Mystery Of Nestor’s Cup Tomb Deepens After Three People's Ashes Discovered

Nestor's Cup has long-fascinated archaeologists as it bears one of the earliest surviving examples of written Greek. Image credit: Gigante et al., 2021, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

Archaeologists have taken a second look at an ancient tomb of 2,800-year-old cremated remains, revealing that it contains the ashes of not one but three different people, like a charred human cocktail. It also appears that the burned remains of a few dogs and goats were chucked into the mix just for good measure. 

The study was recently reported in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

The Tomb of Nestor’s Cup was discovered in the remains of Pithekoussai on the Italian volcanic island of Ischia located just off the coast of Naples. The settlement was founded by Greeks in the 8th century BCE and represents one of the earliest Greek colonial outposts in the West Mediterranean. Among the town's ruins, researchers have discovered a sprawling necropolis that's home to over 1,300 tombs, one of which contained the Nestor’s Cup.

The cup has long-fascinated archeologists because it bears one of the earliest surviving examples of written Greek. Given the significance of this relic, researchers have strong reason to believe the tomb belonged to someone of considerable importance. It was previously assumed that the tomb simply contained the cremated bones of a single individual aged between 10 and 14 years of age, but a new study reveals that it actually contains the remains of three people.

Scientists at the University of Padua and Sapienza University of Rome analyzed 195 burnt bone fragments in the tomb. Just 130 of these fragments were human, while the remaining 45 were found to belong to other animal species, including goats and possibly dogs. It’s thought these animals were laid to rest in the tomb as food or companions for the deceased. 

Most unexpectedly, the team also discovered that the charred bones showed evidence of varying life stages, indicating at least three individuals of different ages. Their study reads: “These outcomes dramatically change previous reconstructions of the cremation deposit, rewriting the answer to the question: who was buried with Nestor’s Cup?”

This question remains unanswered. The research was not able to deduce any details about the humans among the remains, such as their age at death or why they were buried with the cup. Now we know this tomb contained three people and some animals, however, the mystery of the tomb’s occupants has only deepened further. 

“More than fifty years after its discovery, the Tomb of Nestor’s Cup..., widely considered one of the most important archaeological findings of Pre-Classical Mediterranean Archeology, is back in the news. Our research rewrites the history and the previous archaeological interpretation of the Tomb, throwing new light on funeral practices, culture and society of the Greek immigrants in the ancient West Mediterranean,” said the study author.

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