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Periclean plague victims found August 10, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Archaeology Greece.

Microbial genetic material found in the teeth of recently unearthed 2,500-year-old skeletons support historical claims that Pericles, classical Athens’ greatest statesman, died of typhoid fever along with thousands of his compatriots in the great Athenian plague.

Earlier this year excavations at Kerameikos, ancient Athens’ cemetery, brought to light about 150 skeletons jumbled together in a mass grave. Their position suggested that the bodies must have been dumped in a hurry. The skeletons were dated to the second half of the 5th century BC and researchers had guessed that the remains were those of victims of the plague of 429BC, when people were dying faster than they could be cremated and buried.

This is the first time that such direct evidence of the plague has emerged, according to Manolis Papagrigorakis, a professor of dentistry who helped examine the remains. Until now the sole source of information about the plague has been the historian Thucydides, who described the event in grim detail in the second chapter of his Peloponnesian War. Pericles, Athens’ leader at the time, fell victim to the pestilence after it had carried off up to one-third of Athens’ population.

“On the theory that the skeletons were those of plague victims, my team decided to check for traces of microbial organisms,” Papagrigorakis said. He and a team from the Athens University Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology concentrated on the teeth, as the interior of teeth remains intact for vast periods of time and can conceal microbial matter.

Microbial DNA found preserved in the teeth was separated from the human DNA material. Tests turned out positive for one particular bacterium, salmonella enterica serovar typhi, which is the causative agent of typhoid fever. “We can now draw a safe conclusion that the plague was typhoid fever,” Papagrigorakis said.

Thucydides vividly describes the symptoms of the typhus and social chaos the plague produced. Victims first experienced a severe chill and fever, which progressed rapidly to stomach upsets and diarrhoea. It killed most of those afflicted, though Thucydides himself caught it and recovered. Those who did recover were henceforth immune.

A rumour ran through Athens that the besieging Spartans had started the plague by poisoning the city’s water supply with dead animals. But Thucydides attributes it to the crowded and unhygienic conditions in the city, caused by the arrival of residents from across Attica who had fled within the city walls to escape the marauding Spartans.

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