Have Archaeologists Found Cleopatra’s Half-Sister?

Finding the bones of celebrity skeletons is a popular pursuit among some archaeologists, and has been for centuries. The remains of King Arthur were written to have been recovered in 1190 at Glastonbury Abbey, and were given a more appropriate tomb in 1278 by Edward I. In the mid-17th century, the tomb of a Merovingian king, Childeric I, was discovered. Precious and exotic artifacts like  an ornamented sword, jewels of gold and gemstones, and a ring with the inscription “CHILDERICI REGIS” were found with the remains. Of course, these identifications relied on historical inference and deduction, much of the evidence that once existed is now missing due to time and thievery, and modern analytic techniques were not possible. Better examples of modern quests for celebrities include the search for Mona Lisa, which ended with no identification, and the recent find of Richard III which was a positive identification. The most recent of these claims is that Cleopatra’s half-sister, Arsinoe IV, has been discovered.

Portrait of Arsinoe IV, via Between Reade

Portrait of Arsinoe IV, via Between Reade

Following the death of their father, Cleopatra and Ptolemy were left in charge of Egypt. However, they soon became divided and in 48 B.C. Cleopatra fled to Alexandria in order to gain favor with Julius Caesar to strengthen her army and claim to the throne. In her absence, Arsinoe IV led the Egyptian army against the Romans. However, the Romans were stronger and negotiations with Caesar led to Arsinoe IV being captured. In 46 B.C. she was taken to Rome as a captive in part of Caesar’s victory parade. While captives were usually executed, Arsinoe IV was granted exile in Ephesus at the Temple of Artemis instead. Folowing the death of Caesar in 44 B.C. Cleopatra had renewed power due to her alliance with Marc Antony. Cleopatra asked Antony to murder her sister, and in 41 B.C. Arsinoe IV was slain in the temple.

Skeleton identified as Arsinoe IV, via Dorothy King

Skeleton identified as Arsinoe IV, via Dorothy King

Hilke Thur, a Vienna-based archaeologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, claims to have found the remains of Arsinoe IV, the younger half-sister of Cleopatra. Thur is an architect and archaeologist who has been working at the site of Ephesus for almost three decades. Within a building known as the Octagon, a skull of a 20 year old female was discovered in 1926. The building dates to the period when Arsinoe IV would have been exiled. The tomb is also in a shape and design similar to the Lighthouse of Alexandria, a monument built during the lifetime of Arsinoe IV and Cleopatra. The burial itself is known to be special since people were not allowed to be buried within the walls of the city in accordance with Roman Law. Since this burial is within the city, and near a temple, it obviously was an important individual. The remaining bones themselves were not removed from the tomb or examined until 1985. They argue for a younger age than previously thought, probably 15-16 years old. DNA testing was done in order to determine identity and potential relationship to the royal line- however because the bones had been handled a number of times the results were inconclusive.

The identification is being questioned by archaeologists, classicists and historians, in fact it seems to have been highly questionable for at least 5 years! A talk was delivered at the 2009 conference for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists that revealed the results of the bioarchaeological and DNA analysis. They found that the remains were consistent with being a 15-17 year old female who was likely higher status due to a lack of nutritional problems and skeletal wear. However, they found that DNA was inconclusive and likely never to reveal identity. Dorothy King recognized a number of problems with Thur’s original argument made in 2009, including that the Octagon building has been consistently dated to an earlier period. Also from 2009, Rouge Classicism by David Meadows asks whether we can trust sex, age and ethnicity measurements done on a skull in the 1920’s that is now missing, and reviews numerous arguments against this identification. Mary Beard questions the lack of evidence connecting the murder to the tomb and whether we can really base our interpretations off of the supposed relationship between her and Cleopatra.

It appears that there is only a tenuous link between the skeleton and the story of Cleopatra’s half-sister. The tomb may stylistically date to the period when Arsinoe IV died, and it is rare for burial within the city- but over a century there were numerous peoples buried within Ephesus. Further, if Arsinoe IV died around 16 years old, that means she was leading the Egyptian army when she was around 9 to 12 years old. The full talk by Thur will be delivered in Raleigh on March 1st- so maybe we will hear the full evidence and complete argument after then. For right now, I’d say we have the body of another young woman, not the half-sister of Cleopatra.

Works Cited

Bordsen. 2013. Archaeologist: Bones found in Turkey are probably those of Cleopatra’s half-sister. http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/02/24/2697973/archaeologist-says-bones-found.html

Beard. 2009. The skeleton of Cleopatra’s sister? Steady on.

King. 2009. Strange Skills: Arsinoe’s So Called Tomb. http://phdiva.blogspot.com/2009/03/strange-skulls-arsinoe-so-called-tomb.html

Meadows. 2009. Cleopatra, Arsinoe and the Implications. http://rogueclassicism.com/2009/03/15/cleopatra-arsinoe-and-the-implications/

4 responses to “Have Archaeologists Found Cleopatra’s Half-Sister?

  1. I have an Englishman’s strong romantic attachment to tales of King Arthur, but we should exercise a considerable degree of scepticism (if not outright disbelief) about their supposed recovery at Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset in 1190. There is not even a historical consensus among scholars about what is actually true in the accounts of ‘King Arthur’, none of which are remotely contemporary with his life in the chaos seen in the aftermath of the Roman’s departure from Britain.

    “… probably the most suspicious aspect of the whole affair is the simple fact that this discovery [of King Arthur’s bones] was no more than the last in a series of similar discoveries that had been taking place with remarkable regularity since 1184. Among them, for example, were the bones of Sts. Patrick, Indract, Brigit, Gildas, and Dunstan, the last of which would give rise to vigorous disputes with Christchurch [Cathedral], Canterbury, where, as archbishop, Dunstan had indisputably been buried, former abbot of Glastonbury though he had been.

    Moreover, if one asks why 1184 should have marked the start of these archaeological triumphs, the answer appears to be that on St. Urban’s Day, May 25, of that year, fire had almost totally destroyed the abbey, thereby necessitating its reconstruction.

    That being the case, it seems reasonable to assume that these new-found relics were no more than one aspect of the complex capital fund drive needed to support the monks in their rebuilding efforts.”

    Essays in Medieval Studies, 8, At The Tomb of King Arthur, Charles T. Wood

    Here are the two accounts of the discovery of the bones claimed to be Arthur’s http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/debarri.html

    Sorry to puncture the bubble of romantic belief.

    • Thanks for the backstory- obviously the chance that this is actually Arthur (if he existed) is quite slim, but it offers a great comparison for the modern discovery of “Cleopatra’s half sister” for that exact reason. People want to believe they are finding celebrities- they did in the 12th c. and they do now! Don’t worry, no bubble punctured here.

  2. Pingback: Foram os ossos da irmã de Clepatra VII encontrados? O mais provável é que não | Arqueologia Egípcia·

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