Eighty skeletons found shackled in a mass grave near Athens last year could be the remains of Cylon’s followers. The Athenian nobleman was the first recorded winner of the Olympic Games, but he went down in history for attempting to take over the city by force and become its only leader, some 2,600 years ago.
The skeletal remains were discovered in the Falyron Delta Necropolis – a large cemetery dating back to the 8th to 5th century BCE that was unearthed over a century ago during the construction of an opera house and a library south of Athens.
The wrists of the 80 individuals had been clamped by iron shackles. They were put in the mass grave but arranged in an orderly manner, which suggests they were not slaves.
They appear to have been the victims of a bloody execution. Archaeologists determined that they had died from blows to the head sometime between 675 and 650 BCE, as dated by the analyses of pottery fragments recovered from the grave. This was a time of great social unrest in Ancient Greece.
Discovering so many ancient skeletons in one place is rare, so the researchers were intrigued and wanted to find out who these individuals had been and why they were killed. Ever since the skeletons were unearthed, the most popular hypothesis discussed by archaeologists has been that these individuals were part of Cylon’s army that tried to take over the city.
What is certain is that the coup attempt failed. Cylon was defeated but managed to escape and hide in a temple. The men who fought for him were not so lucky, and just like the individuals in the mass grave, they were executed.
Archaeologists have started using innovative scientific techniques worthy of a CSI episode to learn more about what happened and to see if they can get clues to confirm this theory.
The tests conducted on the skeletons include DNA profiling as well as radiographic and isotopic analyses to shed light on these people’s age, geographic origin and social status. The archaeologists might also get an idea of whether these men were related and whether they were in good health overall.
All this information could help confirm whether these men were likely to have been Cylon’s supporters. Preliminary results back up the idea that these were Cylon’s men, as they appear to have been young and healthy when they died, as would be expected of fighters in an army. However, more investigations will be needed before the full picture can emerge – the DNA analyses in particular are awaited with impatience to establish the relationships between these people who were executed together in such a violent manner.
The discovery was made in the basement of a Monoprix supermarket located on Rue Sebastopol. The archaeologists have found eight separate mass grave so far. Seven of them have between five and twenty individuals, buried two to five deep. The eighth grave has at least 150 dead. They were deposited carefully and show a deposit method very organized: at least two rows of individuals are filed “head to tail”, a third row seeming to grow beyond the limits of the excavation. The bodies are buried five to six deep.
“We expected it to have a few bones to the extent that it had been a cemetery but not find mass graves,” store manager Pascal Roy told Agence France Presse.
This very large mass grave appears to correspond to a mortality crisis whose cause is currently unknown. Adults (women and men of all ages) and children are represented. The skeletal remains do not show damage to immediately identify the cause of the mass death. Paris was struck by the Black Death in the 14th century, and suffered other plagues in following centuries.
“What is surprising is that the bodies were not thrown into the graves but placed there with care. The individuals – men, women and children – were placed head to toe no doubt to save space,” said archaeologist Isabelle Abadie, who is leading the dig.
The site was once home to l’hôpital de la Trinité, which was built in 1202. Located just outside the medieval walls of Paris, the hospital provided care for pilgrims and the poor. By the 16th century the site had become an orphanage and its buildings were torn down in 1817.
France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) plan to carry out extensive research on the site. They note that many aspects of funeral practices associated with medieval and early modern hospitals remain unknown in France, with less than a dozen sites in the country have been the subject of archaeological studies. They will soon carry out DNA testing in order to learn more about the people who were buried here.
When archaeologists discovered thousands of medieval skeletons in a mass burial pit in east London in the 1990s, they assumed they were 14th-century victims of the Black Death or the Great Famine of 1315-17. Now they have been astonished by a more explosive explanation – a cataclysmic volcano that had erupted a century earlier, thousands of miles away in the tropics, and wrought havoc on medieval Britons.
Scientific evidence – including radiocarbon dating of the bones and geological data from across the globe – shows for the first time that mass fatalities in the 13th century were caused by one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the past 10,000 years.
Such was the size of the eruption that its sulphurous gases would have released a stratospheric aerosol veil or dry fog that blocked out sunlight, altered atmospheric circulation patterns and cooled the Earth’s surface. It caused crops to wither, bringing famine, pestilence and death.
The Icelandic volcano of 2010, which spewed out ash which disrupted flights for a few days, was miniscule in comparison.
Mass deaths required capacious burial pits, as recorded in contemporary accounts. In 1258, a monk reported: “The north wind prevailed for several months… scarcely a small rare flower or shooting germ appeared, whence the hope of harvest was uncertain… Innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were found lying all about swollen from want… Nor did those who had homes dare to harbour the sick and dying, for fear of infection… The pestilence was immense – insufferable; it attacked the poor particularly. In London alone 15,000 of the poor perished; in England and elsewhere thousands died.”
There does not seem to have been any explanation at the time; it was probably assumed to be a punishment from God. London’s population at the time was around 50,000, so the loss of 15,000 would have radically changed the city.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the volcano’s exact location has yet to be established. Mexico, Ecuador and Indonesia are the most likely areas, according to volcanologists, who found evidence in ice cores from the northern hemisphere and Antarctic and within a thick layer of ash from Lake Malawi sediments. The ice core sulphate concentration shows that it was up to eight times higher than Indonesia’s Krakatoa eruption of 1883, one of the most catastrophic in history.
Some 10,500 medieval skeletons were found at Spitalfields market, the site of the Augustinian priory and hospital of St Mary Spital, and the remains suggest there may have been as many as 18,000. The excavation between 1991 and 2007 by the Museum of London Archaeology (Mola) was the largest ever archaeological investigation in the capital. It was a member of that team, osteologist Don Walker, who discovered the link with a volcano. The findings will be revealed in Mola’s report, to be published on Monday.
“That was a eureka moment,” he told the Observer. “These people living in medieval London would have had no idea that this global event – one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the Holocene, which is the last 10,000 years, and certainly the largest of the last millennium – was causing the problems.”
He now believes that mass burials in medieval pits across Britain and Europe might also have been caused by the same disaster.
When the skeletons were found, he said: “People immediately thought Black Death, or battle graves, but there wasn’t enough evidence of injuries.” Radiocarbon dating revealed dates around 1250. “So we thought ‘what could it be’?”
Delving into documentary evidence he found references in 1257-58 to “heavy rains” and “a failure of the crops; …a famine ensued… many thousand persons perished”. Specific diseases of malnutrition – scurvy and rickets – were also found among some skeletons, although malnutrition would not have been the sole cause of death during famine. Many would have suffered hunger-induced diseases, such as dysentery, and diseases which are more a product of social disruption caused by famine, such as typhoid fever.
In exploring the cause of such devastation, he discovered that volcanologists had been trying to locate the site of this massive volcano. He said: “What is new is linking the cause of the deaths of so many thousands to this volcano. No-one has linked it to archaeological evidence – and specifically to these mass burial pits. Documentary evidence is not necessarily reliable, whereas now we’ve got physical evidence.”
Volcanologist Bill McGuire, author of Waking the Giant, on how climate triggers earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes, said: “Volcanoes have a very long reach because they can impact climate…They don’t just affect people nearby.”
He cited an Icelandic eruption in 1783 which produced a sulphurous cloud that hung over Europe for nearly a year, affecting air quality and causing thousands of deaths.
The 13th-century eruption was far bigger, he said. “This was the biggest eruption in historic times. It may have brought the temperatures down by 4°c, a huge amount. Because it was somewhere in the tropics it meant that the winds of both hemispheres were able to carry these gases right across the planet. If you have a volcanic eruption at high latitudes, then the gases will stay in the northern hemisphere. But if you have an equatorial or tropical eruption that’s big enough, then the sulphur gases can spread into both hemispheres and really encircle the whole planet in a sulphurous veil.”
McGuire is Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. Asked whether another such volcanic eruption is due, he said: “It’s been pretty quiet for a while. I’m looking forward to something big.” Only a volcanologist would take that view.
A mass grave found in Dorset contains the bodies of an elite ‘hit squad’ of invading Viking warriors, experts claim.
All decapitated and buried alongside their severed heads, the 54 skeletons were discovered in 2009 by workmen digging a road.
Archaeologists dated their bones to around the year 1,000 but had few other clues as to the identities of the men who met such a sticky end.
Now a researcher at Cambridge University claims to have pieced the story together in a documentary to be screened tonight.
Dr Britt Baillie’s research suggests they were a fearsome brotherhood of killers who had a strict military code – never to show fear, and never to flee in the face of an enemy unless totally outnumbered.
They either were, or modelled themselves on, the Jomsvikings – a hit squad founded by Harald Bluetooth, the Norse king who died around 970 who masterminded a stream of vicious raids on the south coast of England.
Named after their stronghold at Jomsborg on the Baltic coast, their history is shrouded in myth but at a time the Vikings were feared across Europe, they were regarded as the most terrifying of all.
But on this occasion, the men, barely into their twenties, were ambushed by the local Anglo-Saxon villagers.
Stripped and humiliated, they were rounded up and axes and swords brought down on their necks, before their remains were tossed into a ditch.
Dr Baillie believes the murders, at Ridgeway Hill in Dorset, probably took place during the reign of Aethelred the Unready who ruled from 968 to 1016.
A chronicle, commissioned by his second wife, Queen Emma notes there was a group of Viking killers in England at the time, led by a fearsome warrior called Thorkel the Tall, said to be a Jomsviking.
Dr Baillie said: ‘Emma’s record connects Jomsvikings to England at exactly this time.
‘Clearly these men had shown a level of bravery similar to the Jomsviking code. So while we cannot be certain about who they were, there are a number of tie-ins that take us down that route.
‘The legends and stories of the Jomsvikings travelled around the medieval world and would almost certainly have been indicative of some of the practices of other bands of mercenaries or may even have been imitated by other groups.’
Aethelred the Unready was tormented by Vikings and ordered all Danish men living in England to be killed on the November 13, 1002- St Brice’s Day – which became known as the St Brice’s Day massacre.
Remains have been found in Oxford and it is thought that massacres also took place in London, Bristol and Gloucester but the remains found here are unique.
Unlike the frenzied mob attack that took place at Oxford, all these men were murdered methodically and beheaded in an unusual fashion from the front.
This is actually mentioned in Jomsvikings legend which states: ‘I am content to die as are all our comrades. But I will not let myself be slaughtered like a sheep. I would rather face the blow. Strike straight at my face and watch carefully if I pale at all.’
It was discovered last year that the skeletons had stripes filed into their teeth, suggesting this was a way they demonstrated their bravery.