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Face-to-face with Pelops?

In 1986/7, following its success with the remains of Philip II of Macedon, a specialist team from Manchester University reconstructed the faces of 7 skulls found in the 1951 excavation of Grave Circle B in Mycenae. Corollary work on the associated bones produced some startling commentary on the grisly lives of the warrior elite buried within (see below).

I recently used these to back up a GCSE Classical Civilisation piece on Tombs and Burial, but the finds are also really useful in reflecting upon the reality of life at the top of the social hierarchy in Bronze Age Greece. It's occasionally tempting for students, looking at the impressive array of gold in Grave Circle A in particular, to make sweeping statements about how privileged the king and his family might have been compared to his subjects. The damage these people sustained in their short lives - the sample suggested an average age at death of 36 - gives the lie to that.

Here are some notes about just 2 of the burials, numbered after the graves in which they were found:

(Z59, above) ‘Since the left clavicle shows pseudoarthrosis . . . possibly from over-use of the shoulder (supporting a heavy many-layered shield in battle?)...’

‘…Noticeable depressions in the skull vault 2cm above the left eye [see indentation and scar, on the image] and behind the left parietal boss are apparently results of heavy blows or wounds inflicted by a right-handed opponent’

‘Angel also noted a possible healed fracture to the spine, and had estimated his height at c.5’7"; on a subsequent visit we noted a healed fracture to at least one rib which Angel had missed.’

(G59, below) ‘Above the left eye was a shallow depression nearly 2.5cm long, presumably the result of a battle injury, while an oval hole in the top of his skull, measuring 2.7 by 3.0cm, was the result of a trephination. The two roughly semi-circular pieces of bone that had been cut out survive, and show that the skull had been cut with great skill through the outer table only; as it was cut it had sprung away from the head and split lengthwise into two, curling slightly, probably because it was still attached to the scalp.'

I took that to mean that, such was the pressure of haemorrhaging blood pressing upon the skull, the cut away oval of skull snapped in half. Unsurprisingly, this proved fatal.

One of the many conclusions that could be drawn from these facial rebuilds was that the golden death masks found in certain graves were not 'portraits.'

What did aDNA testing prove?

Mitochondrial (i.e. from the mother) DNA testing proved to be of fairly limited use (the samples were necessarily small to minimise the risk to the bones), however it was demonstrated that the woman found in grave 'Gamma' was the sister of the male whom she was buried alongside. Also, their position in the grave suggest they were buried within a few months of each other. Beyond this however, no firm conclusions could be made about the family relationships of the sampled remains, though it is worth stating that this only applies to maternal DNA: there may well have been links on their father's side. Nevertheless, the facial similarities suggested by the Manchester team do suggest that the buried elite were at least branches of the same family.

So, whilst we will probably never know for sure whether or not we can indeed gaze upon the face of [Pelops/ Perseus or other Atreids!], to butcher a phrase from Heinrich Schliemann, we can at least safely say we know a heck of a lot more about the tough lives of the warrior elite who walked the corridors and halls of Mycenae than we once did!


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