“For all the beauty and wonder of archaeology and the ancient world, there are dark undercurrents and real people who died”.
Today , Dr. Maria Liston was visiting Michigan State University as part of the AIA Central Michigan Chapter lecture series. Her lecture was titled “Murder in the Agora: Violent Death and Illicit Burial in Ancient Athens”. Dr. Liston is a professor at the University of Waterloo in the Department of Anthropology.
Dr. Liston’s presentation is her own self-professed version of CSI: Agora. The project in the Athenian Agora, the civic and public center of the city, began when a well was discovered with the remains of infants at the bottom. Burials were forbidden within the city of Athens, so finding a large number of burials has led to conclusions that these burials were clandestine and likely homicide. Dr. Liston has recovered 17 individuals from the area, most of which have sustained trauma. The well burials, due to the constant wet environment, led to great preservation of the skeletal remains. This means that a lot of detailed information about their deaths can be recovered. They range from the Neolithic to Byzantine.For her talk, she examines a number of case studies from these well burials.
These individual cases include date from the Neolithic period, including individuals from the Mycenaean and Classical periods, all the way to the Byzantine era (7th c. CE). Many of the remains show clear marks of violence, including marks of aggressive throat cutting along the base of a skull, patterns of injuries consistent with being beaten to death, and a potential case of childhood abuse. One very interesting case that Dr. Liston presents shows possible evidence for the violence incurred during the Herulian raid of Athens in 267 CE. This includes two potential female victims and one male that may actually be one of the raiders. For more details on the individual case study, you’ll just have to wait for the publication!
The research that Dr. Liston is doing in this area is quite fascinating, and her presentation was wonderful. In one small area over thousands of years there are a number of wells in which individuals who suffered traumatic deaths were deposited. One thing that is quite interesting is that the trauma suffered by many of the individuals is similar over this long period of time, primarily suggestive of being beaten to death. The only question I’m left with is what is it about the Athenian Agora that makes people so violent?
For more info about the talk, see the AIA’s website: Murder in the Agora, Lecture by Dr. Liston and her full abstract here: Murder in the Agora: Violent Death and Illicit Burial in Ancient Athens