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Antiquity Vol 79 No 305 September 2005

A mass burial at fourth century BC Pydna, Macedonia, Greece: evidence for slavery?

S. Triantaphyllou & M. Bessios

Until 168 BC, Pydna in northern Pieria was one of the major urban centres of Macedonia (Bessios & Pappa 1995). In January 2000, rescue excavations in the Classical cemetery of Pydna uncovered a mass burial of some 115 individuals. Bodies were thrown, without any sign of formal mortuary treatment, into a 4m deep, rectangular (3.90 x 1.80m), rock-cut shaft (Bessios & Triantaphyllou 2002).

The deposition of the dead bodies appears, on firm stratigraphical evidence, to have taken place in four distinct episodes, comprising eleven (Figure 1), forty-five (Figure 2), 2 and fifty-seven individuals (Figure 3). The few associated finds included fragments of clothing or jewellery (e.g. iron fibulae, rings). Iron restraining bands for different parts of the body - a neck band (Figure 4), a leg fetter, an arm shackle and a pair of leg-fetters (Figure 5) were found on four of the dead.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Level A of the mass burial - eleven individuals
Figure 2 (Click to view)

Figure 2. Level B of the mass burial - forty five individuals

The human skeletal remains
Fifty-eight of the one hundred and fifteen individuals represented have been isolated from the commingled skeletal remains, examined macroscopically and thoroughly recorded. This sample - almost half of the total population - is derived mainly from the three upper depositional episodes. Most of these skeletal remains were very well preserved, with each individual represented by more than 75 per cent of the entire skeleton. Conversely, the skeletons making up the fourth and lowest depositional episode are relatively incomplete, because of the extremely moist conditions at 4m depth, and estimation of their minimum number (57 individuals) is based primarily on complete skulls.

Osteological study of the human skeletal remains, which focused on the demographic composition and health status of the population, has yielded several observations that may contribute to a broader interpretation of this mass burial:

  1. Males and females occur in almost equal frequencies.
  2. A range of age categories is well represented (Table 1). As well as 42 adults, the sample includes 16 subadults, individuals under 18 years old that are usually underrepresented in skeletal populations. In particular, children and juveniles, that is individuals between 6 and 18 years old, are well represented.
  3. The average age at death was in young adulthood for both males and females. Few individuals seem to have reached prime (30-40 years) or mature (40-50 years) adulthood, while there are no individuals aged over 50 years old.
  4. There is a high incidence of lesions or skeletal markers associated with the musculo-skeletal system: e.g. arthritic changes (62 per cent), enthesopathies (60 per cent), strongly marked muscular attachments (62 per cent) and, less commonly, trauma (7 per cent). It is worth noting that age-progressive lesions, such as arthritic changes, seem to have affected very young adults of both sexes, particularly in the joints of the wrist and foot, while traumatic injuries refer mainly to long-term healed fractures of the ribs. There is no evidence of peri-mortem injuries that might have caused violent death.
  5. There is a strikingly high prevalence of physiological stress markers in both sexes (e.g. periostitis of the lower limbs (52 per cent), enamel hypoplasia lines (33 per cent) and anaemia (55 per cent)), suggesting dietary and nutritional deficiencies or other severe stress factors. It is possible that the low levels of health status contributed significantly to the early deaths of juveniles and young adults.

Click here to go to Table 1.

The balanced representation of both sexes contrasts sharply with the overrepresentation of adult males in contemporary cemetery populations from Macedonia. Furthermore, the high prevalence of skeletal stress markers is consistent with heavy physical activity, for example in agriculture, mining and woodcutting. Given that such stresses need some time to affect the skeleton, the high frequency of occupational stress markers in young adults perhaps suggests the participation of adolescents or even children in heavy physical labour. At the same time, the high incidence of physiological stress factors and their association with a low average age at death in young adulthood suggests a population segment suffering from poor living conditions, vitamin and other dietary deficiencies and exposure to pathogens. By contrast, the cemetery population from Amphipolis, another major urban centre in historical Macedonia, has yielded a substantially higher average age at death, of between thirty and forty years old, and significantly lower frequencies of physiological stress factors (Malama & Triantaphyllou 2001).

Historical context
What does this mass burial represent in the historical context of fourth century BC Macedonia? Mass burials were rare in the ancient Greek world (for a relevant discussion, see Little & Papadopoulos 1998) and fall into three main categories:

  1. burials of men who had fallen in war ('polyandreia') and were treated to funeral rites (e.g. the victims of the fifth century BC Peloponnesian war in the Athens Kerameikos - Rose 2000);
  2. hasty burials without funeral rites of the victims of an epidemic or famine (e.g. the victims of the fifth century BC famine at Athens - Parlama & Stambolidis 2000);
  3. burials of prisoners of war or convicts (e.g. the victims of Kaiada in eighth-fifth century BC Sparta - Themelis 1982; the convicts of Faliron in fifth century BC Attika - Pelekidis 1916; and the convicts of fourth century BC Akanthos in Chalkidiki - Trakosopoulou-Selekidou 1993).

Figure 3

Figure 3. Level D - the earliest deposition - c. fifty seven individuals
Figure 4

Figure 4. Level A: young adult male in iron neck band. Click to enlarge.

In Macedonia, particularly in the second half of the fourth century BC, after the death of Philip II, there was considerable mobility of slaves and prisoners of war from the battles of Alexander the Great in Persia (Wilcken 1976). According to Arrian, Alexander the Great, after his victory in the battle of Granikos in 334 BC, captured some two thousand Greek mercenaries, fighting on the side of the Persians, and banished them to hard labour in Macedonia (Faklaris 1986).

The individuals deposited in the mass burial of Pydna - some of them in iron shackles - exhibit low average age at death, extremely low levels of health status and marked skeletal manifestations of heavy physical stress. With these strong indications of a low-status segment of the population involved in hard labour, the Pydna mass burial offers, for the first time in the Greek mainland, potential for thorough examination of human skeletal evidence for ancient slavery - an important issue hitherto explored primarily through literary and epigraphical sources (Reiley 1978; Garlan 1988; Bradley 2005).

ST is grateful to the Greek State Foundation for Grants (IKY) for the one-year postdoctoral fellowship which supported cleaning, sorting and studying of the human skeletal remains. This work would have been impossible without the keen support of the Director of the IST Ephorate of Thessaloniki, Dr E. Trakosopoulou-Salakidou who greatly facilitated practical matters, as well as of the chief conservator of the IH Ephorate of Kavala, Mr G. Xylapetsidis who helped in the conservation of the human skeletal remains and the reconstruction of the skulls. Dr Paul Halstead did the editing of the text and made useful and inspiring comments for further work.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Level D: individual in iron leg-fetters. Click to enlarge.


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  • Triantaphyllou: Sheffield Centre for Aegean Archaeology, Department of Archaeology, Northgate House, West Street, Sheffield S1 4ET, UK (Email:
    Bessios: KZ' Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, 32 Parmenionos, 60 100 Katerini, Greece

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