The ancient Greeks believed in ghostly versions of the dead who would rise from their graves and stalk the living, according to deviant burials unearthed in the necropolis of a Greek colony in Sicily.
Known as Passo Marinaro, the cemetery near the coastal town of Kamarina in southeastern Sicily, was in use from the 5th through 3rd centuries B.C. The necropolis has yielded approximately 2,905 burials; more than half contained grave goods, mostly terracotta vases, but also figurines and metal coins.
Two of the tombs were unique.
One body, found in a tomb labeled 653, contained an individual of unknown sex, who apparently experienced a period of serious malnutrition or illness in life.
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"What is unusual about Tomb 653 is that the head and feet of the individual are completely covered by large amphora fragments," Carrie Sulosky Weaver, an archaeologist at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote in Popular Archaeology.
An amphora is a large, two handled ceramic vessel that was generally used for storing wine and olive oil.
"The heavy amphora fragments found in Tomb 653 were presumably intended to pin the individual to the grave and prevent it from seeing or rising," Sulosky Weaver said.
The other burial, labelled 693, contained the remains of a child of indeterminate sex about 8 to 13 years old. No signs of diseases were found on the remains, nevertheless the child was buried with five large stones placed on top of the body.
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"It appears that these stones were used to trap the body in its grave," Sulosky Weaver said.
Her research will be featured in a forthcoming book, "The Bioarchaeology of Classical Kamarina: Life and Death in Greek Sicily," which will be published by the University Press of Florida in September.
It is unknown why the occupants of those burials were pinned in their graves, but "their special treatment suggests that necrophobic beliefs and practices were present in Greek Sicily," Sulosky Weaver said.
"Necrophobia, or the fear of the dead, is a concept that has been present in Greek culture from the Neolithic period to the present," she added.
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Katadesmoi, tablets inscribed with magical spells, were also found at the cemetery, suggesting that some inhabitants of Kamarina used curses and spells to raise the dead from their graves.
"The tablets contained petitions that were addressed to underworld dieties who would command the spirits of the dead to fulfill the request of the petitioner," Sulosky Weaver told Discovery News.
She noted that such evidence, though limited, demonstrates the desires to both suppress and invoke the special dead.
"Although these acts appear to be contradictory, together they provide a powerful testimony to the ways in which the ancient Greeks conceptualized the dead," Sulosky Weaver said.