Violence and the Archaeology of Internal War

A recurring theme in my work on ancient iconoclasm is the social meaning of violence and especially “mirror effects” in the treatment of stone and flesh-and-blood bodies, a topic that I am once again pursuing as part of the DFG network on internal war.

For this reason, I was very much intrigued by the discovery in 2016 of two mass graves with the remains of 79 individuals (some shackled) dating to the seventh century BC at the site of the Stavros Niarchos Park in Kallithea and widely reported by various media at the time. The mass grave is in fact just a small part of a much larger cemetery with close to 1,800 burials, interred between the eighth and fourth centuries BC. The osteoarchaeological evidence has now been published with admirable speed and efficiency by Anna Ingvardsson, Ylva Bäckström and their collaborators in a laudable open access format in Opuscula, the journal of the Swedish institutes in Athens and Rome.

From Ingvardsson & Bäckström 2019, 13 (here).

Referencing Kylon’s attempted (mythical?) coup in 632 BC, Ingvardsson & Bäckström conclude (p. 79):

The scenario surrounding the depositions of the individuals in the mass graves at Phaleron is largely obscure and cannot be elucidated through the osteological field observation. However, it seems likely that the individuals died within a short period of time, some of them more or less simultaneously. Why and where the individuals were killed is a matter of conjecture; the observations from the field documentation neither validate, nor disprove the hypothesis that these individuals were the captives and victims of the so-called “Cylonian conspiracy”.

A hypothetical scenario is that a majority of the captives, probably in poor physical condition, e.g. starved, dehydrated,and beaten but otherwise in good general health, were brought to Phaleron in shackles, some of them plausibly tied to a frame with ropes, as suggested by their positions. The individuals may have been pushed to the ground, some of them perhaps kneeling, before fatal blows/punches to the head of the individuals not already dead were inflicted before the bodies were covered.

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