Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Unsolved Mystery of the Agora Bone Well

Devoted scuba divers dream of what lies beneath any water's surface. Curiosity compels us to the depths of quarries,  cloudy channels, frozen lakes, and even man-made wells.  The Agora Bone Well of Athens is one well whose depths are filled with mystery, cultural intrigue, and archaeological relevance.

Agora site sketch
It's 1937 and a team of American archaeologists are engaged in ongoing excavation of ancient Athens.  One young woman uncovers a long abandon well, filled in sometime during the 2nd century BCE. This well, like so many others in the area, is filled with the usual refuse of Athenian daily life: pottery shards, broken lamps, pieces of corroded bronze (leftovers from a nearby workshop), and a sword's scabbard.  However, the team is unprepared for the well's other contents: the remains of 450 new-born infants, the skeleton of an 11-year old child and one adult.  The well also holds a rich collection of usual faunal bones, most notably the bones of about 150 dogs.  These contents raise questions about Athenian culture that the archaeology team is simply unwilling to face. 
Human adult skull
Repulsed by the discovery, the archaeology team leader refuses to allow further study on the well's purpose.  The young woman who discovers the well continues to look for answers to the well's mysterious mix of contents.  In her later years, as a professor at Princeton University, she encourages then-student Susan Rotroff to seek understanding of the well's purpose.  Was the deposit a result of famine?  Infanticide?  Plague?  Or simply natural infant mortality?

Dr Susan Rotroff
Photo: University of Central Florida
Using an interdisciplinary approach, Dr. Rotroff, now a classical archaeologist who begins excavation work at Agora in 1970, formulates a number of theories only to have several disproved.  In order to understand the prevailing theory, we must understand a bit of ancient Athenian culture.  According to Dr. Rotroff, Classicists refer to ancient Greek writings which describe the celebration process for newborns.  A newly born child is accepted into its community 5 to 10 days after birth, not receiving a name, public acknowledgement, or gifts until acceptance. During the days before naming, the child is closely examined for viability.  If it is determined that a child is not viable, a burial in one of several wells takes place using a ceramic basin.  Grave gifts are added to the child's basin. Dr. Rotroff theorizes that this was simply a cultural practice. 

To date, the exact purpose of the well remains unclear, but one thing is clear: as few as eighty years ago, the field of archaeology held such a cultural bias that study of this culturally significant finding was halted in fear that it went against our assumptions of ancient Athenians.  Dr. Rotroff explains that early century scholars held ancient Athenians to an almost perfect standard and were fearful that a deposit such as that yielded by the Agora Bone Well would unravel their assumptions.  One can only imagine what discoveries are disregarded for fear of what we may learn about our past and ourselves.