Just before bed last night I was deluged with bloggables, chief among which was a report in numerous newspapers about tests having been done on the bones of someone believed to be Arsinoe, Cleopatra’s murdered sister. This one presents numerous difficulties and the press might be jumping the gun (once again), although it is clear this is hype for a television program masquerading as news. In any event, let’s begin with a bit from the Times‘ coverage on the identification of the bones as Arsinoe:
The distinctive tomb was first opened in 1926 by archeologists who found a sarcophagus inside containing a skeleton. They removed the skull, which was examined and measured; but it was lost in the upheaval of the second world war.
In the early 1990s Thür reentered the tomb and found the headless skeleton, which she believed to be of a young woman. Clues, such as the unusual octagonal shape of the tomb, which echoed that of the lighthouse of Alexandria with which Arsinöe was associated, convinced Thür the body was that of Cleopatra’s sister. Her theory was considered credible by many historians, and in an attempt to resolve the issue the Austrian Archeological Institute asked the Medical University of Vienna to appoint a specialist to examine the remains.
Fabian Kanz, an anthropologist, was sceptical when he began this task two years ago. “We tried to exclude her from being Arsinöe,” he said. “We used all the methods we have to find anything that can say, ‘Okay, this can’t be Arsinöe because of this and this’.”
After using carbon dating, which dated the skeleton from 200BC-20BC, Kanz, who had examined more than 500 other skeletons taken from the ruins of Ephesus, found Thür’s theory gained credibility.
He said he was certain the bones were female and placed the age of the woman at 15-18. Although Arsinöe’s date of birth is not known, she was certainly younger than Cleopatra, who was about 27 at the time of her sister’s demise.
The lack of any sign of illness or malnutrition also indicated a sudden death, said Kanz. Evidence of the skeleton’s north African ethnicity provided the final clue.
Caroline Wilkinson, a forensic anthropologist, reconstructed the missing skull based on measurements taken in the 1920s. Using computer technology it was possible to create a facial impression of what Arsinöe might have looked like.
“It has got this long head shape,” said Wilkinson. “That’s something you see quite frequently in ancient Egyptians and black Africans. It could suggest a mixture of ancestry.”
The Thür mentioned is Hilke Thür of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The tomb in question is actually in Ephesus and we know that Arsinoe was actually killed there at Cleopatra’s request and on Marcus Antonius’ orders. The identification of the tomb as belonging to Arsinoe seems reasonable (if not exactly secure) enough. As might be expected, though, the ancestry side of things is what the press is latching on to … Dr Thur is quoted in the Telegraph (and there’s a similar quote in the AFP coverage):
“It is unique in the life of an archaeologist to find the tomb and the skeleton of a member of Ptolemaic dynasty. The results of the forensic examination and the fact that the facial reconstruction shows that Arsinoe had an African mother is a real sensation which leads to a new insight on Cleopatra’s family and the relationship of the sisters Cleopatra and Arsinoe.”
The headlines of both the Telegraph (“Cleopatra had African ancestry, skeleton suggests”) and the AFP coverage (“Cleopatra ‘was part-African'”) show the leap the press is taking with this one, despite the fact that we are not entirely sure who Cleopatra’s mother was (she is not named in any Classical source as far as I’m aware and the suggestion that it was Cleopatra V (Arsinoe’s mother) is a long-standing conjecture) — she and Arsinoe did not necessarily have the same mother. But beyond that, we get this skull business and having Arsinoe’s ethnicity actually being determined from a reconstructed skull based on measurements taken in the 1920s? Although I fear being labelled as one having the “brainpan of a stagecoach tilter”, can there not be some actual DNA tests on the skeletal material? Was it even suggested? I think the jury’s still very much out on this one …
UPDATE I (03/16/09): I note that Mary Beard agrees with me – The skeleton of Cleopatra’s sister? Steady on.
UPDATE II (03/16/09): Late last night a synapse fired and I remembered we had some hype on this back in September, but it was rather vague. Just to refresh folks memory (if you didn’t click the link), we were promised that, “This film, based on riveting new archaeological evidence, gives a fresh perspective on the world’s original femme fatale.” We were told that, “… more details will be announced about the forensic evidence at a later date.” Back in September I wondered what this “riveting” evidence might be and wondered at Zahi Hawass’ silence on the matter. I still wonder about that, but what really was keeping me awake last night was the question of whether a member of the Egyptian royal family — albeit in exile and as a result of a political murder — would have been funerated non-Egyptian style (sans mummification) or Egyptian style. Not something we can know, alas.
Outside of that, other synapses insisted on firing and I remembered from back in my undergrad days not the much-hyped reconstruction of (purportedly) Philip II’s skull, but rather the less-hyped one which followed thereupon – that of a skull purported to belong to Midas, found in the so-called Midas Mound at Gordion. That skull also was ‘elongated’ and so I dug up A.J.N.W. Prag, “Reconstructing King Midas: A First Report”, Anatolian Studies 39 (1989) and on pp. 160-161 we read:
The face that emerged was somewhat long, with the upper part rather lightly built but the lower part and the jaw fairly substantial: the face of an elderly man with a particularly long back to his head: both Mr. Neave and Professor Alpagut had noted an unusual elongation to the back of the skull, so that the sides were somewhat flattened and the top pushed up almost into a ridge: Professor Alpagut suggests that this is the result of bandaging the skull tightly while the individual was still a baby, a “cosmetic” practice noted on other skulls found in Turkey.
We’ll have to wait and see if the BBC ‘documentary’ mentions this sort of thing … I’d also like to know if anyone involved in this has studied skulls from Macedonian burials to see whether there might be some evidence of elongation within that culture.
UPDATE III (03/16/09): Dorothy King has some useful observations on elongated skulls – Strange Skulls: Arsinoe’s So-called Tomb at Ephesus
UPDATE IV (03/20/09): Katherine Griffis-Greenberg has tracked down an abstract of a paper by the folks who did some DNA testing on the skeleton (paper to be delivered at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists on April 3, 2009). From p. 216-217 of the abstract collection comes:
Cleopatra identified? – Osseous and molecular challenges. F. Kanz, K. Grossschmidt, J. Kiesslich.
Arsinoe IV of Egypt, the younger sister of Cleopatra, was murdered between the ages of 16 and 18 on the order of Marc Antony in 41 BC while living in political asylum at the Artemision in Ephesus (Turkey). Archaeological findings and architectural features point to the skeletal remains found in the socalled Oktogon – Heroon in the center of ancient Ephesus – to being those of Arsinoe IV. Respective remains were dated and investigated by forensic osteology, radiology and ancient DNA analysis to assess identification: Radiocarbon dating (VERA-4104) isolated the period between 210 and 20 BC (94 % prob.). Morphological features suggest a female with an estimated body height of 154 cm (+/- 3 cm) and 217 with limbs in good proportion to one another. Epiphyseal closure and histological age estimation (femoral cross sections) revealed a consistent age at death between 15 and 17 years. The whole skeleton appeared to belong to a slim and fragile individual (soft tissue reconstruction was applied and compared to ancient sources). Stress markers, like Harris’ lines were absent and no sings for heavy workload or pre- or perimortal traumas were found. Ancient DNA analysis was carried out for several bone samples. No nuclear DNA was detected, most likely due to diagenetic factors and storage conditions. Endeavors to find mitochondrial DNA are currently in progress. Investigations could neither verify nor disprove the theory on the origin of the remains. However, after successful mtDNA typing a maternal relative reference sample would be required for final identification.
So I guess we do have the answer to our DNA testing … clearly any results will not help in regards to identification, unless perhaps this DNA can be compared to some Macedonian burials. But just to complicate things, I’m pretty sure that EVERYONE has some African mtDNA, no?