Strange and surprising findings have been reported from ongoing excavations at Alepotrypa Cave, a site in the Peloponnesus that one archaeologist called "a Neolithic Pompeii," the Greek Ministry of Culture, Education, and Religious Affairs announced.
The most striking discovery was a burial from roughly 5,800 years ago containing two well-preserved adult human skeletons, one male and one female, with arms and legs interlocked in an embrace.
Archaeologists also found bones from two other Neolithic double burials, as well as a roughly 3,300-year-old Mycenaean ossuary holding bone fragments from dozens of individuals and numerous expensive grave goods, including a bronze dagger, agate beads, and ivory likely sourced from Lebanon.
"Like most things in Greece, it's complicated," said Bill Parkinson, associate curator of Eurasian anthropology at Chicago's Field Museum and one of the archaeologists working at the site.
The Alepotrypa—or "foxhole"—Cave represents one of the largest Neolithic burial sites known in all of Europe. Its enormous interior chambers reach more than half a kilometer into a mountain above Diros Bay, and burials in the cave span the entire Neolithic period in Greece, from 6000 to 3200 B.C. There are bones from at least 170 individuals inside the cave.
Around 3000 B.C., an earthquake collapsed the cave entrance, sealing and preserving its interior. The site was rediscovered in 1958, and excavations began in the 1970s.
The most recent finds lie at the top of a terraced slope just outside the cave. Radiocarbon dates for the three double burials range from 4200 to 3800 B.C. One burial holds the remains of a child and a newborn. A second burial contains the bones of a young man and a young woman facing each other in curled poses, their knees tucked beneath their chins, and the final burial contains the embracing couple.
"They're totally spooning," Parkinson said of the last pair. "The boy is the big spoon, and the girl is the little spoon: Their arms are draped over each other, their legs are intertwined. It's unmistakable."
Anastasia Papathanasiou, a Greek archaeologist who has worked at the site since the late 1980s, said the couple probably died in the embracing pose or were placed in this pose shortly after death. "It's a very natural hug; it doesn't look like they were arranged in this posture at a much later date."
Some media reports have claimed the couple was stoned to death, but Parkinson and Papathanasiou cautioned that there is no evidence for this. The cause of death is a mystery.
Short, Violent Lives
A contemporaneous late Neolithic ossuary inside the cave suggests the couple lived during a violent period. Some 31 percent of the skeletons showed evidence of blunt cranial trauma, probably inflicted by rocks, stones, or clubs. The wounds were nonlethal and had healed, but this is the highest frequency of head trauma at one site in all of Neolithic Greece. Papathanasiou attributed the extreme violence to competition for land, water, or other vital resources.
Many individuals in the tomb exhibited metopism, a rare condition in which adults retain an unclosed cranial suture, suggesting they were genetically related. The mean adult lifespan was 29 years, and anemia was the most prevalent medical condition afflicting those buried. Carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis verified that their diets consisted mostly of cereals such as wheat and barley; low consumption of animal protein probably caused the high prevalence of anemia.
The cave was a site of burial, ritual, and intermittent habitation for the 3,000 years between 6000 and 3000 B.C. Deep piles of burned sheep dung near the entrance of one cavern as spacious as a cathedral might have provided flickering illumination for funerary rites.
Bones Moved to Sacred Burial Site
The later Mycenaean ossuary from around 1300 B.C. poses an additional mystery. "Horribly weathered bones from dozens of individuals were reinterred at this site," Parkinson said. The team's working hypothesis is that the bodies were exposed or buried elsewhere for a considerable time before they were moved to Alepotrypa.
Reburial was a common practice in the Mycenaean period, but the nearest known Mycenaean site is dozens of miles away from Alepotrypa. This suggests that undiscovered Mycenaean sites lie closer to the cave or that bones were carried long distances and buried at a site that was already ancient and ritually important by the late Bronze Age.
Giorgos Papathanassopoulos, lead excavator at the site, has speculated that a single ritual tradition might connect Neolithic prehistory with later Greek practices from the Classical period. Legends from antiquity placed an entrance to Hades at Cape Tainaron, a site near the Alepotrypa Cave that was also home to a death oracle and a temple of Poseidon.
Though it's currently impossible to prove, the burial tradition at Alepotrypa may have survived in cultural memory, eventually becoming associated with Tainaron by the Classical period. The Mycenaean ossuary is a suggestive link that could indicate a tradition persisting from Neolithic to Classical Greece. "There's no direct evidence, but we can't rule out that possibility," Papathanasiou said.