Death in Corinth

Another banner month for Corinth related articles! This past week saw the publication of A.H. Rohn’s, E. Barnes’s, and G.D.R. Sander’s “An Early Ottoman Cemetery at Ancient Corinth,” Hesperia 78 (2009), 501-615. It’s fantastic that Hesperia is so flexible to publish what is, in effect, a short archaeological monograph! The highly-detailed article documents with great care the 17th century Ottoman cemetery excavated in Panayia Field in Ancient Corinth. The 133 individuals excavated from 81 graves represented both the Christian and Muslim community at Corinth. The excavators suggest that the presence of both groups in the same cemetery and the common appearance of “boot-heel reinforcement cleats” may associate the cemetery with the Ottoman garrison in the town.

If the cemetery is indeed associated with the garrison the ratio of 11 Muslim-style graves to 55 Christian-style graves based, in large part, on the arrangement of the bodies in the graves (p. 516), suggests that the Ottoman garrison may have been relatively well integrated with the local population. This is further indicated by the cross-section of the local demographic represented in the graves with adult men (54), adult women (23) and children of all ages (54) present (pp. 527-528). The analysis of the skull types seem to indicate that many of the women were local while most of the men were from elsewhere (pp.530-531). This would reinforce the notion that this cemetery served the local garrison. The graves also showed some wealth in the community with numerous examples of jewelry (although mostly featuring non-precious metal and stones) and the regular occurrence of the bodies being interned wearing boots suggesting at least some disposable wealth. At the same time, only a few of the graves preserved indications of wooden coffins with nails preserved in a neat halo around the body in at least one grave (p. 512)

It seems that whenever someone excavates a cemetery, there is at least on creepy grave (this is not a technical term), the description of which is worth quoting in full:

Grave 20 contained the body of a young 20–21-year-old male lying extended with his head pointing westward, but face down (Figs. 24, 25). A thick iron rod projecting out of the left side of his neck turned out to be an iron hook that had been inserted into his left shoulder beneath his left clavicle (collarbone). Apparently, he had been suspended from this hook until he died, because both legs and feet extended fully and parallel to one another as they would have while he hung and rigor mortis set in. His right hand had balled up into a fist that clutched the spot where the hook had been inserted into his shoulder. His left arm dangled behind his back. Presumably, once he had died, his punishers had taken down his rigid body and placed it face down (a position of disgrace?) into his final resting place, leaving the hook still embedded. We suspect this represents a death sentence for an individual who defied the order of the local governing body. Ottoman rule at Ancient Corinth during the early 17th century apparently tolerated Christian religious practice, but only as long as the Christians obeyed their rulers and did not cause trouble for them. (p. 521)

The cemetery appears to have fallen out of use during the Second Venetian period at Corinth (1687-1715) and perhaps forgotten by the 18th century. I can’t help wonder how quickly the cemetery fell out of use as place of burial or even commemoration for while the men in the group may have represented Ottoman power, the women would have tied at least some members of that group to the local community. Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory has noted that in the Modern period, Greek graves can fall into neglect very quickly if there are no long any close relatives in the community to maintain them. By the Early Modern period (19th century in Greece) the area had been built over with houses. It is remarkable (and a useful reminder) that there was little evidence of the cemetery in the plow-zone. Thus, the function of this area would have been virtually invisible to intensive survey techniques.

With the recent publications of Lita Tzortzopolou-Gregory on the modern period, the work of Joe Rife on the Late Roman and Roman period, it should now be possible to present an almost comprehensive survey of mortuary practices in the Corinthia from Roman times to the present.

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