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The discovery of a powerful female bloodline--uninterrupted for nearly 200 years--in the Iron Age necropolis of Orthi Petra at Eleutherna is illuminating the role of women in the so-called "Dark Ages" of Greece.


(Courtesy of Prof. N. Ch. Stampolidis)

Last summer, the remains of four females, ranging in age from about seven to seventy, were excavated in an eighth-century b.c. monumental funerary building. Its floor was covered with thin strips of gold, once affixed to burial garments, and the women were surrounded by bronze vessels and figurines, and jewelry made of gold, silver, glass, ivory, and semiprecious stones imported from Asia Minor, the Near East, and North Africa. Other artifacts from the tomb--including a possible stone altar, ritual bronze saws and knives, and a rare glass phiale for pouring libations--suggest these women played an important role in Eleutherna's religious life. Dig director Nicholas Stampolidis of the University of Crete believes the oldest one was a high priestess interred with her protégés.

Adelphi University forensic anthropologist Anagnostis Agelarakis has found all four women shared a genetic dental trait. Further research is expected to confirm they were related to a dozen women unearthed nearby last year, each of whom also had the trait. The other women were buried in three connected pithoi (large ceramic jars) containing equally luxurious grave goods, though without ritual implements.

"This time period is erroneously called the Dark Ages," says Agelarakis. "The finds show that these women were aristocratic. Their social standing was superlative. I mean, the phiale alone--it must have been sent from a 'prince' of Mesopotamia! And their matrilineage was not ruptured for two centuries. I don't think it was dark at all."

  • See our online feature, "Dynasty of Priestesses," with photo galleries, on-site videos, and contributions by the excavation director, Nicholas Stampolidis, and forensic anthropologist, Anagnostis Agelarakis.

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