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Ancient Mass Graves of Soldiers, Babies Found in Italy

Maria Cristina Valsecchi in Rome
for National Geographic News
December 17, 2008
 
More than 10,000 graves containing ancient amphorae, "baby bottles," and the bodies of soldiers who fought the Carthaginians were found near the ancient Greek colony of Himera, in Italy, archaeologists announced recently. (See photos.)

"It's probably the largest Greek necropolis in Sicily," said Stefano Vassallo, the lead archaeologist of the team that made the discoveries, in September.

The ancient burial ground was uncovered during the construction of a railway extension.

"The remains of Himera's buildings had been known and studied for a long time, and we knew there should be some graves. We didn't expect so many graves", said Vassallo, who works for the Italian province of Palermo's government.

"Each [mass grave] contains from 15 to 25 skeletons. They were all young healthy men and they all died a violent death. Some of the skeletons have broken skulls and in some cases we found the tips of the arrows that killed them," Vassallo said.

He thinks the human remains are from soldiers who died fighting the Carthaginians in a famous 480 B.C. battle described by Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus.

He adds that they still don't know the extent of the necropolis or how many graves it contains.

A Rich Town and Two Bloody Battles

Founded in 648 B.C. by Greek settlers, Himera was a rich seaport trading colony. The city was situated on the northern coast of Sicily, a few miles from the Phoenician outpost of Solunto.

"Himera had a privileged role in commercial exchanges between Phoenicians, Greeks, and Etruscans," said Clemente Marconi, professor of Greek art and archaeology at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.

In 480 B.C. Carthage, or present-day Tunisia, sent an army against Himera. "Greeks and Carthaginians fought a bloody battle in the plain under the town walls, right on the burial ground," Vassallo said. "People from Himera won."

In 409 B.C., Carthage waged a new war against Himera, conquered, and razed the town. "All the people were slaughtered or deported and the colony never rose again," Vassallo said.

(Related: "Who Were the Phoenicians" in National Geographic magazine, October 2004.)

Remains of Adults and Babies

Archaeologists at Himera also unearthed the skeletons of many newborn babies in some of the mass graves.

"Infant mortality was very high at the times," Vassallo said. "We found the tiny skeletons placed inside funerary amphorae, like in a womb, alongside small terracotta vases called guttus, with spouts like present-day feeding bottles."

Researchers will examine the skeletons in an effort to gather information about the population's health, lifestyle, and eating habits.

"People from Himera were very tall, about 175 centimeters [69 inches]," Vassallo said. "Unusual for the times."

New York University's Marconi said he thinks the discovery is extremely important.

"Thanks to the big number of burials, we will gather precious information about funerary rituals in Himera: the way they took care of the bodies, preserved the remains, and perpetuated the memory of the dead. Such rituals reflect social structure," Marconi said.

Finds will be restored and put on display in a new museum to be built in the nearby town of Termini Imerese. The Palermo government is working out a plan to create a national archaeological park to protect the area, Vassallo said.
 

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