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Shackled Skeletons Unearthed in Greece Could Be Remains of Slaughtered Rebels

Three dozen skeletons in shackles may be the followers of Cylon, an Olympic champion who tried to take over Athens in 632 B.C.

Some of the shackled skeletons found at Phalaeron outside Athens (Greek Ministry of Culture)
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Archaeologists recently found a mass burial in the ancient port city of Phalaeron about four miles from Athens. But this wasn’t just any mass grave—the grouping of 80 skeletons were lined up next to each other, with 36 of them bound in iron shackles. That fact has led some researchers to believe they may be followers of Cylon, a tyrant who tried to take over Athens in the 7th century B.C.

According to Tia Ghose at LiveScience, the area of Phalaeron is a 1-acre cemetery where archaeologists have recovered over 1,500 skeletons. But this most recent group was found in an area being developed for the new National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera.

Two small vases found among the shackled skeletons allowed scientists to date the grave between 650 to 625 B.C., an era that ancient historians say was full of turmoil for Athens. According to AFP, the teeth of the skeletons show that they were from mostly younger people in good health. That boosts the theory that they were political rebels who tried to take over Athens. “These might be the remains of people who were part of this coup in Athens in 632 [B.C.], the Coup of Cylon,” Kristina Killgrove, a bioarchaeologist at the University of West Florida, in Pensacola, not involved in the study tells Ghose.

According to accounts by ancient historians Plutarch and Thucydides, Cylon was an athlete at the 640 B.C. Olympic games. His victory there gave him an elevated status and the hand of the daughter of the nearby tyrant of Megara. Over the next decade, there was discontent in Athens because of poor harvests and social inequality. With the help of his father-in-law's soldiers, Cylon began a coup in 632, hoping the people of Athens would rise up and join him. Some did, but most did not. Instead, Cylon escaped the city and his rebels took shelter in the Acropolis. Eventually they began to starve, and the city archon Megacles promised them safe passage. But when they left the temple, he slaughtered them. “They even slew some of them in the very presence of the awful Goddesses at whose altars, in passing by, they had sought refuge,” writes Thucydides. “The murderers and their descendants are held to be accursed, and offenders against the Goddess.”

It’s nowhere close to certain that the skeletons are from Cylon’s followers, however. “One of the problems is that historical records are really spotty for that century,” Killgrove tells Ghose, “so we really have no history and so it might be a stretch for them to connect these shackled skeletons with this coup.” As Killgrove herself writes in Forbes, "There are any number of explanations for why a mass grave — actually, multiple mass graves — of shackled skeletons were found in Athens."

Still, there are few archeological sites from the period with people from lower social classes. Killgrove says these skeletons may give researchers insight into the lives of working class Athenians of the period.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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