Archaeologists recently analyzed partially cremated remains from a necropolis on the north side of Ischia, a volcanic island off the coast of Italy. In new research published in PLoS ONE, the team reveals that a tomb once thought to belong to one person actually contained three.
The findings are a change from previous interpretations of the 2,800-year-old tomb, which is located in a necropolis in Pithekoussai, a Greek site on Ischia, just off of Naples. (Ischia is volcanic, and last erupted in 1302, according to the Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program.) Melania Gigante, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Padua and lead author of the new study, told Gizmodo in an email that previous assumptions that a single child was buried in the tomb were inaccurate and that new analyses of the partially cremated remains—which include bone fragments—actually point to three people, as well as several animals.
A cup found inside the tomb is is inscribed with poetry that references the cup of Nestor written about by Homer. The verses on the cup from Pithekoussai roughly translate to “I am Nestor’s Cup, good to drink from. Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway desire for beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him,” according to a translation by classicist John Boardman. For that reason, the cup is sometimes referred to as Nestor’s cup, though it should not be confused with the golden ‘Nestor’s cup’ found at Mycenae in the 19th century.
Giorgio Buchner, one of the original archaeologists on the site who found the cup, wrote in 1966 that “the inscription is among the oldest known documents of Greek script and represents the first piece of poetry of Homeric times preserved in contemporary writing.”
The recent team’s interpretative work was complicated by the fact that the tomb’s burial mound was destroyed to make way for subsequent burials. By the time that Buchner excavated the tomb in the 1950s (the digs that turned up Nestor’s cup scattered in the soil), it had already been disturbed millennia ago. Study of the cremated remains at the time determined only one individual was buried there, with estimates for their age at death ranging from 10 to 14 years old.
But the sheer number of goods buried in the tomb would mean that the deceased person was extremely important. So the recent team reexamined the cremated remains and, indeed, came away with a different conclusion.
“The morphological analysis of cremated remains allowed us to distinguish a few animal fragments from human ones,” Gigante said. Beyond that, she added, histological analysis indicated that the burnt bone fragments belonged to three individuals rather than one, and none of them appeared to have been a child.
The researchers were not able to determine further details, like the ages of the people or exactly why they were buried with the cup. The animals, the team suspects, were included as food or friends for the afterlife (the animal bones appeared to belong to sheep, bulls, pigs, dogs, and birds, though the exact number of each animal was not determinable).
Whoever was actually buried in the tomb remains unclear, but now archaeologists can at least start deferring to the deceased in the plural.