Greek history comes to N.Y.

University takes on task of studying bones

April 30, 2000|By Steve Wick, | Steve Wick,,NEWSDAY

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. -- Seated before a tray filled with ancient bone fragments, Kostas Harogiannis carefully brushes the dust off Greek history.

As he picks up the shard of an arm bone, he is holding the remains of a Greek man, perhaps a 21-year-old, the same age he is. A young man who, in an epic battle fought on the outskirts of Athens nearly 2,500 years ago, was killed in combat, his body cremated, and the charred bones buried in a chamber reserved for heroic soldiers.

'I feel very honored'

"I feel very honored to be doing this," said Harogiannis, who graduated from Adelphi University on Long Island in December with a degree in biology and is preparing to go to medical school. "It feels like I'm working in my own history, perhaps even my ancestors'. It's a great feeling."

One recent day, Harogiannis, who was born in Greece, and two Adelphi students, Margaret DiNatale and Julian Samodulski, were dusting off the bones in a second-floor laboratory in the university's science building. They were working under the watchful eye of Anagnostis Agelarakis, an anthropology professor at Adelphi who was picked by the Greek government to protect, analyze and, it is hoped, learn enough from the bones to say what kind of men they represent.

These are not just any bones from some long-forgotten conflict, but the bones of Athenian soldiers who fell fighting the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War in 430 B.C. Agelarakis does not know how many individuals are represented by the bones, but the total is perhaps as high as 100. He guesses they were all young men, killed in a war between the democratic state of Athens and an oligarchy based in Sparta.

The soldiers' bodies were cremated after their deaths, and the bones interred in a chamber that was found in 1997 when a construction crew tore down an Athens theater. There, under the floor of the theater, were the remains of people whose personal stories -- their age, what they ate, their health, how they died -- Agelarakis hopes to be able to decipher through DNA analysis.

A forensic anthropologist with a deep interest in Greek history, Agelarakis -- who was born in Greece and who has taught at Adelphi since 1990 -- has worked at archaeological sites all over the world, but these bones speak to him.

Telling their stories

"These are the bones of men who defended Athens," he said. "The area where they were found was a burial ground for statesmen, generals and soldiers who died in battle. This was a war between democracy and oligarchy. Now we have the bones of these men, and we hope to be able to build profiles and tell their stories."

To make men of them again, in other words.

Last August, after the Greek Department of Classical Antiquities asked Agelarakis to take control of the bones, he flew to Athens, carefully boxed the remains, and flew them back to the campus.

He knew the history of the Peloponnesian War, as every Greek school student was taught, and knew that the leader of the Athenians was the statesman Pericles, who gave the funeral oration for the war dead.

For all Agelarakis knows, the bones of Pericles himself may reside in one of the wooden trays spread across a long table in the laboratory. Near the spot where the soldiers' bones were found is an olive grove where Plato taught.

The Peloponnesian War was fought between 431 and 404 B.C. The Greek historian Thucydides wrote that the cause of the war was unease over the growing power of Athens as a city-state.

By 404 B.C., and after victories in several battles by Sparta, Athens was defeated and the victors established an oligarchical government. After another war, democratic forces retook Athens and the Spartans were sent packing.

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