MSU archaeologist unearths intertwined couple’s remains

The man was placed behind the woman with his arms around her body, and their legs were intertwined. They were buried spooning around 3800 B.C. in a village on the small Greek peninsula known as Ksagounaki along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

Was this a married couple or two close relatives? Who were they? How did they die? Why were they interred in this manner?

The international team that discovered the intertwined corpses has dozens of questions, says member Michael Galaty, a Mississippi State University archaeologist.

Adjacent to Ksagounaki is Alepotrypa Cave, one of the largest ancient settlements discovered in southern Europe. Galaty, head of MSU’s Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures department, says the cave was occupied during the late portion of the Neolithic Age, approximately 5000-3000 B.C.

Alepotrypa Cave was first explored and excavated by Giorgos Papathanassopoulos beginning in the 1950s. However, Galaty’s team identified the Ksagounaki site in 2011 after surveying the land around the cave. The intertwined corpses were excavated in 2012 and 2013.

“There’ve only been a couple of prehistoric examples of this behavior around the world, but even when couples are buried together, they’re beside each other and not typically touching,” said Galaty, who also serves as the interim director of MSU’s Cobb Institute of Archaeology. “This couple was actually spooning. We assume they were partners of some kind and because of DNA analysis, we do know they are male and female.”

While the archaeological team is unsure of whether the man or the woman died first, the group is sure the times of death were close together, Galaty says.

“This is unique in Greece, and we’re analyzing the skeletons and bones to find out more about what went on, how they died and why they were placed there,” he explains. “Usually, archaeologists can look at bone trauma to figure out what happened and infer cause of death. We may also be able to analyze the couple’s diets, as well as determine whether they had any diseases or genetic abnormalities.

“If the couple is related, we’ll be able to tell how closely or distantly they’re related, and that will help us to interpret more about them, the way they died and perhaps why they were interred this way.”

The bodies were discovered at Ksagounaki near a Neolithic house that was dated to the same time as the couple’s death around 3800 B.C.

“The cave was occupied for a limited period of time, around the time when people started farming. People became more sedentary and built houses at a site outside the cave. It became a pretty big village,” Galaty says. “People were buried within their homes. Keeping your ancestors close to you was important, and their remains served as title to the land.”

Certain parts of the cave were used for rituals and burials, and during the Neolithic Age, people occupied the cave and the adjacent areas, he describes.

“Throughout the cave, there are ossuaries—pits dug into the cave that are filled with bones,” Galaty says. “When someone died, he or she would be defleshed and the living would gather up the bones and put them in the cave. They probably had some process where they exposed the bodies until the flesh was gone; then, they bundled up the bones and buried them. This was done for hygienic reasons and also to complete a ritual.

“But the embracing couple,” he continues, “the man and woman were buried in primary fashion, as whole bodies. They were either buried where people weren’t living at the moment or they were buried in a way that would minimize the issues of decay, such as under a clay floor.”

The archaeological team was able to determine that an important ritual possibly associated with death during the Neolithic Age involved burning inside the cave-—burning goat, sheep and cow dung to produce thick layers of ash. Also, Galaty says the early civilization would create large, well-made pots painted by hand that would then be smashed and that the remnants were associated with the burned areas inside the cave. While archaeologists are still investigating the reasons to make elaborate pots and smash them, the ritual seems to be closely related to the funerary practices of this early civilization.

The Neolithic buildings discovered on Ksagounaki feature megalithic walls made of huge stones.
“You don’t typically see this until the Bronze Age around the time of the Mycenaeans,” Galaty explains. “At first, we thought they were part of the bedrock, but then we realized they were put there by human beings. This is a very early example of people building on a large scale, and it adds to the sense that this was a really important place.

1: Diros Bay on the Mediterranean Sea glistens, welcoming the international team of archaeologists, including Mississippi State’s Michael Galaty, to Ksagounaki, a small Greek peninsula. 2: Galaty, the head of MSU’s anthropology and Middle Eastern cultures department, lists artifacts his team has unearthed at the archaeological dig site. 3: The team discovered a pair of almost 6,000-year-old corpses interred in a spooning position. The skeletal remains of the intertwined couple are being examined, which may provide answers about why they were buried this way.

“This big bay on the Mediterranean has this wide cave mouth with buildings, plastered and painted white, right next to it,” he adds. “This would’ve been an important, flashy site; there aren’t walls like this at any other site in Greece.”

Galaty said one of the team’s biggest discoveries was that 2,000 years after the Neolithic Age, the Mycenaeans—the Greeks comprising the human cast in Homer’s epic “Iliad” chronicling the Trojan War—returned to the special area.

In other words, about the time Helen’s face launched 1,000 ships off the Greek coast the Mycenaeans, when the Trojan War was in full swing, returned to Alepotrypa Cave and interred their own dead in Ksagounaki’s village-mortuary complex.

“The bones were gathered somewhere else and brought to this feature around 1200 B.C. The Mycenaeans dug down into the old village and filled the pit they dug with bones,” Galaty explained. “There were a lot of wealthy objects—ivory hair pins, lots of beads, a Mycenaean dagger made of bronze.”

He hypothesized that knowledge of Alepotrypa Cave may have been passed down from the Early to the Late Bronze Age as a type of “cultural” memory.

“It’s not just a coincidence that these people chose to rebury their dead here. There are 2,000 years of memory in this place,” Galaty said. “Mycenaeans chose to come here to rebury their dead. They may have come from far away to bury special people.

“We’re going to look at where they might have lived before they were buried and what kinds of interesting rituals related to death and burial may have been used.”

The team plans to return to the site in the summer of 2016 to look at the artifacts, the bones and other clues. Then, the group will begin work on a comprehensive publication to share their complete findings with the world.

“There’s something very unusual going on here, but it’s too much of a coincidence to assume there’s no connection between the peoples of the Neolithic Age and the Mycenaeans returning 2,000 years later,” he says. “We’re hoping to involve Mississippi State students when I go back because this is a partnership with some of the top archaeologists and researchers in the world. This is an important collaboration, and it’s equally very important for our students to be able to participate.

“Mississippi State University is already supporting and funding the teaching of archaeology to Greek students at Alepotrypa. Hopefully in the near future, as the project expands, MSU students will travel with me to Greece.”

In addition to Galaty, a University of Wisconsin doctoral graduate in anthropology, archaeologists on the team were Anastasia Papathanasiou, with the Ephorate for Speleology and Paleoanthropology in Athens, Greece, and Panagiotis Karkanas, of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece. Others included William A. Parkinson, with Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and Daniel J. Pullen, of Florida State University.

Funding was provided by the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, along with grants from the Archaeological Institute of America’s Cotsen Excavation Fund, the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research’s International Collaborative Research Grant program. The Field Museum Women’s Board and private donors also supported the archaeologists’ work.

By Leah Barbour