Girl Reconstructed: 'Myrtis', a victim of the plague and the Peloponnesian War

The long and drawn-out struggle between Athens and Spartan known as the Peloponnesian War has always fascinated me. Chronicled by Thucydides, who himself played a part in the conflict, the war represented a bitter struggle between a sea-power and land-power and their respective allies which proved catastrophic for the eventual losers, the citizens of Athens.

The war lasted from 431 to 404BC and ranged across the Greek city states of the mainland, islands and even Sicily. Thucydides’ unfinished account is detailed and impressive and still causes controversy over its veracity, particularly of the speeches he reports. Fortunately for us, archaeology continues to throw light on this period and sometimes we get a neat fit between text and the archaeological record. My group and I recently stood at the well preserved bridge of Amphipolis whilst I read Thucydides’ account of the Spartan general Brasidas’s relief of the town in 424 and his entry via that very structure.

Earlier in his account of the war Thucydides had given us a very chilling account of the plague that had struck Athens in 430BC. In Book II Chapter 7 we hear that many Athenians had fled inside the city walls from the countryside when the Spartans invaded Attica, and that then plague broke out inside city. He describes the horror of the outbreak and the symptoms of the illness, and also how normal burial procedures could not be adhered to in the face of so much contagion:
“All the burial rites before in use were entirely upset, and they buried the bodies as best they could. Many from want of the proper appliances, through so many of their friends having died already, had recourse to the most shameless sepultures: sometimes getting the start of those who had raised a pile, they threw their own dead body upon the stranger's pyre and ignited it; sometimes they tossed the corpse which they were carrying on the top of another that was burning, and so went off.”

Therefore when Greek archaeologists discovered a mass grave near the ancient Athenian cemetery of Keramikos whilst the new Athens subway was being built in 1995, the question was raised as to whether this could have been connected with the plague of 430BC. The grave contained the bones of 150 men, women and children.

Scholars had long suspected, based on Thucydides account and of what they knew of conditions in the city in the late 5th century, that the plague was actually typhoid fever, and the well-preserved remains in the grave meant that scientists had the opportunity to test DNA from the teeth of some of the skulls in the grave so that they could identify the cause of death. Professor Manolis Papagrigorakis of the University of Athens undertook this study in 2006 and it was indeed found to be typhoid fever that had killed the occupants.

Since some of the skeletons were exceptionally well-preserved it was decided that facial reconstruction would be possible. Professor Papagrigorakis and his team chose three subjects, one of whom was an 11 year old girl. The girl was not one of those who had contributed DNA - the team had not wanted to damage her intact teeth.

Facial reconstruction is an interesting and controversial part of archaeology. As a science to reconstruct the face of a particular individual it really started with the work of Wilhelm His (1831-1904) in the 19th century and then was taken forward by the Russian palaeontologist Mikhail Gerasimov in the 20th century. However, it was really the ‘Manchester’ team, led by Richard Neave in the later 20th century that saw the subject advance as an essential tool in forensic science and archaeology.

Using a 3-D technological program called the ‘Manchester method’ for the reconstruction process, Papagrigorakis and his team worked with the girl’s complete skull, jaw, teeth and milk teeth and believes that the results are 95 percent close to reality. The underlying tenet of facial reconstruction is that the skull forms the armature for the facial flesh and therefore dictates its form. This is supplemented by information collected from data on such things as the varying fleshiness due to age, gender, ethnic origin etc.

It was the job of Greek archaeologist Efi Baziotopoulou, who excavated the Keramikos site, to contribute information to suggest the colour of the girl’s hair and eyes, and she even provided her with a name: Myrtis. Her hair has been styled in a manner familiar from classical vase paintings and reliefs, and her dress based on the tunics of the times.

Myrtis is now the subject of an exhibition "Face to Face with the Past", and because of her death from typhoid fever Myrtis has even been made a representative of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to raise awareness of child health issues. The exhibition has proved very popular in Greece, though it has to be said that facial reconstructions are still an issue of controversy. As Musgrave, a member of the Manchester team, has pointed out there are archaeologists and museum curators who are increasingly concerned at the ethics of working with human remains, and some people find these types of reconstructions distasteful. He believes that it is not offensive to the dead if the reconstruction reveals their stories or historical or scientific truths. It is clear that this new study from Keramikos will add to knowledge of the population of Athens at this time and how they suffered during the war, though it could be argued that there is little to be added by the physical reconstruction of this unfortunate child’s features.

It is not known how many Athenians were killed by the plague during the Peloponnesian War – some scholars put the loss as high as a quarter of the population. What is known though, is that it killed their famous statesman: Pericles, one of the architects of the war. The loss of their most able general at such an early stage in the war was a real disaster for Athens. And of course, as Thucydides pointed out – the plague did not touch Sparta or its allies, so it is interesting to speculate on just how much it did affect the early stages of the war.


  1. wow. i love this blog carolyn, you managed to give a great brief about this bit of history. great stuff. would you lead a tour to see the new face and have a gallery talk??

  2. Well I'm not sure how long she is going to be on display. But all my tours to Athens include the Keramikos cemetery - it is an amazing site. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.


Post a Comment