Stampolidis and I first thought there were two. Then, as the excavation advanced, we discovered a maximum of three. But now we know there are four. And ARCHAEOLOGY magazine is the first one to officially say it on our behalf--that there are, indeed, four.
You must have been busy...
Of course. We also needed to prepare and to secure all of our hard-copy field and lab notes, electronic records, and that the larger archive of documentation was in order. We were having discussions and communications with our colleagues and student assistants, to whom I am indebted. We repacked our tools, books, forms, and everything else necessary for the field before the trip home from Crete. And once we got back, we started all over again with the second level of lab analyses. As new questions arose, we drew new plans, shared new communications with students and colleagues, and began already to anticipate the events that might unfold during the next field season. So, it's constant. It doesn't give you room to breathe. But that offers a glimpse of how one's energy and intellectual stimulation are constantly charged.
It must have been hard for you to leave!
As always, it was very hard. I was needed until the last moment. I tried to change my ticket and there was nothing because it was around the 15th of August, which is a holiday in Greece, where the passing of Panagia, the All Holy Virgin Mary, is commemorated. It's the grandest yearly religious festivity in the Aegean. She's a Mother Goddess, in all aspects of its meaning. How different, would an ancient Greek observer ask, is that from praising since early Greek cosmogony mother goddesses Gaia, Rhea, Demeter?
Fragile human remains and exposed excavation trenches are treated with the utmost care at Eleutherna, and sheltered by a sleek, modern roof. To the right are the remains of a later Hellenistic city. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
Agelarakis studies the day's finds with Adelphi University students in the tranquil on-site field lab. (Photo © Anagnostis Agelarakis)
We really are all connected...
We have something really spectacular at Orthi Petra, that we don't know the full cadre of things yet because it shouldn't come that easily. We need to achieve it by earning it. We need to do a lot more work. What we have now are, basically, just some of our observations and careful assessments so far.
What do you think makes this excavation so successful?
At Orthi Petra, there is a good "chemistry" between the team members. We share a vision. Each one of us operates as an integral member of a cohesive unit. We respect and feel responsibility for each other; for the site and its complex deposits and superimposed stratigraphy; for the implementation of well-thought-out and tried method and theory, from the implementation of basic to advanced archaeo-anthropological techniques; and the respect for nature, the physical environment, the local community, and the public. It's a chain. We need more people like this, more scholars like this. And it is the responsibility of us more senior members, such as Professor Stampolidis and me, to make it happen through kind advice, virtue, patience and constant mentoring.
How does it feel for you to be part of the team that's making this discovery?
It was almost a self-understood, immediate concept that it would happen sooner or later, that the site of the ancients would reveal more things about them. The commitment is such...it's done in a way that is not just a job that you do...this is in the memory of the ancient people of Eleutherna. We need to tell their story. They are many generations past, but they will talk through us, through our understandings in some way, as long as we have the ability to see those details, to transcribe them into words for the public, and finally realize that we are not as different from each other even if we may belong, supposedly on the surface, to strikingly different cultures.
What we find here is of value in Turkey and in Syria and in Afghanistan, wherever, and vice versa--findings from other sites have significance to us, as students of the human condition. Adelphi University's motto says, "the truth shall make us free." And I think that's very important to follow. So this is part of that, and part of that is us. But obviously, I also feel very excited and very privileged, and humbled at the same time because the responsibility and the expectations are great to this kind of thing. As far as the team, everybody contributes according to his or her responsibilities and allocated tasks. Professor Stampolidis is the psyche and the vision of the endeavor. Our students are exemplary scholars and younger colleagues. They follow our academic lead and example. Orthi Petra is a lifelong project for many of us. It's a place where some of us can't avoid to be mentored both by the living and by the symbolism and actions of the ancients.
Eti Bonn-Muller is the AIA online senior editor.