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1500-year-old infant cemetery unearthed at the walls of Thessaloniki

Dozens of infants and children, possibly victims of the great plague of the 5th century, have been unearthed in an excavation at the walls of Thessaloniki.

1500-year-old infant cemetery unearthed at the walls of Thessaloniki
Credit: Kathimerini

More than 200 burials, 90% of them jar burials, packed in a dense arrangement, were revealed by archaeologists on Kastrona Street, where they were digging for the redevelopment and promotion of the outer rampart in almost the heart of the city. Apparently this was part of the Christian cemetery of the Eastern Cemetery, which was dedicated exclusively to infants and children in early Christian times (late 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries).

"The scene we saw was riveting", says the archaeologist of the Ephorate of Thessaloniki City Aikaterini Kousoula. "In contrast to the organized arrangement of graves observed in the lower layers where 21 tile-roofed children's burials and a cist-shaped children's grave were found, the jar burials with dozens of vases almost stacked on top of each other in the upper layers, suggest the increased child mortality and the urgent need for burial in a limited space. The dense burials," Kousoula explains, "are probably linked to the deadly plague epidemic that struck Justinian's empire in 451-452, decimating a quarter of the population in Constantinople and the coastal cities of the eastern Mediterranean." 

In total some 212 burials of infants and children were found. They were distributed on either side of the southern tower of the rampart which served as a precinct or reference point for a children's cemetery.  "The custom of burying infants in jars has existed since the prehistoric period," Kousoula says. "The difference in the Thessaloniki burials is that the infant bodies were accompanied by a mosaic tile or a piece of flooring with tesserae which we believe were probably detached from ruined shrines or martyrdoms. It is not certain that the vases were intended exclusively for burials or had an earlier liturgical use and were used after the sudden death of the children." 

"The moving revelation at the time of a modern deadly pandemic becomes particularly poignant. The study of the excavated material is expected to add valuable information about this unknown aspect of Thessaloniki. It was revealed thanks to the redevelopment and the enhancement of part of the Kastron Street east of the Roman-Byzantine eastern walls and the bastion with a study by the Municipality and funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation." 

The find was announced at the 33rd Scientific Meeting on the Archaeological Project in Macedonia and Thrace (AEMTH).

Source: Kathimerini [April 23, 2021]

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