Marathon Musings

I often seem to begin posts of this sort with some sort of statement of why Classics is such an interesting field of study, and again I feel compelled to do so. It has been my experience — and I’m sure it’s the experience of plenty of folks who are reading this — that it is extremely common that something you happen to be interested in at the moment turns out to be a gateway down a path of research which just becomes more and more interesting as you wander down it. In this case, the incipit of this rambling little journey is an item at the Royal Ontario Museum:

Folks who follow me on facebook will recall me asking about this item a few months ago — it’s obviously a Corinthian helmet (mid- to late- sixth century B.C.) , and it was apparently found in 1834 with the associated skull still inside!  The skeptical side of my brain set off all sorts of alarm bells primarily because I had never seen this item, despite semi-regularly taking classes of excitable grade sevens (“Oh look … Mr Meadows is taking pictures of naked statues! Tee hee hee!”) to the ROM. Subsequent enquiries suggested I had somehow managed to miss it on several occasions and so it was obviously on my ‘things to see’ list when we took our grade sevens to the ROM a few weeks ago (“Oh look … Mr Meadows is taking pictures of naked statues! Tee hee hee!”).  Having seen it, I initially wondered whether that skull actually fit inside the helmet, so we pulled out the Photoshop and played with transparency and the like:

It did appear to ‘fit’, although it would be somewhat tight; it would appear that such helmets were probably good for deflecting glancing sword blows and the odd sling bullet, but probably could contribute to quite a few concussions.  In any event, around this time, the gateway down the path started to open and I thought it was rather unique that not only did this purport to come from Marathon, but also that it appeared to involve the burial of someone in full armour (whether by accident or by design).  That it was supposedly dug up in 1834 — at the height of the popularity of the “Grand Tour”, when linking some dug up artifact to some famous event could increase its sales value to some touring foreigner — was also of interest/possible concern. In theory, the artifact would come from the area in or about the Soros, which is the huge mound in the midst of the Marathon Plain and currently accepted almost universally (near as I can tell) as the burial mound of the 192 Athenians who fell during the battle. The Soros is also considered an extremely important ‘peg’ for those historians who are attempting to reconstruct the battle and for providing a terminus post quem for assorted pottery chronologies, so our meandering down the path began with finding out when this big mound came to be. As has often been noted, Herodotus’ account of the battle (6.112 ff … parallel text via Sacred Texts)  and its aftermath is somewhat vague. We are told about the battle itself (113),  some of the big names who died (114),  skirmishing at the ships (115) and subsequent rush to Athens (116), the number of casualties and that interesting bit which might be one of our earliest examples of post traumatic stress syndrome (117 …  see also: Marathon Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ). Jumping ahead a bit, we get our only mention in Herodotus (as far as I’m aware) of the actual corpses of the slain (120, again via Sacred Texts):

Of the Lacedemonians there came to Athens two thousand after the full moon, making great haste to be in time, so that they arrived in Attica on the third day after leaving Sparta: and though they had come too late for the battle, yet they desired to behold the Medes; and accordingly they went out to Marathon and looked at the bodies of the slain: then afterwards they departed home, commending the Athenians and the work which they had done.

Herodotus, then, doesn’t mention what actually happened to the corpses. For that, we have to turn to Thucydides (2.34.5) , who mentions it in his preliminaries to Pericles’ Funeral Oration (2.34.1-7 via Perseus):

During the same winter, in accordance with an old national custom, the funeral of those1 who first fell in this war was celebrated by the Athenians at the public charge. The ceremony is as follows: [2] Three days before the celebration they erect a tent in which the bones of the dead are laid out, and every one brings to his own dead any offering which he pleases. [3] At the time of the funeral the bones are placed in chests of cypress wood, which are conveyed on hearses; there is one chest for each tribe. They also carry a single empty litter decked with a pall for all whose bodies are missing, and cannot be recovered after the battle. [4] The procession is accompanied by any one who chooses, whether citizen or stranger, and the female relatives of the deceased are present at the place of interment and make lamentation. [5] The public sepulchre is situated in the most beautiful spot outside the walls; there they always bury those who fall in war; only after the battle of Marathon the dead, in recognition of their pre-eminent valour, were interred on the field. [6] When the remains have been laid in the earth, some man of known ability and high reputation, chosen by the city, delivers a suitable oration over them; after which the people depart. [7] Such is the manner of interment; and the ceremony was repeated from time to time throughout the war.

That “only after the battle of Marathon” bit has come be be referred to as “Thucydides’ Blunder”, insofar as the battlefield burial at Marathon was not unique (see, e.g., Mark Toher, “On ‘Thucydides’ Blunder’: 2.34.5′”, Hermes, 127 (1999), pp. 497-501 for some other examples, including a reference to a complete list in Pritchett’s Greek State at War IV). That said, however, from this we should be able to infer that all the other details of the fate of the corpses at Marathon would have been similar (i.e. bones gathered up and interred later). That accords well, to a certain extent, with our skull-in-the-helmet, although it seems unlikely still that burial with armour would occur.

We still have no mention of the Soros, however, and it seems we have to wait some five or six centuries for Pausanias (1.32.3 ff … via Perseus) to mention it:

There is a parish called Marathon, equally distant from Athens and Carystus in Euboea. It was at this point in Attica that the foreigners landed, were defeated in battle, and lost some of their vessels as they were putting off from the land.1 On the plain is the grave of the Athenians, and upon it are slabs giving the names of the killed according to their tribes; and there is another grave for the Boeotian Plataeans and for the slaves, for slaves fought then for the first time by the side of their masters.[4] here is also a separate monument to one man, Miltiades, the son of Cimon, although his end came later, after he had failed to take Paros and for this reason had been brought to trial by the Athenians. At Marathon every night you can hear horses neighing and men fighting. No one who has expressly set himself to behold this vision has ever got any good from it, but the spirits are not wroth with such as in ignorance chance to be spectators. The Marathonians worship both those who died in the fighting, calling them heroes, and secondly Marathon, from whom the parish derives its name, and then Heracles, saying that they were the first among the Greeks to acknowledge him as a god.[5] They say too that there chanced to be present in the battle a man of rustic appearance and dress. Having slaughtered many of the foreigners with a plough he was seen no more after the engagement. When the Athenians made enquiries at the oracle the god merely ordered them to honor Echetlaeus (He of the Plough-tail) as a hero. A trophy too of white marble has been erected. Although the Athenians assert that they buried the Persians, because in every case the divine law applies that a corpse should be laid under the earth, yet I could find no grave. There was neither mound nor other trace to be seen, as the dead were carried to a trench and thrown in anyhow.

So by Pausanias’ time, we have a visible grave (and likely the thing we call the Soros) and we hear of a hero cult and associated worship going on there. Presumably Pausanias also saw lists of the sort we mentioned in our previous post: Marathon Casualty List?. That there doesn’t seem to be a mention of this mound for half a millennium is possibly concerning, but is the sort of thing Classicists have to deal with all the time.

And so we return to our skull-in-the-helmet and its purported find date of 1834. The next obvious step down the path was to find out when/if any excavations had ever been done at the site of the Soros. An appeal to the Twitterati provided various useful suggestions for finding out same, but I eventually settled on Peter Krentz’ recent The Battle of Marathon, which includes a useful overview of vistors and early digs at the site in Chapter Six in the section called “The Grave of the Athenians” (I downloaded the Kindle version which, for reasons unknown, is one of those which does not include page numbers; apologies for not being able to be more specific in the references which follow). The first mention of an ‘excavation’ (such as it was) appears to be Fauvel’s digging in 1788. He apparently cut a huge trench in the mound in search of antiquities, but found nothing. In 1802, Lord and Lady Elgin (yes, that Lord Elgin) poked around and found some pottery fragments, but little else. Assorted “speculators in antiquities” had dug in the mound in the 1830s, which apparently left the Soros in a rather sorry state and resulted in directives from the minister of education to prevent people from unauthorized digs there (Krentz’ work includes a Christopher Wordsworth engraving of Marathon at the time … the ebook didn’t have permission to include it; I’m not sure if this flickr example is the one mentioned, but there’s not much to see if it is).

In 1883, our old friend Heinrich Schliemann came to Marathon, and — true to form — decided to investigate by sinking a huge trench into the top of the Soros, and a smaller one on the eastern side. He didn’t find much, and decided it was a prehistoric mound from the 19th century B.C.. Then came the major excavation of Valerios Staes (sometimes spelled Stais), whose findings are generally taken as proof that this was the grave of the Athenians. He dug further than anyone had previously dug and “found a funeral pyre on a brick-lined tray, with ashes and charred bones and black-figure pottery not later than the early fifth century”. James Whitley, “The Monuments That Stood before Marathon: Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Archaic Attica” , AJA 98 (1994), pp. 213-230 (an incredibly interesting article), gives us a bit better summary of what Staes found (including diagrams which didn’t make it into the ebook version of Krentz):

There seem to be three principal elements to the burial (fig. 1): 1) a central cremation “tray,” containing the cremated remains of the war dead, surrounded by black-figure lekythoi; 2) an exterior trench (which Stais called a stenon), not for cremations, but apparently for other offerings; more pottery was found in this trench; and 3) a tumulus or mound over the whole. In addition, a number of grave stelae were placed around the tumulus. (p. 215-216)

Krentz goes further and tells us that Staes apparently even felt moved to sign an ‘affidavit of authenticity’ signed by a number of other scholars who attested to the veracity of the find (wow!). There were other investigations and other finds along the way — of interest to our purposes are the numbers of “Marathon arrowheads” which have made it to the British Museum and which, though many are indeed Persian, cannot be connected to the site of Marathon with any confidence (also interesting are a number of obsidian points, which were/are thought to be connected with Ethiopian archers in the Persian army, although the obsidian is not African in origin … see Colin Renfrew et al, “Obsidian in the Aegean,” The Annual of the British School at Athens, (1965), pp. 240 ff). And while there seem to be many digs going on in the area, there doesn’t seem to have been a major excavation of the Soros itself for quite a while.

At this point I was confused. I had the skull-in-the-helmet, purportedly from Marathon, but at Marathon the Soros clearly contains the remains of  cremations. Even more confusing, though, was the fact that cremation wasn’t the burial practice at the time — Krentz deals with this with an appeal to the heroic burial descriptions in the Iliad (in chapter 8, in a section called “The Athenians Bury the Dead”). My confusion “was confirmed” as I read more of Whitley’s article, which is trying to put the Soros within the context of hero cults, who notes (inter alia, obviously):

In this light, the practices evident at Marathon appear doubly paradoxical. The war dead died defending the new, Cleisthenic democracy-indeed, as the Marathonomachai they became its most characteristic representatives. But the kind of burial they received recalled nothing so much as the old, pre-democratic manner of aristocratic burial; the cult that was their due revived practices that had been in steady decline for the past century. (p. 227)

… so the fact that the remains in the Soros are cremated IS unusual. The events after the battle do not help to make it any more unusual. We are told by Plutarch (Life of Aristides 5.5, via Perseus) that Aristeides and his tribe did not take part in the rush back to Athens:

But Aristides was left behind at Marathon with his own tribe, to guard the captives and the booty. Nor did he belie his reputation, but though silver and gold lay about in heaps, and though there were all sorts of raiment and untold wealth besides in the tents and captured utensils, he neither desired to meddle with it himself, nor would he suffer any one else to do so, although certain ones helped themselves without his knowledge.

Krentz speculates that Aristeides and his men were also behind the funeral preparations (this is when the Homer comparison is mentioned), the performance of which normally would happen the second day after death. If so, one wonders where the bodies were when the Spartans finally showed up (Herodotus 6.120, via Sacred Texts):

Of the Lacedemonians there came to Athens two thousand after the full moon, making great haste to be in time, so that they arrived in Attica on the third day after leaving Sparta: and though they had come too late for the battle, yet they desired to behold the Medes; and accordingly they went out to Marathon and looked at the bodies of the slain: then afterwards they departed home, commending the Athenians and the work which they had done.

Were the bodies still on the battlefield? Collected together? On a pyre? All mixed with Persians still? Another problem I had with all this was that Aristeides et al were presumably stripping dead and guarding booty. But on this reading, they would also be involved in digging a trench for this cremation pan, finding bricks to line it, cutting down sufficient wood to cremate 192 bodies, and gathering enough earth from all around to make a mound. Cornelius Nepos mentions the use of trees in some manner to prevent the Athenians from being flanked, but it is apparently contentious whether these involve living trees or trees already cut down, in the latter case, of course, there would be plenty of fuel for a cremation (on the controversy see, e.g., W.W. How, “Cornelius Nepos on Marathon and Paros”,  JHS 39 (1919), pp. 55 ff and compare M. Cary, “Cornelius Nepos on Marathon”,  JHS 40 (1920), pp. 206-20).

Krentz further speculates that families came and “used family heirlooms for a funeral meal”, which they left behind, and then the mound was set up to complete the obsequies.

Now for what it’s worth, after all this, I’m operating under no illusion that my skull-in-the-helmet has anything to do with Marathon, but probably does come from some burial looted in the days of the Grand Tour. That said, however, given what the literary and social evidence suggests about what happened to the dead at Marathon, the skull-in-the-helmet makes a bit more sense than the prevailing view (in a vague sort of way, of course) and  I don’t understand why there is such confidence in the Soros being the burial site of the 192 Athenians. That it involves cremation at a time when burial was more usual, and in the context of the time, would likely have been far more convenient/practical, simply does not make sense to me and seems to be a major problem which requires much more explanation than it being a ‘throwback’. Without even going into the problems with finding the associated graves of the Plataians who fell at Marathon — to say nothing of some 6400 Persians — it’s troublesome that we don’t really hear about the Soros itself until a few hundred years after its creation and only adds to the difficulties of confident identification. It strikes me as highly possible — if not probable —  of some ‘forgotten’ mound being something later identified as the burial site by contemporaries (for hero cult/tourist purposes) without any definite connection — the later connection to Herodes Atticus is kind of interesting in this regard. That there are cremated remains within the Soros (apparently) also strikes me as presenting a scholarly-useful situation where carbon dating might be extremely useful, if not necessary, and I’m wondering if it has ever been done or even suggested. Given the importance of the Soros for reconstructing the battle, and the use of the Soros (via the so-called ‘Marathon painter’, whose style is seen on the lekythoi found therein) in regards to Black Figure chronology, it seems to be that this is an area which really needs more direct investigation (i.e. a modern excavation of the Soros itself). Perhaps the implications for modern-day tourism preclude such things …

UPDATE (a few weeks later): shortly after I posted the above, I became aware of a more detailed treatment of similar matters and thought I had posted it. Constantine Lagos’ comment (below) reminded me that I didn’t, so for more of this:

… definitely worth the read.

9 thoughts on “Marathon Musings

  1. Good post, tx. Thucydides talks about bones — do we know just what he means? Had the carrion birds been around?

    1. I’m not sure; I’ve made a note to look more closely at Greek burial practices because Thucydides almost seems to be describing a ‘secondary burial’ type situation with bones being placed in ossuary-type things after the flesh had rotted away; or is it the bones that are left behind after cremation?


    Source: Re-thinking Marathon: two memorabilia from the battle of Marathon at the Pitt-Rivers

    Dr Yannis Galanakis, Department of Antiquities Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

    “…..These early ‘excavations’ were nothing extraordinary; on the contrary, it appears that like the Elgins had done in 1802, travelling parties to the site developed a strong interest in digging up holes in search of memorabilia on the tumulus of Marathon, perhaps tempted by the fact that it was already half-open. There are many stories to suggest that Admiral Brock’s activities were far from an isolated incident: for example, commodore Elliott during his cruise in the Levant collected a number of various curious remains of antiquity ‘dug up from the plains of Marathon and of Troy’, [32] while Heathcote Campion who visited tombs in Greece in 1836 noted that ‘the tumulus [at Marathon] was opened some years ago, and nothing but a helmet and a quantity of flint arrow-heads were found’. Although it is impossible to ascertain to which ‘opening’ of the tumulus Campion is alluding here, the ‘discovery of a helmet’ [33] may perhaps refer to an ancient Greek helmet of the Corinthian type with a skull purportedly found inside it, allegedly in 1834, and now in the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. If there is any connection between the two, then Campion’s note may refer to any recent (1830s) excavation at Marathon, though not necessarily in the area of the tumulus.”



  3. Hello,

    Your query about the helmet with the skull has also been mine for a few years now and I’ve come to some conclusions about it, hence this email.
    I think that we are dealing here with a genuine artefact of the battle of Marathon and that the skull belongs to one of the Greeks (Athenian or Plataean) who died during the battle. The main problem is that the cremations found in the Soros do in fact belong to the Athenian dead of the battle. There is plenty of evidence in support of this identification and the great majority of scholars accept it. Incidentally, there is no need for another archaeological dig at the Soros since Stais did a thorough job in digging the entire section with the cremations and recovering the artefacts there (pottery, ashes, and the iron spike).
    How then to you reconcile the cremations found in the Soros and the skull in the helmet, if this was really found in the surface of the Soros? The solution appears to rest with the period when the Soros was constructed. As you probably read at the end of Dr Galanakis’ article, one of the casualty lists with the names of the dead Athenians was stolen by Herodes Atticus in the 2nd century AD. It is now widely believed that the Soros was constructed by Herodes as a way to conceal the fact that he had stolen the original monument covering the earth where the ashes of the Athenian dead were buried and consisted of a marble base with ten casualty lists on top of it (“polyandreion”). This theory would explain why Shleimann found prehistoric ceramic and obsidian in the soil of the Soros during his excavation and Stais also found grave goods dating to the Roman period. The latter were not offerings to the dead Athenians by visitors of the Roman period, but were in the earth that was gathered for the construction of the mound. In the upper surface of the Soros were bronze arrowheads and the hilt of the ancient sword that are now in the British Museum. These were found by visitors to the Soros before the excavations of Schleimann and Stais and that explains why no such artefacts were found by either in their excavations.
    I think that the helmet with the skull ended in the Soros in the same context as the above:
    In other words, some time in the 2nd Century AD a large quantity of earth was transferred with the purpose of constructing the Soros. In the earth were burials of a few poor inhabitants, some prehistoric relics, but also artefacts associated with the battle. Among the latter were the helmet with the skull. This may explain why a helmet with a skull were found but not the rest of the skeleton with the other armour. I think that what we have here is the head of a Greek soldier that was decapitated during the battle by a Persian. After the battle, his comrades found his body and cremated it with the other dead, but did not recover the head with the helmet. Centuries later while gathering earth for the mound, Herodes’ workmen stumbled across part of the battlefield and thus transferred with the soil, relics of the battle including the helmet and skull of one of the dead soldiers. Thus they inadvertently placed the head with the rest of the body -well actually a few meters above it. During the early 1830s one of the foreign “tourists” who dug the surface of the Soros looking for arrowheads found instead the helmet and thus the dead Marathonmachus lost his head again….

    Best Regards

    Constantine Lagos

    1. I’m curious about the evidence which supports the cremation remains being definitely Athenian and/or from this time period (as opposed to maybe a generation before) … I haven’t seen any studies on that score and cremation doesn’t really fit with the burial style at the time (and especially of soldiers on the battlefield).

  4. Hello,

    The majority of vases that were found in the Soros date with certainty to the early 5th Century BC -on evidence that is independent of the Soros finds. Most of these were Attic lekythoi, cheap staff, bought as grave goods specifically for the dead of the Soros. It is true that two of the “expensive” vases are earlier (mid 6th century BC) but their presence in an early 5th Century BC context is not odd. There are several recorded cases in Attica where such precious vases were found in graves of a much later date than their manufacture. They are thought to have been family heirlooms -bought not with the intention of being placed in a grave- but may have been later offered as grave goods to a member of the family who in life distinguished himself and the family.
    According to Stais’ report, he found a large quantity of burnt human bones and ashes in his excavation of the Soros just beneath ground level. This shows that it was a massive burial. The problem was that these bones were very brittle and were destroyed when touched. So Stais asked a group of eminent scientists to see this strata-layer of burnt bones and ashes and verify its existence since he would cover it with earth to preserve it. The scientists recorded that all artefacts and the cremations had been placed with great care, showing that this was done ceremoniously and not in haste. There had been a dinner in honour of the dead (“nekrodeipnos”) attented by many people, judging from the remains of animal bones and the broken kitchenware ceramic that was also found in this strata.
    Cremation was rare at the time of the battle of Marathon but it was used by the aristocracy in Athens throughout the Archaic period. We know from epigrams of the time of the battle honouring the Athenians who fought at Marathon and later panegyrics that the dead Marathonmachii were equated with the heroes of Homer by the athenian state. So it would not be odd if the newly founded athenian democracy honoured its dead soldiers by cremating them as Homeric heroes, something that was previously preserved for the aristocracy (check out: G.Anderson, The Athenian Experiment. Building an Imagined Political Community in Ancient Attica, 508-490 B.C., The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2003).
    In c. 490 BC a large number of people died at the same time at Marathon and were honoured by being cremated and having their remains interred together. The most reasonable identification is that these are the Athenian dead of the battle. The alternative is that the entire lot of aristocrat Marathonites perished at the same time in c. 490 BC by some mysterious illness, in which case however they would not have been buried all together but in their individual family plots.

    Best Regards

    Constantine Lagos

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