Reopening Cold Case of Nestor’s Cup Burial Solves a Mystery


Homer’s Iliad, a classical ancient Greek tale from the 8th century BC, contains a brief, 6-line description of the famous 2,800-year-old Nestor’s Cup, which was the subject of a great deal of attention in antiquity. The subject of debate was centered around its size, the fact that only Nestor could lift it, and the doves on its handles. A new study and analysis, published in PLOS One , has explored the human remains of the tomb in Greece in which the Nestor’s Cup is buried, only to find that what was supposed to be the cremated remains of a child, actually contains three adults!

Map showing location of Pithekoussai, modern-day Ischia Island, in the Gulf of Naples, Italy. (Gigante et. al / PLOS)

Map showing location of Pithekoussai, modern-day Ischia Island, in the Gulf of Naples, Italy. (Gigante et. al / PLOS)

Pithekoussai: Reopening the Cold Case of Nestor’s Cup

Pithekoussai, widely recognized as the first Greek colony established by the ancient Euboeans in the 8th century BC, is located on the island of Ischia in modern-day Italy. It is here, that a widely celebrated tomb, known as “Cremation 168”, had been found and dated to 2,800 years ago.

In this tomb they found a multitude of grave goods, including the much revered Nestor’s Cup, an artifact with the earliest known Greek inscriptions. “We can say that we re-opened a cold case ,” lead study author Melania Gigante, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Cultural Heritage at the University of Padua in Italy, told Live Science in an email.

In the period between 1952 and 1982, 1,300 tombs were uncovered at Pithekoussai as part of scientific investigations and explorations. This is the period when “Cremation 168”, also known as “The Tomb of Nestor’s Cup”, was discovered. Nestor’s Cup is an inscribed vessel for drinking wine, known as kotyle, that was discovered there.

In the Iliad, heroes and adventurers would drink from the cup, to achieve complete fortification against the evils of the world. This story has become a part of popular mythology and legends. The grave also contained a silver brooch, and other pottery fragments, suggesting that whoever was buried there was of a high social status.

While the tomb’s cup is a simple, clay cup, the inscriptions on it are a clear nod to the myth and the legend. The text on it reads, “I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink from. Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway Desire for beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him.” This is as per research done by the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University, in reference to the Greek goddess of sex, love, and fertility – Aphrodite.

Drawing of the Nestor’s Cup inscription. (Public domain)

Drawing of the Nestor’s Cup inscription. ( Public domain )

What the Latest Study Reveals About Nestor’s Cup

New analysis revealed fragments of both human and animal bones (sheep, bull, pig, dogs, birds) probably buried as sustenance or food offerings, for the deceased in the afterlife. Looking at density of formations of bone renewal, the analysis shows that it was not a singular pre-teen child, but three different human beings buried together, all of them adults. “Unfortunately, given the high fragmentation of the samples and the fire action, we are unable to say more,” says Gigante.

“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,” she continues, adding that this tomb is easily one of the most significant ancient archaeological finds of pre-classical Mediterranean archaeology. She is also quick to point out how little the global community knows about Pithekoussai, which is the gift that keeps on giving, so to speak.

When the tomb was first discovered in 1954, it was widely assumed that the cup was a treasured memento of the person who was buried with it. When later studies suggested that it was located in the tomb of a human being, a child between 10 to 14 years old, it was a puzzling discovery to make sense of. Why would a child be buried with an ode to the Greek goddess of love and fertility?

Human bone and dental fragments analyzed as part of the study. (Gigante et. al / PLOS)

Human bone and dental fragments analyzed as part of the study. (Gigante et. al / PLOS)

Piecing Together the Clues Surrounding Nestor’s Cup

As Jonathan Chadwick writes in the Daily Mail , “since then, a vast body of literature has attempted to explain the link between this juvenile and the inscription on the cup, which is now on permanent display at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Villa Arbusto, Lacco Ameno (Ischia Island).”

Gigante and her colleagues went about with the same burning question in mind, performing detailed analyses on the shape/morphology and tissues of the 195 burnt bone fragments in the tomb. A great percentage of these fragments – 130 – were attributed to humans, while the remaining 45 were attributed to the aforementioned animals.

“Firstly, we were able to reconstruct the osteobiography of the individuals from Tomb 168 at Pithekoussai, answering the thorny question of who/what was buried with Nestor’s Cup?” explained the authors of the Nestor’s Cup study. “Secondly, we are sure that our study can be a new methodological step toward the reconstruction of the life-history of people in ancient times, even in case of poor preservation and/or complexity of the skeletal assemblage,” the authors conclude rather poignantly.

Top image: Nestor’s Cup was discovered on the Italian island of Ischia in 1954. Source: Marcus Cyron / CC BY-SA 4.0

By Sahir Pandey



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