A parallel universe lies beyond the fence of the American School of Classical Studies on Souidias Street in the Athenian neighborhood of Kolonaki. Time takes on a new dimension at the Wiener Laboratory, where those who research the past study human remains and other archaeological findings dating back hundreds or even thousands of years.
A few meters away, in the school’s garden, a group of foreign students currently in Athens to conduct excavation work at the city’s Ancient Agora is busily trying to uncover the secrets of a human skeleton, taking part in an educational game under the guidance of the laboratory’s director, Dr Sherry Fox.
Over the last dozen years the American anthropologist has played a pivotal role in transforming the lab into a welcoming space, a place open to all those interested in using its infrastructure, which includes an X-ray machine, microscopes, a broad and comparative collection of both animal and human remains, along with a scientific library, which is unique for Greek standards.
So far, the laboratory has offered scholarships to future doctors and students from 17 countries -- ranging from Bulgaria to Peru -- whose studies focus on archaeological excavations conducted in Greece.
For a large number of researchers who come to the Wiener Laboratory in search of information and technical assistance, the first contact marks the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship. Among them is a large number of Greek postgraduate and postdoctorate students at local and international universities. Besides, the possibilities for archaeologists wishing to specialize in the areas of biological and environmental anthropology, geoarchaeology and the archaeology of animals are particularly limited in Greece.
The reasons for this kind of scientific gap in a country so closely attached to its past are quite complex. On the one hand is the fact that the anthropological aspect of archaeology started gaining popularity in Greece very recently, while on the other, knowledge of the ancient Greek world -- mostly stemming from writings, inscriptions, architectural and cultural findings -- give the impression “that we know exactly who these people were,” according to Dr Fox.
Nevertheless, anthropological research is shedding light on a multitude of details with regard to the daily life and habits of the ancient Greeks, the kind of information which would be impossible to extract solely from the study of monuments or the writings of ancient historians -- such as their eating habits, the diseases that plagued them, how they hard they worked and how much they traveled during their lifetime. In some cases, research has the ability to unearth some of the darker secrets, such as the story of the well with the remains the dead infants which was discovered in the area of the Ancient Agora.
The remains of about 450 newborn babies dating from the first half of the second century AD were discovered about 80 years ago. While a number of archaeologists assumed that the infants had been victims of war or a plague, no complete theory regarding their provenance had ever emerged.
The research conducted by Maria Liston, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, is heading in this direction. In collaboration with Susan Rotroff of the Washington University in St Louis and the Smithsonian Institution’s Lynn Snyder, Liston has examined the remains in their entirety.
“About a third of the newborn babies were premature, which means that they would not have survived at the time.
Another third of the babies had pathological indications -- mainly of bacterial meningitis, still a common cause of newborn deaths in Third World countries,” noted Liston.
The remaining third had been killed or left to die, due to the fact that the babies had been born with a number of disfigurations, such as a cleft lip.
Dr Liston’s answer to the riddle is the following: Given that the burial of the dead within the city’s boundaries was illegal in Hellenistic Athens, very few people must have have been aware of the well’s existence at the time. Those few that did know could very well have been one or more midwives who provided their services to the era’s wealthy women.
Newborns who died before the “Amfidromia” -- the cleansing ceremony that followed labor -- or the name-giving ceremony which took place seven to 10 days after the birth, were not considered members of society.
“Therefore, it is possible that a midwife would take care of the dead infant’s burial,” noted Liston.
Another possibility may well be that some of the premature baby deaths where the result of miscarriage or abortion, though, for the time being at least, the cause of death cannot be determined.
A discreet backer
A New York investment banker with a genuine interest in science, mystery man Malcolm Hewitt Wiener keeps a low profile while maintaining a close eye on the research programs he finances. Besides the Wiener Lab in Athens, Wiener is the founder of the Institute for Aegean Prehistory on Crete and the Aegean Dendrochronology Project at Cornell University.
Among those scientists who have received financial and technical aid from the Athenian laboratory is prominent geologist Floyd McCoy of the University of Hawaii. McCoy is behind a series of spectacular discoveries with regard to the Santorini volcano eruption, such as the fact that the explosion was much bigger than was originally thought, possibly one of the most powerful eruptions in the last 10,000 years.
According to McCoy, who was back in Greece this summer to conduct research on Crete, today’s Greece would prove unable to survive a disaster of that scale. McCoy believes the fact that no human remains dating back to the time of the Santorini explosion were ever discovered points to the fact that the island’s inhabitants had left the island prior to the eruption, terrorized by seismic activity and other warning signs. This is the opposite of what happened in Pompeii, where the locals chose to stay in their city, despite all the warnings.
“Thanks to the Wiener Laboratory, people like myself come to the aid of archaeologists for more precise conclusions,” noted the American professor, who has collaborated with American, British and Greek archaeologists. While McCoy maintains his close ties to Greek scientific foundations, he has been increasingly voicing his concerns regarding the future of research in this country, especially with regard to the shutting down of the Institute of Geology and Mineral Exploration.
The remains of 150 dogs were also discovered alongside those of the infants, a fact which, in the beginning at least, had left archaeologists rather perplexed.
“In those days dogs were considered a vehicle for removing infections,” noted Dr Maria Liston.
According to this theory, midwives may have thrown the dogs in the well as a means of purifying themselves from the infections of labor and death -- or the killing of disfigured newborns.
More information regarding the remains found in the well is expected to come to light following the completion of an ambitious project carried out by a Yale University PhD student. Having secured all the necessary permits from the Greek authorities, Jonathan Deznik is planning to take samples from the remains found in the well, starting with the dogs.
While continuous temperature fluctuations in the Greek climate usually means that no DNA is left on ancient bones for analysis, the well’s microclimate seems to have contributed to a better preservation of the remains.