Saturday, January 03, 2009

Large necropolis discovered at Himera may hold victims of the Carthaginians

[Image - Surprise at Himera]

It will be interesting when analysis is complete on the skeletal remains uncovered in the huge necropolis found in Himera to see if they are the victims of one or both of the major battles fought there with the Carthaginians in the fifth century BCE.

Archaeologists have uncovered what they believe to be the largest Greek necropolis in the city of Himera on the island of Sicily, where the ancient version of babies beakers has been found.

According to the new agency ANSA, although experts have long known about the burial ground, they have only recently understood its importance because of building work to extend a local railway track.

Hundreds of graves have already been uncovered, but archaeologists believe there are thousands more waiting to be found in the burial ground of the city, which rose to prominence more than 2,500 years ago.

The necropolis is of an extraordinary beauty and notable dimensions, said Sicily's regional councillor for culture, Antonello Antinoro.

”Preliminary estimates indicate the presence of around 10,000 tombs, which gives the site a good claim to being one of the most important discoveries of recent years, he added.

Among the most exciting finds are skeletons of newborn babies placed inside funerary amphorae along with the ancient version of babies beakers, namely small terracotta vases equipped with spouts to function as feeding bottles.

Most of the graves in the necropolis date from between the sixth and fifth centuries BC, and archaeologists believe that many of the tombs contain the remains of thousands of soldiers, civilians and prisoners who died during two bloody battles that took place in the city.

According to Stefano Vassallo, who heads the dig, archaeologists were excited to have found a common grave containing a dozen bodies, all of whom he said were young, male and showed unequivocal signs of a violent death in battle.

Some of the skeletons bear the signs of being hit by heavy objects, while others still have arrows attached to them, Vassallo said.

He added that skeletons found in the necropolis would undergo analysis by forensic anthropologists to determine information about the populations lifestyle and eating habits.

In addition to the huge numbers of human remains, the necropolis is gradually offering up a significant haul of funerary goods buried alongside the bodies such as oil-lamps, bowls, and ceramics. -

The first battle in 480 BCE alone would have contributed thousands to the body count:

At sunrise the cavalrymen rode up to the naval camp of the Carthaginians, and when the guards admitted them, thinking them to be allies, they at once galloped to where Hamilcar was busied with the sacrifice, slew him, and then set fire to the ships; thereupon the scouts raised the signal and Gelon advanced with his entire army in battle order against the Carthaginian camp. The commanders of the Phoenicians in the camp at the outset led out their troops to meet the Siceliotes and as the lines closed they put up a vigorous fight; at the same time in both camps they sounded with the trumpets the signal for battle and a shout arose from the two armies one after the other, each eagerly striving to outdo their adversaries in the volume of their cheering.

The slaughter was great, and the battle was swaying back and forth, when suddenly the flames from the ships began to rise on high and sundry persons reported that the general had been slain; then the Greeks were emboldened and with spirits elated at the rumours and by the hope of victory they pressed with greater boldness upon the barbarians, while the Carthaginians, dismayed and despairing of victory, turned in flight.

Since Gelon had given orders to take no prisoners, there followed a great slaughter of the enemy in their flight, and in the end no less than one hundred and fifty thousand of them were slain. All who escaped the battle and fled to a strong position at first warded off the attackers, but the position they had seized had no water, and thirst compelled them to surrender to the victors. -
Then the Carthaginian commander's grandson, Hannibal Mago, returned in 409 and wreaked a terrible vengence:
Hannibal marched to Himera and set up his main camp on the west of the city, while about a third of the army encamped to the south of Himera.[6] Instead of building a circumventing wall and fully investing the city, The Carthaginians assaulted the walls with the help of siege towers and battering rams after setting up their camps. However, the city walls withstood the attack and no breaches could be made for the Puinc infantry to exploit. Hannibal then sent sappers, who dug tunnels under the walls and collapsed sections of it by setting fire to the wooden support beams.[7] Carthaginian infantry then attacked through the gap, but The Himerans repulsed the Punic assault on the city, and then threw up make shift walls to close the breaches.[8]

Sometime after this event, Syracusan general Diocles arrived with 3,000 Syracusan hoplites, 1,000 soldiers from Akragas and another 1,000 mercenaries and entered the city. Joining the Himeran force of about 10,000 troops[9] (majority hoplites with some cavalry and peltasts), the Greeks launched a surprise attack on the Punic lines, probably on the forces posted on the south of the city. The Greeks achieved total surprise and in the confusion, Carthaginian troops fought each other as well as Greeks. As the Carthaginians ultimately broke and fled after losing about 6,000 soldiers, Greek soldiers went after the scattered remnants of their enemy. At this point, Hannibal launched a counter attack with the force he had held in reserve at the other camp (to the wast of Himera), routed the Greeks and chased them back into the city, with 3,000 Greeks losing their lives in the debacle.[10]

The main Syracusan fleet was away from Sicily, but 25 triremes had arrived at Himera after the battle from Syracuse. As the Carthaginian fleet was at Motya, their arrival gave the Greeks command of the sea around Himera.[11] Hannibal spread a false report that the Punic army was going to attack Syracuse after sailing there from Motya, as the main army of Syracuse was approaching Himera, thus leaving their city unguarded. This convinced the Syracusans to leave Himera for their mother city. The city of Himera had little chance of withstanding the Carthaginians on their own, so they decided to evacuate the city.[12]

Diocles marched out of the city with half the men and all his troops at night, the Syracusan ships evacuated as many of the women and children as possible. The Carthaginians resumed their assaults the next day. The city managed to hold out for 1 day. Just as the Syracusan fleet was returning and was within sight of the city the following day, the Carthaginians broke through. Iberian troops of the Punic army had managed to secure a gap on the wall, and also the sections of the wall flanking the gap. The held off the Greeks until the Carthaginian army stormed the city through the gap, and the reduced garrison of Himera was overcome by weigh of numbers.

Hannibal sacrificed 3,000 Greek prisoners at the place where Hamilcar, his grandfather and leader of the 480 BC expedition, had fallen. The city of Himera was utterly destroyed, even all the temples were flattened to the ground, and the women and children were enslaved. - Wikipedia
The article I read did not provide information about the ethnic origins of the grave goods but with the reference to infant burials I guess we can assume they are all Greek/Sicilian and not Punic. However, since the Carthaginians were the ultimate victors, some graves could have contained their fallen as well. The article emphasized the discovery of "baby beakers" - spouted drinking vessels - but these types of vessels have been found in documented Punic burials on Malta as well.

Archaeologist Claudia Sagona in her work, Punic Antiquities of Malta and Other Ancient Artefacts Held in Ecclesiastic and Private Collections, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Supplement 10, identified amphorae, urns, jars, jugs, juglets, flasks, spouted flasks, askoi, bottles, unguentaria, beakers, bowls, cups, skyphoi, kylikes, open pots, tripod bowls, situlae, plates, lids, incense cups, braziers, cooking pots and lamps among the grave goods in Punic burials on Malta.