Cleopatra, Arsinoe, and the Implications

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?

33 thoughts on “Cleopatra, Arsinoe, and the Implications

  1. Just because Arsinoe and Cleopatria were sisters does not mean that they had the same mother. afterall, ancient kings were known to have a few “side women” besides their official wives. To me this is just attention-getting hype like the computer generated face of Cleopatra of a few weeks back. A “mixed race beauty”—soooo politically correct.

  2. These “amazing discoveries” for television are always funny. Have they by any chance also considered the contemporary coins of Cleopatra? E.g. these here?

    Or the later ones with Marcus Antonius? Her nose seems to have been “antonized”. 😉

    So how can they postulate an African (or partially African) ancestry for Cleopatra, when none of the contemporary coins can convincingly support this idea? Even if the find were really Arsinoe—which would need to be proven first before using it as a basis for further assumptions—, it wouldn’t reveal anything substantial about Cleopatra. (That the skull is missing, makes it even harder.) Seems like pseudoscientific TV grandstanding.

  3. Eurocentric crowd is really getting defensive on this one. More evidence pouring out breaking down their old racial theories. Well done!

  4. Hello, very interesting response to what I call these science FICTION claims. I take it the ‘researchers’ of this study are not aware of the fact that long-headed skulls, dolichocephalic, are common among southern europeans, the true origins of Cleopatra, Arsinoe and the Ptolemies. In fact as this article clearly shows long shaped skulls have existed in the region of Greece long before the Homeric times, meaning even IF Arsinoe’s skull was ‘long shaped’, it still does not imply ‘of mixed’ origins given the region from where her Dynasty originated from is known to have ‘long shaped skulls’:

    “Six skulls from Hagias Kosmas near Athens claimed to be of amalgamation period of Neolithic Mediterranean, Danubian, and Cycladic elements, between 2500 and 2200 B.C.21 depict three are long headed shaped (dolichocephalic), one mesocephalic, and two brachyceplialic. The faces of all are narrow, the noses leptorrhine, the orbits high.

    Twenty-five Mid-Helladic crania represent the period after the arrival of the Corded or “Kurgan” folk from the north, and during the seizure of power by the Minoan conquerors from Crete.22 Of these, twenty-three come from Asine, and two from Mycenae. The long heads are not of uniform type; some, with large vaults and strong browridges, with deep nasion depressions, remind one of the larger varieties of Neolithic dolichocephals, of both Long Barrow and Corded types; and Fürst feels that a number of them are very similar to the Late Neolithic crania from Scandinavia, of about equal age. Needless to say, both Corded and Megalithic people were present in Denmark and Sweden at about this time.

    The rest of the long-headed crania, which are probably more truly representative of the bulk of the Mid-Helladic population, are of the slightbrowed, high-nosed type familiar in Crete and Asia Minor during the same epoch. They, too, are short statured, while the few examples of the larger-headed variety are, as is expected, taller. It is impossible, with present data, to isolate front the main body of these crania a Danubian type, although the latter may well have been present.

    Forty-one Late Helladic skulls, dated between 1500 and 1200 B.C., and coming likewise from Argolis, may include those of some of the “divineborn” invaders. Among these, one-fifth are brachycephalic, and apparently largely of the Cypriote Dinaric type. Of the long-headed skulls, a large number belongs now to the larger, more heavily marked varieties, and fewer to the smaller Mediterranean The similarity to the northern types, and especially to the Corded, is even stronger than before.”

    Long oval shaped heads in Greeks is not uncommon even in modern Greeks, so claiming Arsinoe was ‘African’ based upon a skull that they do not have being long shaped is shaddy work to say the least.

  5. Quick comment regarding this “story” about this back in Sept. ’08:

    Mark Bell, BBC “commissioning editor” summed it up what this “documentary” is going to be about —> nothing but SENSATIONALIZED hype <— straight from their own mouths.

    “It may be ancient history, but it still makes a SENSATIONAL story today, and I’m delighted to be bringing it to BBC One.”

    So much for historical integrity.

  6. I have learned much from reading the comments. I appreciate the intellect and desire to uncover truth in archeology and the evolution of mankind by those above.

    With regard to the coins of Cleopatra on one side and Antony on the other. In that time, the representation of a “large” nose (a nose equal to that of Antony, represented Cleopatra as being “equal” in power and authority as a man (this is of Ancient Roman thought). We are judging it by our standards. There was a very, very different language of that day (as well as other times in history, we make so many mistakes translatingl their times into ours).

    Very simple and true remark above, “we all have African DNA.” Very true. Also, we do not have Egyptian history on Cleopatra and, many, many things have been exaggerated along with histories completely made up by the Romans to vilify her (as she was a very powerful intelligent woman, who, may have changed the world, at least, recognize her deep desire to keep her kingdom intact and a sovereign nation at all, necessary, costs). I have studied her as well, and, found that her own people desired her rule that they, may have killed her sister (knowing Cleopatra would have done anything to keep Egypt, it’s history, and religion.) Antony may have also been acting on his own, to keep Egypt in his back pocket. It may have been his desire to usurp Cleopatra’s authority and take Egypt for his own.

    I know this may be a supposition, but, it has been a common strategy throughout history.

    What Cleopatra’s make up is less important than finding the truth and dispelling lies of her life. Apparently, it really didn’t matter back then what her makeup was, she was then and will always be, ruler of upper and lower Egypt.

    It seems that if a legendary person has links to any continent, does that mean someone wins, or, some ethnicity is superior? I recall someone in history tried very hard to prove that and destroy all in his wake.

    Every country has had it’s heyday. All have risen and fallen, and these legendary people, have done some horrible things, if we are to believe what we know right now of history.

    Read King David’s history. He is VERY hailed, yet, did some pretty awful things. He also, as we are more aware, in the end, listened and obeyed the desire of the Good (YHVH).

    If we take credit for some accomplishment of someone in the past, then, we must admit and account for their failures as well.

    According to DNA, we ARE all descended from a woman or group of women that science has given the appropriately named: “Eve.”

    We are ALL superior, if we only go on our high points, and all lose if we admit to being descended from those of the opposite side of that scale.

    Quoting my cousin, who belonged to VISTA and, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. Whose photo was posted by the Klan to be killed on site, said something I will never forget: The “Dream” of that Great Man will be realized, when we no longer use the labels black, white or color of any kind, referred to by religion or ethnicity. We are all human and a family of the same humankind and it’s Creator, by whatever name you call them.”

    I know we have not reached that point yet. Hopefully, soon.

  7. In fact dolichocephaly is not a characteristic trait of Europeans and is not even the predominant characteristic of the Berbers that look like Europeans in North Africa who are also mainly brachycephalic and mesocranic. Peoples of the Levant today and southern Europe are among the most brachcephalic populations in the world. It is not found anywhere in Europe on a regional basis. Sorry to burst your bubble.

  8. Forgot to add modern specialists note that modern day peoples close to the coast of north Africa and in Europe have been shown to have little link to earlier neolithic Europeans or north Africans – yet they appear to have been closely linked to some African populations.

    See The Brace et. al. who says – Said Loring Brace 2005 and 2006, “Modern Europeans ranging all of the way from Scandinavia to Eastern Europe and throughout the Mediterranean on to the Middle East show that they are closely related to each other. The surprise is that the Neolithic peoples of Europe and their Bronze Age successors are not closely related to the modern inhabitants…” from “The questionable contribution of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age to European craniofacial form, C. Loring Brace,*† Noriko Seguchi,‡ Conrad B. Quintyn,§ Sherry C. Fox,¶ A. Russell Nelson, Sotiris K. Manolis,** and Pan Qifeng Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 January 3; 103(1): 242–247.

  9. The same article by Loring Brace links together in a cluster the Bronze Age predynastic populations of Egypt (naqada culture)with East Africans as exemplified in the Somali.

    The peoples of dolichocephalic “gracile Mediterranean” in ancient Bronze Age and neolithic North Africa South West Asia and Europe were, as expressed by Grafton Elliot Smith and other early physical anthropologists, related to East Africans.

  10. Wow, facial reconstruction of a headless skeleton–brilliant!
    I suppose there is no chance at all that anyone else died and was
    buried between 200bc and 20bc? Therefore it must be Arsinoe.
    Add to it the “fact” that anything with eight sides must be connected
    to the lighthouse of Alexandria, and of course no woman in the ancient
    world died of drowning, pregnancy induced blood poisoning or food poisoning.
    There are many types of death which would not be detectable in the skeletal remains.

  11. Sorry to burst your bubble but long-headed skulls, dolichocephalic, are common among not only Souther Europeans and people in North Africa aka Berbers, the Middle East but NORTHERN Europeans too and they don’t imply ‘mixed’ with North East Africans as some have wrongly been trying to claim here. Look below please

    16) Northern Europeans — hair generally wavy, flaxen or reddish, tall stature, —> dolichocephalic <—

  12. Frankly, I am not convinced that this is Arsinoë for one particular reason, the age. It is much more likely that Arsinoë was only a year or two younger than Cleopatra, as most traditions contend, and because of her actions. I really don’t see a nine or ten year old girl usurping the throne AND having her eunuch, Ganymedes, assassinate the general of the Egyptian army, Achillas, because she disagreed with his tactics. Yet there are other things about this that irk me.

    Now personally, I remain convinced that Arsinoë, Cleopatra, Ptolemy Dionysus, and Ptolemy Philopator all had the same mother. Tradition has them being full siblings and it seems much more likely that this is correct. The ancient sources actually bother to claim Berenike Epiphanes (and possibly another girl named Cleopatra, who died in infancy) as the half-sister of Cleopatra Philopator. Now it’s suddenly being changed around. Why? I’ve yet to hear a good reason.

    They don’t seem to take into consideration that the later Lagides were considered to be of part barbarian stock as Cleopatra Syra was a Seleukid. The founder of the Seleukid Empire, Seleucus Nicator, had a Persian queen, Apama.

    The silliest thing about this is that the ancients did not share our concept of race. Back then, race had little to do with the colour of one’s skin. It was more about where you were from, the language you spoke, the Gods you worshipped, etc. Romans typically would have considered Cleopatra Egyptian, but to her subjects (native Egyptians, the Macedonian and Greek population, and the Jews of Alexandria, Elephantine, etc), she was Hellenistic.

    Lastly, the shape of the head could simply be a result of inbreeding. The same thing cropped up in the earlier Egyptian dynasties…

    My apologies for not giving sources. It’s only that I’ve been studying Cleopatra since I was a small child. Now that I’m in my thirties, I can’t remember a good half of the dozens upon dozens of books I have read on her. However, I will mention “Cleopatra, The Life and Death of a Pharaoh” by Edith Flamarion as being the most accurate and concise biography. (I only found two or three factual errors in the whole thing!)

  13. Here is what I can guarantee, an Egytian woman of high importance and stature, was buried in Turkey around 2200 years ago. That is 100% fact.

    How did Arsinoe look, simple : an Egyptian. Because that is what she was. Look at Egyptians today and you get your answer. Egyptians do share some African blood, particularly Nubian. They also have Greek and Macedonian blood. But a vast majority of it is local Brown (common sense!). So it does not stun me if she looked mulatto or white.

    What should strike us more is the story of a girl who died in her teens because of a power-hungry step-sister. This girl was brought to Rome and cried in a cage and made a blood hungry mob take pity on her and forced Ceaser to cease her execution.

    We should be talking about that rather than discussing her skin color…

  14. I visited Ephesus this June specifically to see the tomb of Arsinoe IV. The Archeological team is presently working on restoring the “Houses On The Slopes” which are located next to Arsinoe’s tomb. Hopefully they will restore the tomb soon. I can’t wait to visit Ephesus again next year.

  15. The first problem I had with the study is the distinction b/w ‘black African’ & ‘ancient Egyptian’ made by Wilkinson. The Kemetyw (ancient Egyptians) were Black plenty of research shows that. The second problem, we don’t know for sure if they had the same mother

    On the flipside, the finding disproves the longheld falsehood that the Ptolemies did “pollute” their royal blood – even though common sense should make that notion untenable. Also, in regards to Cleopatra VII, it is important to note that Greeks and Romans saw her exclusively as Egyptian. This would mean that she was Greco-Egyptian ancestry, but racially Egyptian.

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