It was once thought that women were rated as little more than chattels in ancient Greece’, says Professor Terry Brown, of the Faculty of Life Sciences at Manchester University, ‘but our work now suggests that notion is wrong.’ The new study in question involves extracting genetic material from 35 bodies found in the circle of rich graves inside the citadel at Mycenae, excavated in the 1870s by Heinrich Schliemann, who declared ‘I have discovered the graves of Agamemnon, Eurymedon, and their companions, all slain at a banquet by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthos.’

At the time, it was the gold face mask of Agamemnon that attracted attention, but now it is the crumbling bones that are being studied. Professor Brown has since succeeded in extracting small quantities of mitochondrial DNA from four sets of remains. What he found was that two of the males were unrelated, but that the other two were ‘closely related, possibly siblings or possibly cousins’. Quite independently, John Prag and Richard Neave, also of Manchester University, recreated the faces of seven individuals from the graves and concluded that these two were very similar in appearance – and could be brother and sister.

But, said Professor Brown, ‘the critical point is that we now know the woman was buried in a richly endowed grave not because she was the wife of a powerful man but because she had equal status. Women in Ancient Greece held positions of power by right of birth, it now appears.’ Professor Brown added that archaeology in the past had been a male-oriented profession, and they interpreted their findings in a male-oriented way. ‘That is now changing’, he said, ‘and women in Ancient Greece are being seen in a new light.’ •


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 30. Click here to subscribe