Aristotelian Skepticism: Is It Really His Tomb?

One of the things you get used to when you’re blogging things about the ancient world is that whenever there is some significant date for some significant ancient figure coming up, you can pretty much be sure that there will be some major — and usually ill-supported — discovery tied somehow to that event. Most commonly, e.g., the Easter season will bring claims about the discovery of ossuaries with Jesus or Mary’s name on them, or nails from the crucifixion being found, or the Shroud of Turin being proven authentic, yadda yadda yadda. In this case, 2016 marks the 2400th anniversary of the birth of Aristotle and there currently is the annual Aristotle World Congress going on at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. So if there’s going to be a major discovery announced about Aristotle, the smart money would suggest this year at this conference would be the best bet.

And so it was only moderately surprising when yesterday afternoon, my Greek press newsfeed started a trickle of news about the purported discovery of Aristotle’s tomb at Stagira. The first Greek coverage that popped in my box actually was pretty informative:

Culling (via google Translate) the information, we were told:

  • a Hellenistic structure was found in Stagira back in 1996 which had been incorporated into a later Byzantine structure
  • archaeologist Kostas Sismanidis presented a paper at the above-mentioned conference, citing a ‘convergence’ of archaeological and literary evidence
  • then again, he’s quoted as saying “Δεν έχουμε αποδείξεις αλλά ισχυρότατες ενδείξεις – φθάνουν σχεδόν στη βεβαιότητα.” (no definite proof … hmmm)
  • coins dating from the time of Alexander helped to date the structure
  • there is also mention of ‘royal pottery’ roof tiles
  • literary sources include “manuscript 257 of the Bibliotheca Marciana and an Arabic biography of Aristotle”
  • according to the literary sources:
    • after his death at Chalcis (322), the people of Stagira brought his ashes back in a bronze urn
    • they were placed in an above-ground tomb in the city, and an altar was placed next to it
    • the place was called the Aristoteleion
    • an annual festival/competition was established called Aristoteleia

Interestingly, subsequent Greek press coverage scaled back the coverage markedly, but did repeat the mention of the lack of convincing evidence. See, e.g., the Skai coverage, which includes:

Αν και δεν υπάρχουν αδιάσειστες αποδείξεις ότι πρόκειται για τον τάφο του Αριστοτέλη, πολυετείς έρευνες έχουν δώσει πληθώρα ισχυρών ενδείξεων ότι το μνημείο ταυτίζεται πλέον με τον σταγειρίτη φιλόσοφο.

AP was first with the English coverage and clearly they didn’t think much of the story. They came out with a very brief item with very sparse information about the actual find. As seen in the Stamford Advocate, there were only two paragraphs of interest, really:

Konstantinos Sismanidis concedes that he has “no proof but just strong indications” to back up his theory, presented Thursday at a conference marking the 2,400th anniversary of the philosopher’s birth.

[…] Sismanidis said the structure unearthed in the ruins of Stageira, 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of Thessaloniki, was once a public monument where Aristotle was honored after his death. No human remains were found there.

… there was also mention of “medieval references” about Aristotle’s remains being transferred to Stagira.

Then Greek Reporter was on the case, and their written report includes this useful video with a reconstruction of the ‘tomb’, which looks nothing at all like a tomb and for most of us I suspect the initial reaction is that is a Byzantine structure:

More photos can be found in the accompanying news article:

As coverage continued to pour in over the course of the day yesterday, I found it very interesting that nothing had appeared on the Greek Ministry of Culture site yet. All of the press coverage included the line about Sismanidis saying he had ‘no definite proof’ but the story was spreading. The Guardian’s coverage added a titillating bit of detail:

The claim was welcomed by Greece’s culture ministry; a senior aide to the minister, Aristides Baltas, said the academic community was awaiting further details.

“A team of independent archaeologists with no connection to a particular school or department have been working at the site,” the official told the Guardian. “What we know is that their excavation has been meticulous and we await further details with great anticipation.”

So Sismanidis is not actually affiliated with a university. That’s usually an alarm bell for me but it does appear he is somehow associated with the 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, so maybe that alarm bell should be silenced.

At this point, I was wondering about the tales of the people of Stagira bringing Aristotle’s remains back after his death. This clearly came from some literary source and I was — and continue to be — unclear about the ‘medieval biography’. Some discussion on the Classics International facebook group didn’t really clear it up for me and my brain continued to have issues trying to process the archaeologist’s claims of no certain proof along with claims that the people of Stagira not only brought Aristotle’s ashes back, but established a festival (which festival I couldn’t find any record of). But the coverage continued to build, and some of the more reputable press outlets were adding credibility to the claim:

And so it was with great interest that this morning’s feed from the Greek press brought a very interesting article from To Bema (To Vima?):

Paraphrasing via Google translate again:

  • the item (which seems to be an oped piece on the politics page) shows how the find has already been politicized (and in competition somehow with Amphipolis)
    • perhaps connected with gold mining activities nearby (maybe not)
    • probably connected with competition between Macedonian archaeologists
    • announcement made at a conference where it could not be really questioned as it would if published in a journal (I think that’s the gist)
  • in regards to the interpretation, it all hinges on the claim that the people of Stagira brought Aristotle’s ashes back
  • other archaeologists are looking for a dedicatory inscription of some sort

So … if we’re hanging the identification on claims of a return of ashes, one thing I’d really like to know when this return of ashes is supposed to have happened. I tried to track down assorted biographies of Aristotle and came up empty (which means they’re not readily available on the web, near as I can tell). What also bothers me is the actual claim that he was cremated, which doesn’t strike me as being what he expected to happen after his death. In his will, e.g., which is in Diogenes Laertius, we read provisions for the remains of his wife Pythias:

ὅπου δ᾽ἂν ποιῶνται τὴν ταφήν, ἐνταῦθα καὶ τὰ Πυθιάδος ὀστᾶ ἀνελόνταςθεῖναι, ὥσπερ αὐτὴ προσέταξεν: ἀναθεῖναι δὲ καὶ Νικάνορασωθέντα, ἣν εὐχὴν ὑπὲρ αὐτοῦ ηὐξάμην, ζῷα λίθινα τετραπήχη Διὶσωτῆρι καὶ Ἀθηνᾷ σωτείρᾳ ἐν Σταγείροις.”

And wherever they bury me, there the bones of Pythias shall be laid, in accordance with her own instructions. And to commemorate Nicanor’s safe return, as I vowed on his behalf, they shall set up in Stagira stone statues of life size to Zeus and Athena the Saviours.

Not sure if ‘the bones of’ is just an expression, but this sounds more like he expected a an interment situation for Pythias (and by implication, perhaps for himself) rather than cremation — but I might be reading too much into that.

What also continues to bother me is an item in Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine from May-October of 1892, specifically an article by entitled The Finding of the Tomb of Aristotle by Charles Waldstein. It’s an incredibly chatty piece and will probably remind many of those grad student situations where you were invited to a prof’s house for dinner and he/she regaled you with long (but interesting) tales of their adventures digging somewhere.

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In any event, Waldstein has a good Classical academic pedigree (and, incidentally, was one of the early advocates for excavating Herculaneum) so his claims — which don’t appear to have been accepted — should be taken into account if nothing else. I’ll leave it to you to follow the link above to read the actual article, but just as a tease, here are a couple of the images included in the article:

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Also interesting, was this statue find — which Waldstein actually downplays in the piece:

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Most interesting is mention of an inscription:

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Of course, we do not know of any daughter of Aristotle named Biote, which is probably why this was not accepted as being his tomb. Even so, the final lines of the article are interesting from a nihil novum point of view:

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So whatever has been found at Stagira, there is a long tradition of claiming lack of definite proof, but still making the claim anyway. I suspect the claim made by Sismanidis will be similarly met with skepticism by the scholarly community, unless a rather more tangible connection to Aristotle can be made.

ICYMI ~ The Classical World in the News ~ January 12-17, 2016

[I’m thinking of making this a regular feature]

The Ancient Greece and Rome section of my Explorator newsletter for this week (full issue available here):

Horse burials from an 8th century necropolis in Athens:

Plenty of evidence found during A1 construction suggests the Romans were in Yorkshire a decade earlier than previously thought:

Remains of a Bronze Age village near Aquileia:

Nice feature on some Greek pots at Yale:

Bice Peruzzi is studying burial practices in Central Apulia:

That Bodicacia inscription is now in the Corinium Museum:

Studying/recreating Greek pottery:

Feature on the Battle of Watling street and other Boudiccan things:

Roman London was a pretty cosmopolitan place:

Lessons from the Iliad:

They drained the Great Bath at Bath:

On black Classicists:

Review of Holland, *Dynasty*:

More on Knossos being larger than previously thought:

More on Roman toilets and parasites:

Sixth Century B.C. Domus on the Quirinal

This story is actually a week or so old, but I had to do some investigating … the source for most of the coverage appears to be a report in ANSA; an excerpt:

[…] The sixth-century BC abode had a rectangular layout most likely divided into two rooms, on a tufa stone base and with an entrance possibly preceded by a portico opening onto one of the long sides, with wooden walls covered in clay under a tile roof.

The discovery was made this summer during preliminary archaeological excavations conducted by the superintendent’s office on the historic building and is considered one of the most important of recent years, as it redesigns the map of Rome between the sixth and the fifth centuries BC.

It is also remarkable for the good state of conservation of the structure and since it had previously been thought that the area in which it was found was used as a necropolis and not as a residential area. Since 2003, Palazzo Canevari – which is now owned by the Italian savings and loans bank, which took charge of the excavations when it purchased the property – has been surveyed to see whether ancient relics were on the premises. Following a period of extensive excavations, in 2013 an enormous fifth-century temple was found. And now this latest find, dating back to the time of the Servian Walls, has been considered revolutionary.

“This building is basically absent in archaic Rome, and there are only traces in the Forum area. The home was probably used for about 50-60 years prior to when the temple was built that was discovered in 2013,” Mirella Serlorenzi said during a press visit, who directed the excavations on behalf of the superintendent’s office. “The position of the house near the temple hints at it being a sacred area, and that whoever lived there was watching over what happened therein. But it is even more important that we can now retro-date the urbanization of the Quirinal zone. The Servian Walls encircled an area that was already inhabited and not a necropolis.” “This means that Rome at the beginning of the sixth century was much larger than what we expected and not closed in around the Forum,” she added, stressing that “the excavations will continue for months more. But everything depends on what we find.” […]

The Telegraph adds some useful detail, inter alia:

The hill was thought to have become a part of the city of Rome during the reign of Rome’s sixth king, Servius Tullius. It was previously believed to have been used as a sacred area, with temples and a necropolis, while the city’s residential area was believed to be further south where the Roman Forum is located. […]

… and some nice commentary by amicus noster Darius Arya:

“Many grand projects of restoration going on now are focused on the monuments we know, like the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain, but there is much of Rome’s history that is not so well preserved,” Darius Arya, an American archaeologist currently excavating Ostia Antica, told The Telegraph.

“What is so amazing is that this discovery dates back to Archaic Rome, a crucial period – the regal period – that made Rome so great.”

Folks wanting to track down coverage of the temple find back in 2013 will need to resort to the Italian press:

… which also mentioned a potentially interesting infant burial (was it part of the foundation?).  What I was trying to figure out (and still can’t, really) is whether this is the same site (I get confused by all the Palazzi)  which found a statue of a Maenad which some were suggesting might be a link to a Temple of Quirinus (but later that suggestion was changed … Maybe the Temple of Quirinus Is Somewhere Else?). What became of that?

More coverage (mostly based on AP):

Pondering Lead Sarcophagi and Codices … hmmmm

Okay … I’ve been forcefully woken from my blog slumber by some images that initially seemed just a little suspicious to me, but might eventually set alarm bells off in my head. Folks who follow me on twitter (@rogueclassicist) might be aware that earlier today I was pondering thusly: first, I noted this sarcophagus at the San Antonio Museum of Art (and @MariolaRub posted the photo … the official page says it is “probably from Tyre”):

… had a panel or two that were remarkably similar to an item coming to auction (from a Florida private collection):


… then @keftiugal noted a lead coffin at the UPenn Museum, with similar panels “Provenience: Lebanon Tyre):

… and then I came across this piece, in very high relief and with similar panels, at J. Bagot:


  • via: J.BAGOT Arqueología – Ancient Art (go there for other views; this one is said to come from the necropolis of Tyre and was “decatalogued” by the Chrysler Museum … hmmm, I wonder why they decatalogued it)

Then there were actually two (not one, as I previously mentioned on twitter) examples in McCann, Roman Sarcophagi in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, specifically a Lead Sarcophagus of the Columnar Type (number 25; from Tyre) and a similarly described one which follows (number 26; not sure where from).

Last (for now), but not least, there is one at the-saleroom (from a private NY collection):


As I saw more and more of this image, I openly speculated that we must be dealing with some sort of factory situation and then the conspiracy portion of my brain wondered whether that factory was ancient or modern.  Then that portion of my brain suggested I focus on the ‘medusa’ image from the liveauctioneers piece (which is similar to all the others, but a bit more visible:



Does this image not bear a certain resemblance to an image from another controversy from a few years ago, namely, the Jordan LEAD codices? Specifically, this image:


I borrowed that from Tom Verenna’s post from the time, back when we were all thinking the image was Apollo. [in case you need a refresher on the Lead Codices, see: Lead Codices – Once More into the ‘Reach’ along with the links provided therein]

So now I’m wondering … were the sarcophagi and the codex image the product of the same stamp? They have the same ‘right’ eye indentation and square jaw … the same ‘bird’ over the right eye, etc.. Lots of things here to make you go hmmmmmm, no?

Bronze Mask of Pan from Hippos-Sussita

From a University of Haifa press release:

A large bronze mask of the god Pan, the only of its kind, was uncovered at the University of Haifa’s excavation at Hippos-Sussita National Park. According to Dr. Michael Eisenberg, bronze masks of this size are extremely rare and usually do not depict Pan or any of the other Greek or Roman mythological images. “Most of the known bronze masks from the Hellenistic and Roman periods are minature”.

It seems that in recent years, the mysteries of Hippos-Sussita have been revealing their secrets in an extraordinary way: first, a sculpture of Hercules was exposed by the winter rains of 2011, then, two years later, a basalt tombstone with a sculpture of the deceased’s bust was uncovered. Now there is a new surprise: the only finding of a bronze mask of unnatural size, in the form of the god Pan/Faunus.

Excavations at Hippos-Sussita are usually conducted in the summer. However, a series of intriguing structures on the ridge of the city, where the ancient road passed, led to a one-day dig in the winter. The dig focused on a basalt structure which the researchers assumed was a type of armoured hangar for the city’s projectile machines. The finding of a ballista ball made of limestone, a different material from the basalt that was customarily used at Hippos-Sussita to make balista balls, made them realize that it was an enemy’s projectile.

In light of this interesting find the researchers decided to search the structure for coins to help them date the the balls. It didn’t take long for the metal detector, operated by the capable hands of Dr. Alexander Iermolin, head of the conservation laboratory at the Institute of Archaeology at the University, to start beeping frantically. The archialogosts were not yet aware of what was in store for them: “After a few minutes we pulled out a big brown lump and realized it was a mask. We cleaned it, and started to make out the details: The first hints that helped us recognize it were the small horns on top of its head, slightly hidden by a forelock,” said Dr. Eisenberg.

Horns like the ones on the mask are usually associated with Pan, the half-man half-goat god of the shepherds, music and pleasure. A more thorough cleaning in the lab, revealed strands of a goat beard, long pointed ears, and other characteristics that led Dr. Eisenberg to identify the mask as depicting a Pan/Faunus/Satyr. “The first thought that crossed my mind was, ‘Why here, beyond the city limits?’ After all, the mask is so heavy it could not have just rolled away. The mask was found nearby the remains of a basalt structure with thick walls and very solid masonry work, which suggested a large structure from the Roman period. A Pan altar on the main road to the city, beyond its limits, is quite likely. After all, Pan was worshipped not only in the city temples but also in caves and in nature. The ancient city of Paneas, north of Hippos-Sussita, had one of the most famous worshipping compounds to the god Pan inside a cave. Because they included drinking, sacrificing and ecstatic worship that sometimes included nudity and sex, rituals for rustic gods were often held outside of the city”, Dr. Eisenberg explained.

Now the archeologists have begun to uncover the basalt structure, in the hopes of finding more clues to its purpose. They assume that it was used for defensive purposes “Perhaps in a later period, during the Pax Romana, when the city fortifications were not required, the building turned into a place of worship to the god of shepherds, and maybe what we have here is a magnificent fountain-head or burial offerings of a nearby mausoleum,” Dr. Eisenberg suggests.
As mentioned, the researchers are unfamiliar with any similar bronze mask from the Roman or Hellenistic era of Pan or a Satyr. “Most of the masks are usually similar in size to theater masks, are made of stone or terracotta and are of ritual, apotropaic, decorative or symbolic significance. I contacted the curators of some of the world’s greatest museums, and even they said that they were not familiar with the type of bronze mask that we found at Hippos. Hippos-Sussita cannot compete in wealth with the ancient cultural centers of the Roman Empire and as such, a finding of this kind here, of all places, is amazing,” concluded Dr. Eisenberg.

The YNet coverage adds some details (inter alia):

The researchers, who were looking for coins with the help of a metal detector, discovered a huge metal block. “We dug out a huge brown block from the ground,” said Dr. Alexander Lermolin the director of the conservation laboratory at the University of Haifa’s Institute of Archealogy.

“We gently cleaned it from the dirt and began to realize the details: Small horns at the head of the mask hidden between forelocks of hair were the first hints in identifying the mask,” said Dr. Lermolin.

“The horns immediately pointed to the fact that it was (a mask of) Pan, the god of goats, who is half man and half goat, and he also represents music and entertainment. After a thorough cleaning in the lab, they clearly identified the size of the goat, the long and pointed ears and other characteristics that led to an almost certain identification,” said Dr. Lermolin.

The thought that there was a main altar along the main road to the city is definitely appealing,” Dr. Eisenberg summarizes.

“Maybe in a later period, when the city’s fortifications were no longer needed, the designated purpose of the building changed and became a ceremonial site for the goat god. Or maybe we have before us a magnificent fountain head or burial sacrifice,” said Dr. Eisenberg.

The Ynet coverage also includes a nice video that’s worth a look as well as a photo of one of Dr. Eisenberg’s co-researchers holding the mask in question:


Dr Michael Eisenberg photo via Ynet

What seems really interesting is that the Pan is beardless (so young) and seems to be employing the terrifying voice he was known for. I can’t really find any indication of/reason for a cult centre in the area.

Other coverage worth checking out:

… and the dig’s webpage might be worth perusing too, although it doesn’t seem to have any more details on this find.