DNA reveals sister power in Ancient Greece

University of Manchester researchers have revealed how women, as well as men, held positions of power in ancient Greece by right of birth.

Women were thought to have had little power in ancient Greece, unless they married a powerful man and were able to influence him. But a team of researchers testing ancient DNA from a high status, male-dominated cemetery at Mycenae in Greece believe they have identified a brother and sister buried together in a richly endowed grave, suggesting that she had as much power as him.

The team, led by Professor Terry Brown and Ms Keri Brown at the Faculty of Life Sciences and Professor John Prag at the Manchester Museum, have been studying Grave Circle B at Mycenae for 10 years. Their paper  Kinship between burials from Grave Circle B at Mycenae revealed by ancient DNA typing  appears in the Journal of Archeological Science.

The Bronze Age citadel at Mycenae is one of the most evocative prehistoric sites in all of Europe. The legendary home of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Mycenae held a natural attraction for early antiquarians in the years before its first systematic study by Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s. Schliemann s famous telegram, sent during his excavation of Grave Circle A in 1876, stating that he had  gazed upon the face of Agamemnon , turned out to be erroneous for the burials that he had uncovered predated the Trojan War by some four centuries, but his excavations were nonetheless significant as they established Mycenae as one of the richest and, by implication, most powerful of the Aegean states during the 17th to 12th centuries BC.

Grave Circle B spans c.1675-1550 BC and predates A with possibly fifty years overlap. Within Grave Circle B there is a development from simple cist burials to larger, deeper and richer Shaft Graves with weapons, pottery and gold ornaments including a face-mask made of electrum (a naturally-occurring gold-silver amalgam). Generally they were less well endowed than the remarkable gold-laden burials in Circle A, but the richness of both Grave Circles leaves little doubt that their occupants were elite members of early Mycenaean society.

The team, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, wanted to ascertain the relationships within this elite group, in particular whether the individuals were members of a single family or small number of families who had established themselves as the ruling dynasty in early Mycenae.

John Prag and Richard Neave of The University of Manchester had previously applied modern techniques of facial reconstruction to the seven best preserved skulls. These faces are on display in the Making Faces gallery in the Manchester Museum, and visitors can see how the results suggest that these seven individuals fall into three groups, the  heart-shaped  faces (which includes the brother and sister), the long faces and one beaky face. Dr Abigail Bouwman in Professor Brown's group then tested mitochondrial DNA from the bones and was able to confirm the relationships.

Professor Brown recalled: "We were surprised to discover what appears to be a sister buried beside her brother in the high status, male-dominated grave circle. The implication is that she was buried in Grave Circle B not because of a marital connection but because she held a position of authority by right of birth.

"DNA analysis has therefore enabled us to glimpse the factors contributing to the organisation of the higher echelons of society at the beginning of the Mycenaean age."

Keri Brown added: "Homer's stories are thought to be memories: tales of the Bronze Age retold some 400 years later, as the early archaeologists who went in search of the places he described found them, not just Mycenae  rich in gold but also wall-girt  of Tiryns and other sites.

"We certainly haven't unearthed the real Electra and Orestes. They were the brother and sister who in the Greek epic tradition avenged their father Agamemnon s death at the hands of their mother Clytemnestra, but if they were real people then they lived centuries after our pair. We will never know who our lady was but it is tempting to think that she might have been a little like the Electra of legend, who seems to have been such a powerful woman that the later stories tell how she was forced to marry a peasant to dilute her influence.

Professor Brown said: "On a purely scientific note, our results also show that while it is difficult apply this type of analysis to archaeological remains ancient DNA is generally poorly preserved and the problems caused by contamination with modern DNA are more acute ancient DNA can greatly advance understanding of kinship when used to test hypotheses constructed from other evidence.

"It is fascinating work and we have learned a lot. In future we hope to do similar research at other sites in Greece if we can find any at which ancient DNA is preserved."

Notes for editors

For more information or to arrange an interview with Professor Terry Brown contact Media Relations Officer Mikaela Sitford on 0161 275 2111 or 07768 980942 or Mikaela.Sitford@manchester.ac.uk.

Editor s Note:

A copy of the paper,  Kinship between burials from Grave Circle B at Mycenae revealed by ancient DNA typing , Journal of Archeological Science, authors Abigail S. Bouwman, Keri A. Brown, A. John N. W. Prag and Terence A. Brown, is available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6WH8-4SD6SPK-2&_user=494590&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000024058&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=494590&md5=3264d4709e657fdcdf983efbe5df7316.

The Mycenaean civilisation flourished between 1700 BC and the collapse of Bronze Age civilization around 1100 BC. The collapse is traditionally attributed to the Dorian invasion, but it formed part of a political and economic disintegration of the Eastern Mediterranean that probably had its root in factors such as natural disasters, climate change and population movements. The major Mycenaean city-sites were Mycenae and Tiryns in Argolis, Pylos in Messenia, Athens in Attica, Thebes and Orchomenos in Boeotia, and Iolkos in Thessaly. Mycenaean civilization was dominated by a warrior aristocracy. Around 1400 BC, the Mycenaeans extended their control to Crete, centre of the Minoan civilization, and adopted a form of the Minoan script called Linear B to write their early form of Greek. Not only did the Mycenaeans defeat the Minoans and send out settlements around the Eastern Mediterranean, but according to legend they led an alliance of Greeks under the leadership of their king Agamemnon to defeat Troy, a powerful city-state that controlled the vital trade-route through the Dardanelles.
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The Leverhulme Trust, established at the wish of William Hesketh Lever, the first Viscount Leverhulme, makes awards for the support of research and education. The Trust emphasises individuals and encompasses all subject areas. With annual funding of some £40 million, the Trust is amongst the largest all subject providers of research funding in the UK. See http://www.leverhulme.ac.uk/

Mikaela Sitford, Media Relations Officer (Weds-Fri) Tel 0161 275 2111 Mikaela.Sitford@manchester.ac.uk Any urgent media enquiries on Mon and Tue should go to Aeron Haworth Tel 0161 275 8383 Aeron.Haworth@manchester.ac.uk