May 31, 2019

Finding Stories in Skeletons: the “Executed Man” and the “Master Ceramicist”

Anagnostis Agelarakis, PhD, professor of anthropology, talks with a student.

Anagnostis Agelarakis, PhD, now an internationally known anthropologist and Adelphi professor, experienced his first dig in 1976, when he went to the Greek island of Thasos as a student to help excavate human skeletons in a prehistoric cemetery.

He quickly realized he didn’t just want to unearth the skeletons—he wanted to learn ”the stories of their lives.” His mentor suggested that he study human skeletal research along with archaeology. He became an archaeo-anthropologist, possibly the first born in Greece to work in his native land, he says.

In 1993, Dr. Agelarakis returned to Thasos with Adelphi students and has been working in this area ever since.

”It’s about not just looking at the artifacts, which are beautiful and luxurious, but doing anthropological archaeology,” he says. “Who are those people that made all these things? The men and women that lived and died? The young and the old? How can we then share their information to make life better not just for the specialists but also for the public?”

Dr. Agelarakis shared his latest findings in April, with the publication of a fascinating interdisciplinary research project by the highly respected Archaeopress Archaeology, based in Oxford, England. The story has been covered by Forbes, Newsweek and more than 45 other media organizations around the globe as the Executed Man.

The article detailed the analysis of a 2,000-year-old skeleton Dr. Agelarakis unearthed on Thasos. The skeleton has a perfectly round hole through its sternum, which the project team’s research determined was the result of a gruesome execution by a thrusting spear called a styrax. Dr. Agelarakis worked with Adelphi’s art department and with his wife, anthropologist and scientific illustrator Argiro Agelarakis, an Adelphi adjunct faculty member, to create a 3D model of the weapon. He then worked with Adelphi’s physics department to recreate the force required to cause the injury.

“He must have been an important person who was executed because of his position in society, in the military or in political affairs—or all of the above,” Dr. Agelarakis told Newsweek.

In 2018, Dr. Agelarakis made another profound discovery in Crete, of “the only known female master ceramicist discovered in the archaeology of Greece,” Science reports.

She was contemporary to an ancient matriarchal community of women and high priestesses that Dr. Agelarakis and colleagues had unearthed in 2009. The Archaeological Institute of America deemed the priestesses one of the top 10 discoveries of the year.

“This provided another view that was not as well understood by earlier classicists—that women were very powerful,” Dr. Agelarakis says. “The females were the spine of the society. They had ownership of land and men came in to marry them.”

The woman who would become the center of his study was buried near the priestesses, so Dr. Agelarakis assumed she had to have been important. But her role within the society wasn’t immediately apparent. All he could tell was that her right upper and lower extremities were very robust and that the bones in her shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip and knee joints had rubbed together from repetitive wear.

Dr. Agelarakis followed a trail of clues to help explain the pathological changes observed in the skeleton. A modern-day female ceramicist happened to live in the next village over from the excavation site. Dr. Agelarakis studied with the ceramicist for seven years, bringing along Adelphi students for summer research projects, to better understand how she works with clay and how this work affects her anatomy.

By analyzing the woman’s body positioning and the load-bearing effects on her and by performing a kinesiological analysis with emphasis on her muscles and joints, the team was able to document that she used comparable movements and sustained similar muscle and bone wear as her 3,000-year-old predecessor.

Currently, Dr. Agelarakis and his students are studying archaeo-anthropological remains from the first formal burial ground of the Neolithic period discovered in Crete.

“So far, we’d only had a few Neolithic skeletons dispersed here and there, but the funerary activity area—which dates to the very beginning of the fifth millennium B.C./B.C.E.—provides a universe of data that we can collect,” he says. “We don’t have anything else [of this scale] from that time period.”

Dr. Agelarakis, in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute, hopes to find out if these Neolithic humans were ancestors of the Minoans, who formed the ”first significant high civilization of Europe in the third millennium B.C./B.C.E.”

“It’s a unique find. It’s once in many lifetimes,” he says. “We will have some incredible finds very soon, and that will make Adelphi an even more important hub for research, outreach and education. ”


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