Women in Ancient Greece were major power brokers in their own right, researchers have discovered, and often played key roles in running affairs of state. Until now it was thought they were treated little better than servants.
The discovery is part of an investigation by Manchester researchers into the founders of Mycenae, Europe's first great city-state and capital of King Agamemnon's domains.
'It was thought that in those days women were rated as little more than chattels in Ancient Greece,' said Professor Terry Brown, of the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University. 'Our work now suggests that notion is wrong.'
Mycenae is one of the most important and evocative archaeological sites in Europe. According to legend, Agamemnon led his armies from Mycenae to Troy to bring back Helen - the wife of his ally, Menelaus - who had run off with the Trojan prince Paris.
The citadel was first excavated in the 1870s by Heinrich Schliemann, who uncovered tombs containing crumbling bones draped with jewels and gold face masks. 'I have discovered the graves of Agamemnon, Eurymedon, and their companions, all slain at a banquet by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthos,' he told the King of Greece.
In fact, the graves have since been dated and shown to be too old for those of Agamemnon. Nevertheless, Mycenae has since proved to be a treasure trove of archaeological riches. Most recently, these have involved scientists using a range of new techniques, including facial reconstruction work carried out by Manchester researchers John Prag and Richard Neave. They recreated the faces of seven individuals whose skeletons had been excavated at a circle of graves inside the citadel.
The images provided scientists with a family picture album for the rulers of Europe's first great city-state. However, genetics experts have now taken this work a stage further by attempting to extract DNA from 22 of the 35 bodies found in the grave circle. 'The facial reconstructions were carried out 10 years ago, but it is only now that scientists have developed sensitive enough techniques to get DNA from skeletons as old as these,' said Brown. 'In each case we had to deal with a single cell's worth of DNA.'
The genetic material isolated by the scientists is known as mitochondrial DNA, which humans inherit exclusively from their mothers. However, of the 22 skeletons that were tested, only four produced enough DNA for full analysis. Nevertheless, findings from these provided a shock for the team from Manchester.
While two of the males had DNA that indicated they were unrelated, the genetic material extracted from the remaining pair, a man and a woman, revealed they were brother and sister. They had been thought to have been man and wife.
'To be precise our DNA evidence suggests the pair were closely related, possibly siblings or possibly cousins. However, the facial reconstruction work of Prag and Neave also shows they were very similar in appearance which indicates they were brother and sister,' said Brown.
The critical point, he said, was that the woman was thought to have been buried in a richly endowed grave because she was the wife of a powerful man. That was in keeping with previous ideas about Ancient Greece - that women had little power and could only exert influence through their husbands.
'But this discovery shows both the man and the woman were of equal status and had equal power,' he said. 'Women in Ancient Greece held positions of power by right of birth, it now appears.
'The problem has been that up until recently our interpretation of life in Ancient Greece has been the work of a previous generations of archaeologists, then a male-oriented profession and who interpreted their findings in a male-oriented way. That is changing now and women in Ancient Greece are being seen in a new light.'
As I recall, there were a couple of infants buried at Mycenae as well. So taking this argument to its logical extreme conclusion, we see that infants must also have been major power brokers. All those who think they're reading waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much into this, raise your hand ... thought so.