Saturday, March 28, 2009

Forensic pathologists claim Arsinoe's skeleton found in Ephesus

I was browsing my news alerts this morning after being gone for a couple of weeks in Rome and came across this fascinating piece of news:

"ARCHEOLOGISTS and forensic experts believe they have identified the skeleton of Cleopatra’s younger sister, murdered more than 2,000 years ago on the orders of the Egyptian queen.

The remains of Princess Arsinöe, put to death in 41BC on the orders of Cleopatra and her Roman lover Mark Antony to eliminate her as a rival, are the first relics of the Ptolemaic dynasty to be identified.

The breakthrough, by an Austrian team, has provided pointers to Cleopatra’s true ethnicity. Scholars have long debated whether she was Greek or Macedonian like her ancestor the original Ptolemy, a Macedonian general who was made ruler of Egypt by Alexander the Great, or whether she was north African.

Evidence obtained by studying the dimensions of Arsinöe’s skull shows she had some of the characteristics of white Europeans, ancient Egyptians and black Africans, indicating that Cleopatra was probably of mixed race, too. They were daughters of Ptolemy XII by different wives..."

"...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 Hilke Thür of the Austrian Academy of Sciences 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..." - much more: Times Online.

I must admit I am still a little skeptical as the skeleton's age was estimated at 15 - 18 years of age - seemingly too young for Arsinoe. As the article points out, Arsinoe was younger than Cleopatra, who was about 27 at the time she ordered her sister's execution. But, such a young age would mean she was little more than a child when she assumed control of the Egyptian army during the Alexandrian Wars with Caesar and ordered the execution of Egyptian commanding general Achillas, replacing him with her tutor Ganymede. Although she may have been as precocious as her older sister, this level of political acumen would seem to be a bit of a stretch unless she was being used as merely a figure head for an ambitious Ganymede. If this were so, however, why would Cleopatra be so nervous about her potential to cause political problems in the future? If the ancient sources were more precise about her age or birthdate it would be a tremendous help but the struggle for control of the throne of Egypt during this period has left a number of conflicting documents with various dating methods to confuse the issue.

However, one cannot dismiss the implications of the age, shape, and decor of the tomb in which the skeleton was found or the DNA analysis that indicates the skeleton had a combination of European, ancient Egyptian and North African traits. If the remains are, indeed, that of Arsinoe, I cannot help but feel excited to have, at last, some physical biological remnant of a member of the Ptolemy royal house available for future study. I also found the computer reconstruction of Arsinoe interesting. Although she had a different mother than Cleopatra, surely some of her appearance could have been shared by her more famous older sister.

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