Skeletal Evidence: UC Scholars Sleuth Into Mysterious Ancient Grave

In the world of archaeology, the finds that tend to create the biggest ballyhoo are often gold, bronze, ceramic or gemstone. But for University of Cincinnati anthropologist Lynne Schepartz, the most valuable finds are human remains.

For the past five summers, Schepartz, associate professor in the UC McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, has investigated what some might consider a very creepy subject – skeletal remains found inside a grave circle and stone-walled tombs near the Palace of Nestor at Pylos, Greece, a site linked to Homeric legend. She and classics department doctoral student Erin Williams are working as part of the team formed by Sharon Stocker, a UC doctoral student in classics and leader of the Hora Apotheke Reorganization Project (HARP) and Jack L. Davis, UC’s Carl W. Blegen Chair in Greek Archaeology, who directs the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project (PRAP) in Western Messenia. An apotheke is a storeroom.

While grave circles are not unheard of, they remain rare finds from the Bronze Age world of ancient Greece. The one at Pylos was excavated in 1957. It dates to approximately 1750-1600 BC and measures 5.5 meters (about 18 feet) in diameter. It was literally a burial area encircled by stone, located about 145 meters (159 yards) south of the main palace. The mystery that Schepartz would like to solve is: Is this really a grave circle? If so, why were some ancient Greeks buried in an area specially marked by a stone circle? Who were the people buried there? What was their life like?

This 1957 photo shows the grave circle excavated by Blegen's team.

This 1957 photo shows the grave circle excavated by Blegen's team.

The Pylos grave circle was first uncovered nearly 50 years ago in excavations headed by Carl W. Blegen, the UC archaeologist for whom Davis’ chair is named. The archaeological world at that time usually ignored skeletal evidence, concentrating on artifacts like jewelry, gems or pottery to shed light on ancient life.

“The fabulousness of the other Pylos discoveries were enough to overshadow the fragmentary human remains,”

says Schepartz, who teaches courses on osteology (the study of bones) and has worked with human remains from archaeological sites in China, Israel, East Africa, Mexico and the United States.

Pylos is known as a destination in the Homeric epic, The Odyssey. Sacrifices were said to be offered on its sandy beaches. In 1939 and in the 1950s, Blegen’s work made international headlines for uncovering the fabled Palace of Nestor, as well the discovery of tablets carrying Greek Linear B script, the first to be found on the Greek mainland. Within the grave circle itself, the team found a golden diadem and other bronze items.

Pages from Lord Taylour's notebook.

Pages from Lord Taylour's notebook.

Although it was an unusual step in the 1950s, Blegen did take care to catalog and preserve the skeletal findings. The grave circle was investigated by team member Lord William Taylour, and Blegen invited the world’s most renowned Mediterranean bone expert – Lawrence Angel – to come to Pylos for a brief study of the grave circle remains. Due to that vigilance, these important links to the past remain in storage at the archaeological museum in Hora, Greece, where Schepartz, Williams and collaborator Sari Miller-Antonio of California State University at Stanislaus can study them more thoroughly.

Even with the remarkable care taken decades ago, the job of chronicling the human fragments today continues to be a challenging one, as well as a dirty one. “There’s a lot of dirt still clinging to the bones,” says Schepartz, “But that helped to preserve the material for osteological analysis.”  She and Williams use dental tools to clean and probe the items.

A 1957 photo of a skull found in the grave circle.

A 1957 photo of a skull found in the grave circle.

Another complication is that before its discovery, the burial area in question had been plowed over, explains Schepartz. “

A portion of it was totally destroyed. In modern times, it was used as a threshing floor. Blegen had to negotiate with the farmer to stop threshing there while excavations could be done,”

Schepartz says.

“We’re not yet sure if it had a mound on top in the beehive style or if it was flat,”

she says. If the area did have a mound, that would mean it was once a tomb rather than a grave circle, notes PRAP leader Jack Davis. Lord Taylour’s writings debate the question, but also note the absence of evidence for chamber entry, a common feature in a traditional mound tomb.

Conditions over time also left few complete skulls. “Most of the material is very fragmentary,” Schepartz points out. “Only one of the individuals had a skull that was intact enough to measure,” she notes. When Blegen’s team completed its excavation of the circle, they refilled the trenches, and the farmer re-commenced his threshing there. That means Schepartz and her two collaborators are not able to look at the burial area as Blegen once did.

A photo of a palace jar that contained human remains.

A photo of a palace jar that contained human remains.

Williams had the difficult task of trying to decode the 1950s tagging system. “The tags were difficult to read because they were handwritten,” Williams explains. The doctoral student figured out that “a number in a circle with a line under it meant the items were on a tray. Boxes were squares around the number – the boxes were mostly old cigarette boxes tied with string. And a number with a plain circle around it was a basket.”

One of the most pressing questions Schepartz asked was: “Where’s the teeth?” The cryptic notes – pun intended – of Lawrence Angel didn’t include information about dental remains, although Williams found that the Blegen team’s excavation notebooks indicated many had been found. Schepartz looks to teeth as an crucial source of information. She can’t help looking at people’s teeth when she first meets them. “You can tell a lot about a person from their teeth. I really need teeth to tell me how old the individual is. Teeth are often the best indicator of health conditions,” she asserts.

Eventually, the precious teeth were found in small boxes mixed in with other precious finds  – small beads, gold, ivory and metal fragments – thanks to Williams’ deciphering work. “It really was great detective work,” Schepartz says.

All the hard work is beginning to glean details about the people buried in the circle. Schepartz has found that the grave circle contained from 28 to 31 individuals. Angel had identified 27. Schepartz believes the burials included more females and more younger people than Angel originally estimated. “These people represent some of the earliest population associated with the Palace of Nestor,” says Schepartz. “After their time, the palace flourished and its influence expanded. Yet the later peoples associated with the palace, especially the females, show more evidence of disease and dental decay. I’m  investigating the patterning of those health changes in the skeletons, but now I need to evaluate them using information on diet and population changes that comes from the palace contents and records and the surrounding archaeological sites. The bones tell us an important part of the story, but we need to integrate everything to really understand Mycenaean life.”

For now, the Pylos grave circle remains have been repackaged into 18 wooden boxes. Schepartz also plans to publish studies on other Pylos tombs and to study other Mycenaean grave circles.

The work on the Pylos remains is funded by the Institute for Aegean Prehistory (INSTAP) and UC’s Louise Taft Semple Fund.

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