A new twist in the ongoing controversy over Cleopatra VII's racial ancestry developed with the revelations of a skull found in 1920 by the BBC. Here is a commentary written earlier this year which casts doubt on the credibility of these scientific findings.
Arsinoe, Cleopatra VII and Racial Implications
Just before bed last night I was deluged with bloggables, chief among which was a report in numerous newspapers about tests having been done on the bones of someone believed to be Arsinoe, Cleopatra’s murdered sister. This one presents numerous difficulties and the press might be jumping the gun (once again), although it is clear this is hype for a television program masquerading as news.
The distinctive tomb was first opened in 1926 by archeologists who found a sarcophagus inside containing a skeleton. They removed the skull, which was examined and measured; but it was lost in the upheaval of the second world war.
In the early 1990s Thür reentered the tomb and found the headless skeleton, which she believed to be of a young woman. Clues, such as the unusual octagonal shape of the tomb, which echoed that of the lighthouse of Alexandria with which Arsinöe was associated, convinced Thür the body was that of Cleopatra’s sister. Her theory was considered credible by many historians, and in an attempt to resolve the issue the Austrian Archeological Institute asked the Medical University of Vienna to appoint a specialist to examine the remains.
The Thür mentioned is Hilke Thür of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The tomb in question is actually in Ephesus and we know that Arsinoe was actually killed there at Cleopatra’s request and on Marcus Antonius’ orders. The identification of the tomb as belonging to Arsinoe seems reasonable (if not exactly secure) enough. As might be expected, though, the ancestry side of things is what the press is latching on to … Dr Thur is quoted in the Telegraph (and there’s a similar quote in the AFP coverage).
Fabian Kanz, an anthropologist, was sceptical when he began this task two years ago. “We tried to exclude her from being Arsinöe,” he said. “We used all the methods we have to find anything that can say, ‘Okay, this can’t be Arsinöe because of this and this’.”
After using carbon dating, which dated the skeleton from 200BC-20BC, Kanz, who had examined more than 500 other skeletons taken from the ruins of Ephesus, found Thür’s theory gained credibility.
He said he was certain the bones were female and placed the age of the woman at 15-18. Although Arsinöe’s date of birth is not known, she was certainly younger than Cleopatra, who was about 27 at the time of her sister’s demise.
The lack of any sign of illness or malnutrition also indicated a sudden death, said Kanz. Evidence of the skeleton’s north African ethnicity provided the final clue.
Caroline Wilkinson, a forensic anthropologist, reconstructed the missing skull based on measurements taken in the 1920s. Using computer technology it was possible to create a facial impression of what Arsinöe might have looked like.
“It has got this long head shape,” said Wilkinson. “That’s something you see quite frequently in ancient Egyptians and black Africans. It could suggest a mixture of ancestry.”
The headlines of both the Telegraph (”Cleopatra had African ancestry, skeleton suggests”) and the AFP coverage (”Cleopatra ‘was part-African’”) show the leap the press is taking with this one, despite the fact that we are not entirely sure who Cleopatra’s mother was (she is not named in any Classical source as far as I’m aware and the suggestion that it was Cleopatra V (Arsinoe’s mother) is a long-standing conjecture) — she and Arsinoe did not necessarily have the same mother. But beyond that, we get this skull business and having Arsinoe’s ethnicity actually being determined from a reconstructed skull based on measurements taken in the 1920s? Although I fear being labelled as one having the “brainpan of a stagecoach tilter”, can there not be some actual DNA tests on the skeletal material? Was it even suggested? I think the jury’s still very much out on this one
In any event, let’s begin with a bit fro: Very interesting claims. I take it the ‘researchers’ of this study are not aware of the fact that long-headed skulls, dolichocephalic, are common among southern europeans, the true origins of Cleopatra, Arsinoe and the Ptolemies. In fact as this article clearly shows long shaped skulls have existed in the region of Greece long before the Homeric times, meaning even IF Arsinoe’s skull was ‘long shaped’, it still does not imply ‘of mixed’ origins given the region from where her Dynasty originated from is known to have ‘long shaped skulls’:
“Six skulls from Hagias Kosmas near Athens claimed to be of amalgamation period of Neolithic Mediterranean, Danubian, and Cycladic elements, between 2500 and 2200 B.C.21 depict three are long headed shaped (dolichocephalic), one mesocephalic, and two brachyceplialic. The faces of all are narrow, the noses leptorrhine, the orbits high.
Twenty-five Mid-Helladic crania represent the period after the arrival of the Corded or “Kurgan” folk from the north, and during the seizure of power by the Minoan conquerors from Crete.22 Of these, twenty-three come from Asine, and two from Mycenae. The long heads are not of uniform type; some, with large vaults and strong browridges, with deep nasion depressions, remind one of the larger varieties of Neolithic dolichocephals, of both Long Barrow and Corded types; and Fürst feels that a number of them are very similar to the Late Neolithic crania from Scandinavia, of about equal age. Needless to say, both Corded and Megalithic people were present in Denmark and Sweden at about this time.
The rest of the long-headed crania, which are probably more truly representative of the bulk of the Mid-Helladic population, are of the slightbrowed, high-nosed type familiar in Crete and Asia Minor during the same epoch. They, too, are short statured, while the few examples of the larger-headed variety are, as is expected, taller. It is impossible, with present data, to isolate front the main body of these crania a Danubian type, although the latter may well have been present.
Forty-one Late Helladic skulls, dated between 1500 and 1200 B.C., and coming likewise from Argolis, may include those of some of the “divineborn” invaders. Among these, one-fifth are brachycephalic, and apparently largely of the Cypriote Dinaric type. Of the long-headed skulls, a large number belongs now to the larger, more heavily marked varieties, and fewer to the smaller Mediterranean The similarity to the northern types, and especially to the Corded, is even stronger than before.”
Long oval shaped heads in Greeks is not uncommon even in modern Greeks, so claiming Arsinoe was ‘African’ based upon a skull that they do not have being long shaped is shoddy work to say the least.
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