Strangely Circular Injury Solves A 2,000-Year-Old Murder Mystery

What caused this unusual circular injury? Anagnostis Agelarakis. 'Execution by Styrax in Ancient Thasos.' Access Archaeology/2019

Some 2,000 years ago, a burly guy had an untimely death on the idyllic Greek island of Thasos. Through years of scientific sleuthing and painstaking detective work, archaeologists have now pieced together how this brutal murder unfolded in a stunning amount of detail.

This ancient cold case first came to light in 2012, when a team of archaeologists unearthed the remains of 57 individuals at an excavation site around the ancient necropolis in Thasos. One of which was like nothing any of the researchers had ever seen before.

The skeleton, which appears to have once belonged to a muscular man, features a near-perfectly circular hole straight through the sternum, the central bone in the chest. It was originally suspected to be a birth defect known as sternal foramen that occurs when the sternum doesn't form completely. However, the shape of the hole wasn't characteristic of this condition. 

Reporting in a forthcoming edition of the journal Access Archaeology, Anagnostis Agelarakis from Adelphi University in New York has been studying the bone for several years along with the help of other experts and concluded that the unusual injury was the result of a close-reach stab from a styrax, a spear-like weapon with a pointed end.

As reported by Forbes, Agelarakis and his team reached this conclusion by creating bronze reconstructions of the weapon and a ballistic model that mimics the human body. Their experiments found a perfect circle, such as this injury, couldn’t be formed by a long-range throw as the spike was very unlikely to land neatly and squarely in the bone. Equally, this means it's unlikely he was killed during a scrappy fight in the heat of a battle. So, this rules out the possibility of him being a fallen soldier.

The only way to achieve a hole consistent with this bone injury was a close-range stab while the man was immobilized, either pinned against a wall or tied up on his knees. This, according to the researchers, hints that the main was murdered in an unusually organized fashion.

"I concluded that it wasn't something that was hurled but [that] it was something that was steadied first on the sternum and then, with extreme force, penetrated," Agelarakis told Live Science.

Anatomical analysis of the bones showed the man was around 170.5 centimeters (5 feet, 7 inches) tall, which was pretty big for an ancient person. Markings on the bones also revealed that he was a pretty muscular guy. While this wasn’t necessarily unusual for ancient Greeks at the time, a dental analysis showed that the man's diet had worsened before his death, which would be unusual for a wannabe bodybuilder.

However, this might just be the final piece of the puzzle. Agelarakis argues that this shows he was most likely a prisoner, held in captivity in poor conditions. His death, therefore, looks like it was some sort of organized execution – and not a very pleasant one either.

 

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