|29 May 2004
DNA analysis of Mycenae shaft burials
A team from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology are applying DNA fingerprinting techniques to the elite shaft burials at Mycenae (Greece). After two years of form-filling and negotiation, the National Museum in Athens released bone splinters and teeth of 10 individuals from their carefully guarded collection.
The discovery of the shaft graves and a magnificent gold death mask by 19th century archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann produced one of the most famous statements in archaeological history: “I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon.” But the graves were subsequently dated to 1500 BCE, some 300 years before the accepted date for the sack of Troy. Archaeologists have long puzzled over the burials and the rich haul of grave goods that accompanied them. “These burials are unique in the Bronze Age,” said Keri Brown of the University of Manchester. “These people seem to have cornered the market in gold, so how did they do this, who were they and how did they have this power?” Working with the forensic science service, Brown’s team has gathered genetic material from bones and teeth. They hope to determine whether the dozens of interred individuals were part of the same family or an unrelated collection of mercenary fighters. The answer will provide insights into the social structure of one of the most significant periods in European history: “If you like, this is where Greek history starts,” says John Prag of the Manchester Museum. Prag’s group has already used facial reconstruction to look for family resemblances. “We got a couple of pairs that were very clearly related.” The bones have also provided indications of sex and age at death. “But you can’t tell from bones who is related to who,” says Brown. “Only DNA can do that.”
Because DNA strands are often degraded the Manchester team are searching for new, shorter, types of genetic markers. An additional complication is the preservative used by Schliemann, which disrupts the sensitive chemistry used to isolate DNA molecules. “We’re spending a lot of time perfecting the experiments on other material before we tackle the Mycenae bones,” says Brown. “We want to get the extraction and analysis methods spot-on.” Preliminary work suggests a 40% success rate, which means that the current project will reveal family details of just four ancient Greeks. “I’d like to go on to look at DNA from other bodies found in other parts of Greece from the same period,” says John Prag.
Prag adds: “Modern Greeks would love to know they’re descended from the ancient Greeks. But since 1500 BCE Greece has been invaded and occupied so many times I’m not sure we’re going to get the answer they want.”
Source: The Guardian (27 May 2004)
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