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Solving the Mystery of an Ancient Epidemic

No one knows what caused the Plague of Athens in the 5th century B.C. One popular theory is Ebola—but to discover the source of an outbreak millennia after the fact, scientists need victims’ remains and a bit of luck.


In the summer of 430 B.C., a mass outbreak of disease hit the city of Athens, ravaging the city’s population over the next five years. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, the historian Thucydides, who witnessed the epidemic,described victims’ “violent heats in the head,” “redness and inflammation in the eyes,” and tongues and throats “becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath.” Patients would experience hot flashes so extreme, he wrote, that they “could not bear to have on [them] clothing or linen even of the very lightest description.” In the later stages of infection, the disease would end with “violent ulceration” and diarrhea that left most too weak to survive.
More than 2,000 years later, the Plague of Athens remains a scientific mystery. Thucydides’ account—the only surviving description of the epidemic—has been the basis for dozens of modern-day theories about its cause, including bubonic plague, cholera, typhoid fever, influenza, and measles. And in June, an article in the journal Clinical Infectious Disease suggested another answer: Ebola.
The article, written by the infectious-disease specialist Powel Kazanjian, is the latest in a string of papers arguing that Athens was once the site of an Ebola outbreak. The surgeon Gayle Scarrow first raised the suggestion in The Ancient History Bulletin in 1988. Eight years later, the epidemiologist Patrick Olson published a letter in Emerging Infectious Diseases, a journal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, comparing the symptoms of the Athens plague to those of Ebola, which had broken out in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) and Sudan in 1976. “The profile of the ancient disease,” he concluded, “is remarkably similar.”
But not everyone was on board with Olson’s theory. In a 1996 interview with theThe New York Times, the epidemiologist David Morens argued that Thucydides wasn’t the most reliable source: Unlike his contemporary, Hippocrates, he wasn’t a physician, and many of the terms he used to describe the disease’s symptoms were ambiguous. For example, the ancient Greek phlyktainai could refer to either blisters or callouses. Noting Thucydides’ claim that the epidemic had originated “in the parts of Ethiopia above Egypt” (today’s sub-Saharan Africa), Morens also questioned how people with Ebola, a highly contagious and deadly disease, could make it all the way to Greece without dying along the way.
If Ebola was spreading millennia ago, why didn't it reappear anywhere on Earth until 1976?
The duration of the Athens epidemic also presented another problem: At five years, it was much longer than any known Ebola outbreaks, the majority of which lasted less than a year. And finally, Morens asked, if Ebola had made it out of Africa millennia ago, why were there no other accounts of the disease re-appearing anywhere on Earth until 1976?
Unfortunately for both Olson and Morens, however, neither had a more concrete way to back up their arguments. Their efforts to identify the Plague of Athens, like all the other efforts before them, could only rely on the written record left by Thucydides, which made confirmation more or less impossible.
This, in a nutshell, is the challenge of ancient pathology: With DNA testing, it’s often possible to identify the cause of an epidemic that took place centuries or even millennia ago. Finding remains of those victims to test, though, is another story.

Hunting for Germs in an Ancient Graveyard

Sometimes, scientists get lucky. In 2001, for example, a mass grave was uncovered at a construction site in Vilnus, Lithuania. Based on uniform fragments found in the grave, the bodies were identified as belonging to soldiers in Napoleon’s army—somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 of them, hurriedly buried during the retreat from Moscow. When a team of anthropologists examined dental pulp taken from the bodies, they found that around one-third of them had died of typhus, a finding confirmed by tests of dead lice found at the site (the disease is transmitted through lice). Researchers had long suspected that typhus had contributed to Napoleon’s eventual defeat, but because knowledge of the disease was scant during his lifetime, historical accounts alone had never been enough to confirm it.
For the Plague of Athens, it seemed like a similar turning point had arrived in 1994, when during excavations for a planned Athens metro station at Kerameikos, an ancient graveyard used from the early Bronze age through Roman times. The excavators uncovered thousands of previously undiscovered tombs—including a set of seemingly hurried, unceremonious mass burials dating to 430 B.C., the year of the Plague of Athens.
Control of the site was turned over from the construction company to the Greek Ministry of Culture, which handles the discoveries of ancient ruins. In 2000, archaeologists turned over three teeth found at the site to a University of Athens team led by Manolis Papagrigorakis, an orthodontist and professor of dentistry, for DNA testing. Examining the dental pulp found in the teeth, Papagrigorakis’ team ran tests for seven diseases that had previously been suggested by other scholars: plague, typhus, anthrax, tuberculosis, cowpox, cat-scratch disease, and typhoid fever. The only match they identified on all three teeth was with the pathogen for typhoid fever. The researchers published the findings from their analysis in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases in 2006.
Far from solving the mystery, though, Papagrigorakis’s team only muddled it further. In a letter to the editor in the same journal, zoologists from Oxford University and the University of Copenhagen argued that Papagrigorakis’s methodology was flawed because he failed to do a phylogenetic analysis (a way of examining evolutionary relationships) on the teeth. Using the DNA data published in Papagrigorakis’s study, they conducted their own phylogenetic analysis, concluding that the DNA of the tooth bacteria was related to, but not the same as, that of the pathogen for typhoid fever. “The Athens [DNA] sequence and typhoid would have shared a common ancestor in the order of millions of years ago,” they wrote.
The authors also suggested another possibility: that the DNA found in the teeth wasn’t from the Plague of Athens pathogen at all. “While we cannot exclude the possibility that the Athens sequence is a previously unidentified infectious agent,” they concluded, “it is quite reasonable to assume that the sequence is actually that of a modern, free-living soil bacterium, a possibility that could have been explored by extracting DNA from surrounding soil samples as additional negative controls.”
Even when remains are available, they may not be enough to identify a disease.
Papagrigorakis currently has a new study underway, using more modern techniques and a greater number of tooth samples, that he hopes will help to settle the debate. In the decade since he published his Athens study, advancements in DNA-sequencing technology have enabled scientists to answer a number of lingering questions about ancient epidemics, making new discoveries from very old tooth samples. In 2011, for example, scientists used teeth taken from bodies in one of London’s so-called “plague pits” to sequence the genome of the bacterium y. pestis, the source of the Black Death epidemic that had swept Europe in the 14th century. By comparing the old genome to modern-day strains, the researchers were able to reconstruct the bacterium’s evolutionary path over the centuries, finding support for the idea that the 14th-century pathogen was likely the root of the evolutionary tree leading to more recent outbreaks.
And in a 2014 study published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases, scientists were able to prove for the first time that the Plague of Justinian—which killed about 50 million people in Europe and the Byzantine Empire between 600 and 800 A.D.—was actually a strain of y. pestis, making it the first known outbreak. The team made its discovery by sequencing DNA from teeth taken from human remains that had been found in a German graveyard and dated to the time of the epidemic.
Even when ancient specimens are available, though, they may not be enough to identify a disease. Bacteria, like typhoid and plague, can be identified through DNA sampling, but this isn’t always the case with viruses. Many of them, including the viruses for Ebola, influenza, and measles, require an RNA sample for positive identification—and thus far, the oldest preserved RNA viral genome belongs to a 700-year-old specimen of caribou feces, much more recent than the Athens samples from in the 5th century B.C. The structure of RNA makes it much more unstable—and therefore more prone to degradation—than DNA, meaning that if the Plague of Athens was viral rather than bacterial, its source may remain a mystery.
“If Ebola virus was there, we will never know,” said Vinent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology at Columbia University professor and the host of the podcast This Week in Virology. “For that, we’ll need a time machine to bring us back to get samples.”
Partially due to these limitations, Kazanjian’s recent study doesn’t delve into dental-pulp analysis data. His argument is based on the similarity between the symptoms of the Plague of Athens and those of Ebola, an argument that he believes is strengthened by observations from the latest Ebola outbreak. The paper ends with a chart of the symptoms described by Thucydides, listed side-by-side against the symptoms of eight modern diseases that had previously been floated as possible explanations; of all of them, the symptoms for Ebola have the most overlap.
Even so, Kazanjian cautioned against referring to Ebola as a “probable” or even a “likely” cause. “The most accurate statement is that the cause remains unknown, and there are several possibilities,” he said, including that the Plague of Athens may have been a now-extinct disease with Ebola-like symptoms.
He also acknowledges the difficulty of making rigorous comparisons between Thucydides’s descriptions and modern-day medical knowledge: “I try not to get into the trap of saying what the most likely thing is,” he said.

But for Kazanjian—also a historian—solving the puzzle of the Plague of Athens is less compelling than exploring all the possibilities. The inquiry is “clearly fun to do,” he said, “no matter what your background is.”

Discovery of Ancient Greek ‘Palace’ Reveals Fragments of a Lost Language

by Allison Meier on September 1, 2015

The Bronze Age battles of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were considered by 19th-century archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann to be based on fact, and he devoted much of his life to proving this at Mycenaean sites in present-day Greece. Schleimann may have stretched his findings a bit to make his theories work, such as the famous 16th-century BCE “mask of Agamemnon” discovered in 1876, which he proposed was the funerary mask of the Greek leader of lore. Nevertheless, the Mycenaean sites are rich with the fragments of a society mythologized in Homer’s epic poems, and a newly excavated palace is revealing more about this mysterious past.
The Greek Ministry of Culture announced on August 25 that since 2009, archaeologists at a Mycenaean palace on Aghios Vassilios Hill on Greece’s Sparta plain have unearthed numerous artifacts, including a cup with the shape of a bull’s head, an intricate seal with a nautilus shape, and most importantly, clay tablets with their writing preserved due to a late 14th or early 13th century BCE fire.
Kristina Killgrove at Forbes pointed out that these tablets, inscribed in Linear B — the oldest known form of Greek — join those found at Knossos by Arthur Evans as rare examples of this language of antiquity. It’s believed to be evolved from Linear A, used by the Minoans. Linear B wasn’t deciphered in the modern era until scholar Michael Ventrisdevoted himself to the task in the 1950s, his research cut short by his 1956 death in a car wreck.
These tablets at what they believe is a Mycenaean palace could potentially add even more to knowledge on this vanished culture, a highly structured civilization that some believe was brought down by an earthquake or a drought, although much speculation remains. It’s improbable that any of the old writing will mention the death of Hector or battles of Achilles as told by Homer, but they will likely contribute significantly to understanding the world of nearly 4,000 years ago.

Ancient Greek Well Used For Hydromancy Discovered in Athens

By Katerina Papathanasiou -

The ancient Greek phrase “ΕΛΘΕ ΜΟΙ Ω ΠΑΙΑΝ ΦΕΡΩΝ ΤΟ ΜΑΝΤΕΙΟΝ ΑΛΗΘΕC” is written on the mouth of a well that came to light during the latest excavations of the German Archaeological Institute at the archaeological site of Kerameikos in Athens.
The invocation phrase seems to have been addressed to Apollo, the ancient Greek god of prophecy, while the well was probably used in some kind of hydromancy rituals during the early Roman times.
This significant and unexpected discovery was made after an inverted marble was removed from the mouth of the well in the sanctuary’s courtyard, south of the famous “burial route.”
The well is attributed either to ancient goddess of the hunt, forests and hills, the moon and archery, Artemis, or goddess of magic, crossroads, moon, ghosts and necromancy, Hecate.
According to a Greek Culture Ministry announcement, the identification of more than 20 inscriptions with relevant content highlights the well’s connection with the sanctuary of Apollo in Athens, confirming the worship of God along with his sister, Artemis.
The excavation was carried out under the direction of Jutta Stroszeck and the supervision of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Athens.

Ancient Greek Palace Near Sparta Reveals Mysterious Culture

AUG 26, 2015 08:54 AM ET // BY AFP

Archaeologists in Greece have discovered the ruins of an ancient palace with important archaic inscriptions dating back to the Mycenaean Age, the culture ministry said Tuesday.
The palace, likely built around the 17th-16th centuries BC, had around 10 rooms and was discovered near Sparta in southern Greece.
At the site, archaeologists found objects of worship, clay figurines, a cup adorned with a bull’s head, swords and fragments of murals.
Since 2009, excavations in the area have unearthed inscriptions on tablets detailing religious ceremonies and names and places in a script called Linear B, the oldest script to be discovered in Europe. It first appears in Crete from around 1375 BC and was only deciphered in the mid 20th century.
PHOTOS: Greek God Hermes Featured in Ancient Mosaic
The new discovery will allow for more research on the “political, administrative, economic and societal organization of the region”, and provide “new information on the beliefs and language systems of the Mycenean people,” the ministry said in a statement.

According to the culture ministry, more than 150 archaeological excavations were have been carried out in Greece so far this year, “demonstrating the importance of the archaeological wealth and cultural heritage of the country.”

Ruins may be remains of lost Spartan palace

Jamie Seidel

Royal remains ... A collapsed stone shelf in what archaeologists believe may be the ruins of the capital palace of Mycenean Sparta. Source: Greek Culture Ministry

HELEN. Achilles. Agamemnon. They’re names which date from the dawn of civilisation. Now the lost capital of Mycenean Sparta is emerging from the rubble of myth and history.
The origins of the story of the Spartan King Menelaus who besieged the ancient city of Troy for 10 years in order to get back his wayward wife, Helen, are lost in time.
His story, and that of his brother King Agamemnon of Mycenae and a swathe of ancient heroes, was recorded several centuries later by the great Greek poet Homer in his works the Illiad and the Odyssey.
But it was long thought to be little more than mythology — until, in 1870, pioneering archeologist Heinrich Schliemann uncovered the ruins of two of the cities at the heart of the tale — King Priam’s Troy and King Agamemnon’s Mycenae.
The Sparta of King Menelaus, however, has never found.
Dawn of civilisation ... Called the mask of Agamemnon, though it may have belonged to his father, this mask was recovered from citadel of Mycenae. Source: ThinkStock
Seat of power
Now, a newly uncovered palace sitting on a hill in the Spartan plain is beginning to look as though it may have been the seat of his throne.
It’s not the Sparta you may be thinking of: The fanatical warriors, men and women trained from birth to fight to the death, as shown in movies such as the 300 belong to a much later time.
But the bronze-age Spartans played no less an important role in the political machinations and wars of their time.

The culture surged to prominence as part of the Mycenaean civilisation of 1700BC. It was an era of spectacular advancement in technology, art, writing and international trade. It was also a time of brutal politics.
Some 500 years later, the culture collapsed under the weight of a 300-year drought and a series of devastating earthquakes. Ancient Greece then entered a dark age.
The great palace of Sparta burnt to the ground in the 14th Century BC. It was never rebuilt, and knowledge of its whereabouts was eventually lost to time.
Holy of holies ... Excavation work within the rubble of what may be Mycenean Sparta’s royal palace. Source: Greek Culture Ministry

Clues in the rubble
The excavation site, first found in 2009, has revealed 10 rooms of an extensive structure called Ayios Vassileios, some 12km from the capital of the militant city state that arose centuries later.
Fragments of ornate frescoes, ivory figurines, 20 bronze swords, a bull-shaped cup and a seal emblazoned with the image of a nautilus shell are some of the artefacts sifted from the rubble.
Among the finds are the clay tables the bureaucrats of the time used to keep records. These were baked in the fire which destroyed the palace, preserving their text.
A bull-shaped cup and a nautilus-shaped seal found among the ruins. Greek Culture Ministry
They are written in an early version of the ancient Linear B script which was only deciphered in the 1950s. Some 100 years older than any other find, these rare clay tablets may help bridge the evolution of the script from the still unreadable Minoan Crete writing known as Linear A.
The writings have as yet not been fully deciphered, but a series of male and female names have been identified and some documents determined to be financial accounts and records of religious offerings.
Writing was so rare at the time that it is almost always only found at locations of great significance, such as royal palaces.

Mystery surrounding Royal Tomb of Philip II of Macedonia finally solved

By Hannah Osborne

A long-standing mystery about the tomb of King Philip II of Macedonia has finally been solved, showing the father of Alexander the Great was buried with his wife Cleopatra and their infant.
Philip II was assassinated in 359BC in the ancient capital of the kingdom of Macedon by one of his seven bodyguards, the reason for which has been long debated.
Three Royal Tombs were discovered in the Great Tumulus in Vergina in the 1970s and two proved to be of particular interest on account of the treasures held inside.
Tomb I contained a man, woman and a newborn baby, while Tomb II contained a man and a woman and a huge array of grave goods, including two golden larnakes and armour. Despite mounting evidence that the latter was not the tomb of Philip, "the archaeological establishment still maintains that Tomb II belongs to Philip II".
One of the reasons for this was that an early text had suggested Philip was cremated – and the bodies in Tomb I had not been subject to this funerary practice.
Publishing their findings in the journal PNAS, Juan-Luis Arsuaga, from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and Antonis Bartsiokas, Democritus University of Thrace, Komotini, have now analysed the tombs with scanning and radiography to show Philip is indeed buried in Tomb I with Cleopatra and their child.
The researchers were looking to find the identities of the man, woman and baby by establishing their ages and comparing them with figures from ancient literary sources. The baby was found to be 41–44 weeks, so either newborn or still in utero.
The woman was around 18 years old – the same age as Cleopatra would have been when she died (shortly after Philip) – and far closer than that of the female body found in Tomb II.
More convincingly, however, was the analysis of the male skeleton. He was judged to be around 45 when he died, matching the age at which Philip was killed, but he was also found to have suffered a severe wound to his knee three years before his death.
This is consistent with reports of Philip's life: "As Philip was returning to Macedonia from the Scythian campaign against Ateas, the Thracian tribe of Triballoi met him and refused to allow him passage unless they received a share of the spoils," the researchers wrote. "Hence, a dispute arose and afterward a battle, in which Philip received so severe a wound through his leg by a lance that his horse was killed by it.
Analysis showed the male in Tomb I had leg bones with a stiffened knee joint, signs of bone fusion and a hole through the knee indicating a piercing wound. "Therefore, Philip's lameness is conclusive evidence for the
Bartsiokas told IBTimes UK their findings should "definitely" lead to a general consensus on the tomb of Philip: "The evidence this time, is overwhelming" he said. "The knee ankylosis, together with the bone hole caused by the lance, indicates a penetrating wound, and thus shows that the bone belongs to King Philip II. Furthermore, the two other skeletons, a young woman's and a neonate's, are absolutely consistent with the historical evidence, since we know that Philip was assassinated with his wife Cleopatra and newborn child."
Bartsiokas has been working on the identities of the Royal Tombs for over 15 years and previously showed the skull thought to be that of King Philip was not his. He said it was good to finally put the mystery to bed: "Now we know for certain that Tomb I is Philip's and Tomb II is Arridaeus's (Alexander the Great's half-brother).
"And that we have the bone of Philip's leg with its famous injury. It is an extremely rare thing that a bone can carry with it so much historical evidence for thousands of years."

Greek archaeologists unearth Mycenaean palace near Sparta

By Vasudevan Sridharan
August 26, 2015 06:53 BST

Greek archaeologists have unearthed an ancient Mycenaean palace near Sparta throwing light on the political and economic activities in the region. The palace is thought to have been built around 17BC or 16BC.
The Greek culture ministry said the palace had around 10 rooms and contained important archaic inscriptions. Early research suggests the structure was destroyed by a fire though experts admit this hypothesis needs to be corroborated further.
"The palace complex of Aghios Vassilios Hill provides us with a unique opportunity to investigate the creation and evolution of a Mycenaean palatial centre in order to reconstruct the political, administrative, economic and social organization of the region," the culture ministry said in a statement. "Alongside, it is estimated that new evidence on Mycenaean religion, linguistics and palaeography will also be brought to light."
Aghios Vassilios Hill, located near the ancient village of Xirokambi, has been in archaeologists' focus since 2009 where excavations have been undertaken continually. However, the latest findings are thought to be the most significant discovery made in the region.

Researchers have also found clay figures, bronze swords, and fragments of murals at the site. A cup adorned by a decorative bull's head has also been discovered. The latest findings have thrown up fresh riddles to solve and experts say it is a fascinating discover

Massive Ancient Greek city discovered submerged in Aegean Sea

 By Hannah Osborne | International Business Times

An ancient Greek city has been discovered sunken beneath the Aegean Sea. The settlement dates back around 4,500 years (2,500 BC) and was the size of around 10 football fields, covering an area of 12 acres.

Archaeologists from the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, University of Geneva and the Swiss School of Archaeology found the fortified Bronze Age settlement in Khilada Bay, in the Argolic Gulf. They found at least three huge horseshoe-shaped foundations attached to the wall line – which they say was possibly part of towers used to defend the settlement.

Defensive structures of this kind have never been found before from this time period in Greece, thd University of Geneva's Julien Beck said. He told Spero Forum: "The importance of our discovery is partly due to the large size. There must have been a brick superstructure above a stone foundation. The chances of finding such walls under water are extremely low. The full size of the facility is not yet known. We do not know why it is surrounded by fortifications."

The find was announced by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs. The team had been looking for traces of prehistoric human activity on the eastern side of the Argolic Gulf. The city was submerged between one and three metres beneath the surface and consisted of a multitude of stone buildings of differing shapes, including rectangular, circular and arcs. They found paved surfaces, which they believe to be streets.

Researchers also pulled up pottery, stone tools and blades from the site that was typical from the period of the third millennium BC. The find adds to the network of Bronze Age coastal settlements in the Argolic Gulf from the period and researchers hope they will learn more about trade, shipping and day to day life from the period.

The city is thought to be typical layout of the time, with small buildings surrounded by fortified walls. Beck said another one was found in the nearby town of Lerna, which is mentioned in Greek mythology when Hercules had to battle the Hydra. The aquatic beast had its lair in the lake of Lerna and was supposed to be an entrance to the underworld, with Hydra serving as a guard.
Beck said if they compare the latest discovery will likely lead to a re-think of Lerna's prominence: "That city is considered a reference point in architectural terms and ceramics which have been found there. Now, if we compare our discovery to that important city [its status will need to be re-examined]."