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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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A Funeral and a Turf War – Cheri Lucas Rowland

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The newspaper clipping is yellowed with age but carefully folded and preserved in a box of papers left by my Irish grandmother. The box was inside a larger one with an assortment of family papers that sat in the back of my closet for more than two decades. I would have opened it far sooner if I had known all the little treasures and poignant stories held within: my father’s British Army ID card, congratulations telegrams sent to my parents on their wedding day in 1947, my Flemish grandmother’s passport stamped with all her visits to England when I was small, annual receipts my Irish grandmother kept for the upkeep of the grave of the baby she lost to pneumonia before my father was born. The yellowed newspaper clipping my grandmother kept so carefully all her life was the announcement of her father Hugh Carney’s death in 1913.

It was just last year, preparing for my first visit to Ireland, that I learned the identity of my great-grandparents. My grandmother never spoke about Ireland or her family. All I knew was her maiden name and that she and my grandfather both came from Knock in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. But through the wonders of online genealogical research I was able to discover my entire family tree. By the time I drove into Knock I had a map of the Old Cemetery marked with the locations of my great-grandparents’ graves. But if only I had opened that box first and found the newspaper clipping I would have saved a lot of research time. The announcement lists the names and relationships of all the extended family who attended the funeral service. There is my grandmother’s name, Bridget, daughter.

The language of the announcement is lovely, the cadence magisterial and dignified like the prose of a nineteenth century novel:

“Amid many manifestations of deep and sincere regret the remains of the above named much esteemed deceased were laid to rest in Knock cemetery Monday 20th October…fortified and consoled by the ministrations of God’s Holy Church and perfectly resigned to the will of His Divine Master he breathed his last on the morning of Saturday 18th October, surrounded by all those who were nearest and dearest to him on earth…his death was happy, peaceful, and holy and edifying as his life. An honest, upright, and devout Christian, a model husband and father, and a kindly and charitable neighbour, we pray that his long last sleep be calm and peaceful and that his awakening shall be immortal and glorious…The interment took place immediately after Mass and was attended by an immense concourse of people. The adjoining parishes and towns, as well as his own native parish of Knock were largely represented, and afforded incontestable evidence of the widespread regard and high esteem entertained for deceased and the members of his family.”

My grandmother went on to endure a troubled, unhappy marriage and was eventually left alone to raise her youngest son, my father. So the phrase “model husband and father” jumps out at me. Hugh Carney was evidently that ideal and it is a measure of his youngest daughter’s devotion that she kept this account of his death with her for the rest of her long life.

I was thrilled to find this lost piece of family history, but when I turned the clipping over to see if there was some clue to the name of the newspaper, I found so much more. A court report that reads like a little gem of a short story or one-act play that could have come from the pen of one of Ireland’s classic authors. Headlined A Title Case, it concerns a dispute over the ownership of a piece of bogland, giving us a glimpse into traditional Irish rural life.

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The ownership of a piece of bog was no small matter for the peat or turf that Irish farmers dug out was their sole source of fuel for heating and cooking. Formed of dead and decaying vegetation in wet spongey earth unsuitable for agriculture, the peat was cut and piled to dry, the stacks a familiar sight in the Irish countryside. The burning peat slices gave a distinctive sweet smell to the smoke wafting from cottage chimneys.

 

The ancient rights of turbary, the right to cut turf from a particular area of bog, were jealousy guarded. So John Blowick of Belcarra sued John Carney and his son James of Elmhall (no relations as far as I know) to recover five pounds damages for trespassing on his bog. The report continues:

“Mr. Verdon for the plaintiff.
Mr. H. P. Howdy defended.
Mr. M. Moran, C.E. produced a map of the locus in quo on behalf of the plaintiff.
Mr. Blowick was examined and said the defendants commenced cutting turf on his bog on the 15th July. Witness paid rent for this bog and always used it.”

There follows some confusing and contradictory testimony. Two witnesses stated they had never seen the Carneys cutting turf on that piece of bog, Mr. Blowick was the only one who ever used it. But when it came time for the defendant to testify:

“John Carney said he had two holdings at Belcarra and he had a right to turbary attached to them. The landlord’s agent pointed him out the place to cut his turf, and he had been using the bog in dispute for the past 45 years.”

Hmm. He claimed he had been cutting turf there for 45 years but two witnesses had never seen him there in all that time. Then another character is introduced, one Edward Loftus.

“Loftus said he had a portion of this bog and gave up his portion to Mr. Blowick. Carney had another portion of this particular bog and always used it and Blowick had never any rights on it.”

Things are becoming tangled indeed. Another witness, James Heneghan, said he saw the Carneys cutting turf on this bog for the past 35 years. Then we hear from Mr. George H. Garvey, Assistant County Surveyor, who could perhaps be considered an expert witness. But instead of relating his testimony, the report states cryptically “he proved a man of the place for the defence.”

More contradictions follow:

“ Mr. Blowick was recalled and in reply to his Honor denied that Loftus ever gave him up a strip of bog.”

If the reader is confused, then so too was the judge. In fact he just threw up his hands. The report concludes:

“His Honor said he could not make up his mind that Blowick had established his claim to the place, and he would dismiss the case without prejudice  He allowed 30s expenses.”

It’s like a Waiting for Godot set in a bog in which Vladimir and Estragon are replaced by Irish tenant famers all talking at cross purposes, truth as slippery as the peaty mud at their feet. And the English authorities unable to make any sense of it all. A fine metaphor for what would happen in Ireland in the decade following 1913.

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I never spoke to my Irish grandmother about anything important when I was growing up. She was a quiet, sad old lady who spent a lot of time praying the rosary. Now I wish I could thank her for leaving this flimsy little slip of newspaper that carried tales of death and life into the future for me to find.

 

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