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7 March 2012
Ancient Greek cave speaks of Hades myth

Overlooking a quiet Greek bay far from Athens, Alepotrypa Cave contains the remains of a Stone Age village, burials, a lake and an amphitheater-sized final chamber in which blazing rituals took place more than 5,000 years ago. All of it was sealed from the world until modern times, and scholars are only now reporting what lies within.
     "There is almost no Neolithic site like it in Europe - certainly none with so many burials," says archaeologist Anastasia Papathanasiou of the Greek Ministry of Culture, a director of the Diros Project Team. The team has so far uncovered about 160 burials inside the cave, from a time 7,000 to 5,200 years ago when farming first spread to Europe.
     Inside, the cave is covered with a layer of greasy ash from ritual fires that may have marked burials there. "The state of preservation is excellent," says Papathanasiou. From that preservation, they know the Stone Age farmers at the site ate a diet heavy in barley and wheat with little meat or fish. Analyses of the burial skeletons show people who were not much different physically from those in the Mediterranean today - almost as tall as modern Greeks - although slightly anaemic due to a lack of meat in their diet.
     About 31% of the burial skulls display an inherited line where bone plates meet above the forehead, showing they were related, Papathanasiou says. The skulls also show many signs of healed bumps and cuts, she adds. "They fought a lot."
     "They were living in a large village outside the cave," says Mike Galaty of Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi (USA), a co-director of the project's survey efforts with William Parkinson of Chicago's Field Museum. "We don't quite know what was going on with the ritual activities, but it seems they were burning sacrificed animals, smashing pots and other pottery, and building large fires inside the cave."
     Greek archaeologist George Papathanassopoulos, who led excavations at the site starting in the 1970's, speculated that the ancient Greek notion of Hades - a gloomy and misty home for the dead - may have had its origins in the cave's rituals.
     First re-discovered in 1958 by local people, Greek tourism officials saw it as a cave attraction. When archaeologists realised what was there, they led efforts to keep tourists from trampling the site. In coming years the Diros project will map the extent of the Stone Age community living around the bay.

Edited from USA Today (25 February 2012)

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