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This Ancient Greek’s Breastbone Shows He Was Executed With Terrifying Precision

Sternum of a Hellenistic period man showing stab wound.

On the island of Thasos, which lies close to the north shore of the Aegean Sea, archaeologists recovered dozens of burials dating to the Greek Hellenistic period, or 4th to 1st centuries BC. One particular older male caught their attention because he was likely executed with a precise wound to his breastbone.

Since at least the 7th century BC, the island of Thasos was an important part of the Greek world, as recorded by ancient authors Herodotus and Thucydides and as revealed through numerous excavations over the past several decades by archaeologists affiliated with the Hellenic Antiquities Authority. Residents of ancient Thasos built settlements and strongholds on the island and the nearby mainland, and through their control of regional sea routes, they became rich and powerful.

Excavation at an ancient cemetery on Thasos revealed clusters of Hellenistic and Roman period family graves that contained the skeletons of males and females of all ages. One specific skeleton, however, intrigued archaeologist Anagnostis Agelarakis of Adelphi University so much that he studied it in painstaking detail; his results are forthcoming in Access Archaeology.

Agelarakis discovered that the skeleton was male and that, based on the degenerative wear on his joints and teeth, he was likely more than 50 years old when he died. Further, his robust skeleton suggested that he had been involved in physically demanding tasks and activities. None of this was surprising to Agelarakis, as ancient Greek men were known to have engaged in much physical labor over their lifetimes. Once the bones were cleaned in the laboratories of the Archaeological Museum of Thasos Island, however, Agelarakis noticed something odd: a hole in the lower part of the man’s sternum or breastbone.

The human body can have numerous variants, often extraneous holes or bones whose presence (or absence) is passed down in families. These variations are selectively neutral, so they don’t get eliminated from the human species, but they are useful for bioarchaeologists interested in tracking genetic relationships without doing destructive analysis like DNA work. One of these common variants is a hole in the lower part of the breastbone, called the sternal foramen, which occurs in roughly 5% of the population.

“It became immediately apparent,” Agelarakis notes, “that this case did not pertain to a developmental anomaly of sternal foramen, but to a multilevel mechanically caused orifice, one that had been sustained by a through-and-through gladiolar [lower breastbone] injury.” A seven-sided entry wound could be seen, clearly suggesting a type of penetrating trauma, and there was no evidence of healing. The man had been stabbed.

To shed some light on the mechanics of the injury, I asked Patrick Randolph-Quinney, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Central Lancashire, to weigh in. “In my considered opinion, Agelarakis has a case,” he says. “Penetrating peri-mortem trauma is consistent with some of the skeletal defects displayed.” While he is not fully convinced of the seven-sided entry wound, Randolph-Quinney notes that the exit wound, or the back side of the sternum, is of particular interest. This exit wound has sharp bone edges, which rules out both post-mortem damage and a sternal foramen. Flat bones like the sternum react differently to trauma compared to bones like the skull and long bones of the arms and legs. “In cases of arrow or crossbow wounds,” Randolph-Quinney says, “it’s my experience that they ‘punch’ their way through flat bone, leaving sharp margins on both entrance and exit surfaces, similar to the photos in Agelarakis’ article. I think he’s right about the injury — but maybe for the wrong reasons.”

Not content to simply diagnose this ancient Thasian man with a stab wound, Agelarakis set out to figure out what kind of weapon made the odd, seven-sided mark on the bone. To do this, he and his colleagues extrapolated the shape of the weapon from the injury, created a 3D model reconstruction in wax, and then generated mold from that in order to cast the weapon in bronze. Once this process was completed, Agelarakis was able to suggest that the weapon was a styrax, or the spike at the lower end of a spear-shaft. He and his colleagues then used their reconstructed weapon on a ballistic model of a human in order to approximate force and direction of the fatal blow.

Ballistic model

Ballistic model created to test the force and direction of a styrax injury.

A. Agelarakis / Adelphi University

Given the identification of the weapon, Agelarakis hypothesizes that this was a close-encounter sharp force injury, in which the man was immobilized, perhaps with his hands tied behind his back, “in order to receive a contact thrusting of an accurately anatomically calculated, precisely positioned, and well-delivered striking into the inferior mediastinum region of the thorax.” Essentially, the deadly aim of the person wielding the spear caused a fatal wound to the Thasian man’s chest, which put him into cardiac arrest as he bled out. Agelarakis suggests that this was almost certainly “a prepared execution event.”

This older Thacian man was buried in an individual grave among clusters of family graves, without any indication that he was treated differently than others in death. Because of his simple burial, Agelarakis thinks that he was not condemned to capital punishment because he was a traitor or conspirator. Rather, “it may be postulated that his untimely and violent death could have been the result of a political-military turmoil or reprisals, possibly during forceful regime changes” that occurred during the Hellenistic era. Although this man was stabbed to death, he was likely of high standing and, as Agelarakis concludes, “would have been recognized as a worthy opponent.”

For more news about ancient skeletons, follow Kristina Killgrove on Twitter (@DrKillgrove), Instagram (Powered by Osteons), or Facebook (Powered by Osteons).

As a bioarchaeologist, I routinely pore over the skeletons of ancient populations so that I can learn about their health, diet, and lifestyles.

Source: This Ancient Greek’s Breastbone Shows He Was Executed With Terrifying Precision

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Archaeologists Make ‘Very Special’ Viking Era Discovery in Norway

Almost one thousand years after the end of the Viking Age, Norwegian archaeologists have made a sensational find near Halden in the south-east of Norway. The burial mound and adjacent field harbour several longhouses and at least one ship burial. Digital data visualizations reveal the well-defined 20-meter-long ship-shaped structure, with indications that the lower part is well preserved. Incredibly, the ship lies just below the topsoil, with just 50cm separating it from the fresh air.

Source: Archaeologists Make ‘Very Special’ Viking Era Discovery in Norway

Archeologist Spends Over 35 Years Building Enormous Scale Model of Ancient Rome – Jessica Stewart

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Tucked in the residential Roman neighborhood of EUR, a sprawling 1:250 scale model displays the glory of ancient Rome. Known as the Plastico di Roma Imperiale, the plaster model was commissioned by Mussolini in 1933 and depicts Rome in the 4th century AD at the time of Constantine I. It now sits in the Museum of Roman Civilization, a museum opened in the 1930s to demonstrate the history of ancient Rome.The plaster model is a masterpiece created by archaeologist Italo Gismondi, who worked on the piece throughout his life…….

 

Read more: https://mymodernmet.com/scale-model-ancient-rome/

DNA From Ancient Latrines Reveal What People Ate Centuries Ago

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There’s treasure to be found in mining excrement. At least, it’s treasure to scientists studying the diets, habits and health of people who lived centuries ago.

In a new study, Danish researchers dug up old latrines and sequenced the DNA they found in the ancient poop. The results paint a picture of diets and parasites spanning times and places that range from an ancient fort Qala’at al-Bahrain, near the capital Bahrain in 500 B.C.E. to the river-ringed city of Zwolle in the Netherlands in 1850. The researchers published their results in the journal PLOS One.

The team collected samples of old latrines and soil deposits at eight different archeological sites. They screened the samples for the eggs of parasites, which can last for centuries, and analyzed the DNA in each sample to determine species. They also gleaned the DNA of plants and animals from the samples to determine what people ate.

In some ways, the team found that life centuries ago was unhygienic as might be imagined. Most people probably dealt with intestinal parasites at least once in their life, veterinary scientist and paper co-author Martin Søe, with the University of Copenhagen, tells Angus Chen at NPR. “I think it’s fair to say it was very, very common,” he says. “In places with low hygienic standards, you still have a lot of whipworm and round worm.”

Søe explains that the types of parasites they found could also give insight into the animals people consumed. Parasites that live in fish and pigs but that can also infect humans were a common find, indicating that undercooked or raw pork and fish was a diet staple.

The analysis also identified a handful of parasites that only infect humans such as the giant roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides) and the whipworm (Trichuris trichiura).

By sequencing the mitochondrial DNA of the parasite eggs, the researchers found that Northern European whipworms from 1000 C.E. to 1700 C.E. were more closely related to worms found in present-day Uganda than to those in present-day China. Findings like this offer “hints about ancient patterns of travel and trade,” writes Charles Choi for a blog post at Discover magazine.

Researchers also found parasites that don’t infect human but are more commonly found in sheep, horses, dogs, pigs and rats. This suggests the critters all likely lived near the latrines, leading people to dispose of the animal waste in the ancient toilets, Søe tells Choi.

The menagerie of ancient DNA helps paint a picture of life at some of the sites. For example, samples from Gammel Strand—a site in Copenhagen’s old harbor—include DNA from herring and cod, horses, cats and rats. The harbor was ”[l]ikely a very dirty place by our standards, with a lot of activity from humans and animals,” Søe says.

The findings also reveal information about ancient diets. DNA in Danish samples shows that the people probably ate fin whales, roe deer and hares, writes Sarah Sloat for Inverse. The study also delves into the analysis of plant DNA, which included cherries, pears, cabbages, buckwheat and other edible plants. The ancient Danes’ waste had an abundance of DNA from hops, showing the people’s fondness for beer, whereas the samples from the Netherlands showed people there had a preference for wine.

This isn’t the first time that scientists have looked to unappetizing leavings to learn more about the past. Researchers have traced the path of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by looking for traces of mercury in the soil. The metallic element was in pills the men took to treat constipation and its presence indicates where the expedition dug latrines and camped. And parasites in a castle latrine in Cyprus attest to the poor health endured by crusaders. But the DNA analysis of the new study offers a uniquely detailed picture of the past.

Together, the new findings offer intriguing hints about ancient life. Following up on some of these leads could lead future researchers to tell us more about ancient people’s health and the migrations of our ancestors. As Maanasa Raghavan, a zoologist at Cambridge University who wasn’t part of the new study, tells NPR: “Having these datasets will help us look further at how these pathogens evolved over time or how people moved around.”
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