Baltic Amber in Aššur: Rediscovering significant evidence of amber exchange between Europe and the Middle East, c. 1800–1750 BC

Jan-Heinrich Bunnefeld and Oliver Dietrich

State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt - State Museum of Prehistory, Halle (Saale)

*Editors’ note: Portions of this overview appear online and are reproduced here with the permission of the authors.

Aššur (now Qala'at Sherqat, located on the west bank of the Tigris in Iraq) is one of the most important archaeological sites in northern Mesopotamia. The beginnings of the settlement go back to the 3rd millennium BC. Starting from the late 19th century BC, the city became the centre of an Assyrian territorial state.
From 1903 to 1914, the Royal Museums in Berlin and the German Orient Society conducted excavations in Aššur under the direction of Walter Andrae (1875–1956). One of the aims of the excavation was to study the great ziggurat built by Šamši-Adad I, who was the first Assyrian king to describe himself as šar kiššatim (literally the “King of the Whole”). In April 1914, in search of the foundation layers, the excavators widened an existing old tunnel. In doing so, they uncovered several thousand beads of shell, stone, glass and pottery lying directly on the bedrock beneath the first layer of mudbricks. On the basis of find-sharing agreements, parts of the finds ended up in the collection of the Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin.

Among the beads were two disc-shaped examples whose material differed from the rest (i. a. Harding/Hughes-Brock 1974, 169). See Figure 24. They have now been re-examined by researchers from the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, the Martin-Luther-University of Halle-Wittenberg and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Bunnefeld et al. 2023). Fragments of the two beads were analysed in 2019 by the Rathgen-Forschungslabor der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz using Fourier transformation infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR). Despite severe weathering, the spectra broadly matched those of Baltic amber (succinite), suggesting that the amber beneath the great ziggurat of Aššur most likely originated in the Baltic or North Sea region.

If one accepts the Low-Middle Chronology, which Stuart W. Manning et al. (2016; 2017) suggested based on 14C data, Šamši-Adad I ruled Assyria from c. 1801–1768 BC. The amber beads from Aššur discovered in the foundation deposit under the great ziggurat therefore date to around 1800 BC or in the first half of the 18th century BC.

Figure 24. The two Baltic amber beads found beneath the great ziggurat of Aššur (c. 1800–1750 BC) (Photo: J. Lipták, Munich).

Figure 25. Distribution of amber finds in the period from (A) 2200–1550 BC and (B) 1550–1300 BC. In the period before c. 1550 BC, amber finds in the Mediterranean and the Middle East were extremely rare and were restricted to high-ranking find contexts and the top levels of society (J. Becker, Halle [Saale], J.-H. Bunnefeld, LDA Halle, mapping: A. Swieder, LDA Halle).

Long-distance contacts in the Early Bronze Age

The beads thus represent one of the earliest examples of amber in Southwest Asia and also one of the most remote from the source areas in the northern European region. See Figure 25). In the Mediterranean and the Middle East, amber was extremely rare before about 1550 BC and was restricted to high-ranking find contexts and the top levels of society, e.g. in Mycenae (Harding/Hughes-Brock 1974; Harding 1984, 81; Maran 2004, 55; Bunnefeld et al. 2023).

What is important in this context is a long-standing discussion about the relationships between Western Europe (especially the Wessex Culture from south England) and Mycenae (e.g., Renfrew 1968; Harding 1984; Barfield 1991; Gerloff 1993). Above all, the amber spacers, which probably appeared from the 19th century BC onwards in the Wessex Culture, from the 17th century BC in Mycenaean Greece and in the Alpine region (Koblach-Kadel, Austria) as well as from c. 1450 BC in the Tumulus Culture of Central Europe, are intensely debated (in summary: Gerloff 1993, 74–81; Gerloff 2010, 627–629; Verkooijen 2014). In view of the close parallels (particularly in relation to the specific drilling pattern) between Wessex Culture and Mycenaean examples and the complete absence of predecessors in the Mediterranean region, it seems that spacers and terminal plates of amber necklaces made the journey from southern England to Greece. Importantly, other, additional finds point to close connections between Western Europe and the Aegean (e.g., Harding 1984, 79–82; Barfield 1991; Gerloff 1993, 79; Maran 2004; Maran 2013). There may be a connection with the tin trade out of Cornwall, whereby amber objects could have been an important by-product of the exchange (Gerloff 1993, 83–85; Maran 2004, 58, 60–61).

Contacts between Central Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean have also been discussed (i. a. Gerloff 1993). With regard to contacts between the Únětice Culture in several parts of Central Europe and the Mediterranean, we have to mention e.g. the local imitation of a Mediterranean slotted spearhead from Kyhna, Germany (Gerloff 1993, 73–74; on the metal see Krause 2003, 247), or the very similar small electrum eyelet rings which were found in Dieskau, Germany, and Byblos, Lebanon (Gerloff 1993, 62, 66–69; cf. Meller 2019, 51). Furthermore, the amber spacers with three perforations and constrictions from Grave 2 of Mikulovice, Czech Republic (Ernée et al. 2020, 491 tab. 89, pl. 64), are worthy of mention despite their different dating, due to their similarity to a spacer from Tholos A of Kakovatos, Greece (Harding/Hughes-Brock 1974, 162, pl. 25c; de Vreé 2021; Woltermann 2016, 147).

The small number of amber objects outside the distribution areas of the Únětice and Wessex cultures before c. 1550 BC demonstrates that these two cultures apparently represented hubs which controlled amber exchange (Figure 25A; Ernée 2012; Meller 2019; Bunnefeld et al. 2023). The wealth and importance of the Únětice Culture in Central Germany is expressed e.g. in richly-furnished princely tombs (Leubingen, Helmsdorf, Bornhöck) and the Nebra Sky Disk as well as in Bohemia by richly-furnished burials and hoards (i. a. Ernée 2012; Meller 2019; Ernée et al. 2020).

The extremely rare amber finds from the early 2nd millennium BC in the Mediterranean and the Middle East (e. g. the finds from Mycenae or the beads in Aššur) probably represent exclusive gifts from well-travelled people from Central or Western Europe who visited elites in the south. However, the details of their path along the complex exchange systems remain unclear. After the end of the Únětice Culture around 1550 BC, the picture changed. Widespread trade was established, which made amber available in larger quantities in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, see e.g. the famous Uluburun shipwreck off the southwest coast of Turkey (Figure 25B; i.a. Harding/Hughes-Brock 1974). This difference is also indicated by “fall-off” curves for the distribution of sites with amber relative to the distance from the sources of the raw material. While the multi-modal “fall-off” curve of amber in the early 2nd millennium BC evidences the important role of the Wessex and the Únětice cultures as hubs as well as a relatively targeted transportation of this material, the curve for the finds after c. 1550 BC falls more evenly, although not without peaks similar to “down the line” exchange mechanisms (Bunnefeld et al. 2023). See Figure 26.

Figure 26. “Fall-off” curves for the distribution of amber findspots compared to distance from the Baltic and the North Sea coasts (J.-H. Bunnefeld & A. Swieder, LDA Halle).

Of course, it was not only material things that were transported through exchange networks and by travellers. We must imagine that knowledge, stories, myths, etc. also travelled with them. One example might be provided by the Nebra Sky Disc, which was deposited around 1600 BC some 3000 km from Aššur. In the original version, the bronze disc showed probably some mechanism for accounting for leap years to harmonize the solar and lunar years in encrypted form, which was recorded in the late 8th–7th century BC in the astronomical MUL.APIN texts (Hunger/Steele 2019). However, it is possible that this knowledge could date from the Old Babylonian period (Hansen 2006; Meller 2010, 59–62; Meller 2013; Hunger/Steele 2019). The origins of this knowledge in the Central German context remains uncertain. Nevertheless, it seems most plausible that the leap rule was developed through intensive star observation and its written documentation in the Middle East and then made its way to Central Europe, where the Sky Disc was created (Meller 2010, 61).

  • Barfield, L. H. 1991. Wessex with and without Mycenae: new evidence from Switzerland. Antiquity 65: 102–107.
  • Bunnefeld, J.-H., J. Becker, L. Martin, R.-R. Pausewein, S. Simon & H. Meller. 2023. Baltic Amber in Aššur. Forms and Significance of Amber Exchange between Europe and the Middle East, c.2000–1300 BC. Acta Archaeologica 92,2: 228–243.
  • Ernée, M. 2012. Jantar v české únětické kultuře – k počátkům jantarové stezky. Památky Archeologické 103: 71–172.
  • Ernée, M. et al. 2020. Mikulovice. Pohřebiště starší doby bronzové na Jantarové stezce. Prague: Inst. of Archaeology, Acad. of Sciences of the Czech Republic.
  • Gerloff, S. 1993. Zu Fragen mittelmeerländischer Kontakte und absoluter Chronologie der Frühbronzezeit in Mittel- und Westeuropa. Prähistorische Zeitschrift 68: 58–102.
  • Gerloff, S. 2010. Von Troja an die Saale, von Wessex nach Mykene. Chronologie, Fernverbindungen und Zinnrouten der Frühbronzezeit Mittel- und Westeuropas, in H. Meller & F. Bertemes (ed.) Der Griff nach den Sternen. Wie Europas Eliten zu Macht und Reichtum kamen (Tagungen des Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte Halle 5): 603–639. Halle (Saale): Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt, Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte.
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  • Harding, A. 1984. The Mycenaeans and Europe. London: Academic Press.
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  • Hunger, H. & J. Steele. 2019. The Babylonian Astronomical Compendium MUL.APIN. London: Routledge.
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  • Manning, S. W., G. Barjamovic, C. Bronk Ramsey, C. B. Griggs, B. Kromer, B. Lorentzen & E. M. Wild. 2016. Integrated Tree-Ring-Radiocarbon-High-Resolution Timeframe to Resolve Earlier Second Millennium BCE Mesopotamian Chronology. PLoS ONE 11 (17): e0157144.
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A newly discovered Anglo-Saxon bed burial at Harpole, Northamptonshire, England

Lyn Blackmore1 and Liz Barham1 with Levente Balazs, Chris Chinnock and Sara Farey    

1Museum of London Archaeology 

The remarkable seventh century AD bed burial at Harpole, Northamptonshire (England) which contained some unparalleled grave goods, was discovered in 2022 during archaeological work undertaken by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) Northampton in advance of a residential development. See Figure 27. The project was devised and managed by RPS Consulting Ltd on behalf of Vistry Group Housing development. The following outlines the work carried out to date.

Figure 27.  Site location with other known English bed burials.

The aim of the archaeological excavation was to examine an Iron Age-to-Roman farmstead; no Anglo-Saxon activity was expected. The grave was discovered on the penultimate day of an eight-week programme when what had looked like a standard pit was selected for excavation by half section. Opening the western half, the excavator first removed a sterile backfill deposit and then began to clean the underlying organic deposit by trowel. He soon stopped, however, when components of a gold necklace began to appear. See Figure 28.

Figure 28. The necklace partly exposed during excavation. Photo by Levente Balazs

A conservation team was sent out the next morning. The eastern half of the grave was then excavated down to the same level, where two pottery vessels were discovered next to an extensive organic deposit. See Figures 29-30.

Figure 29. Excavation of the eastern end of the grave. Photo by Levante Balazs

Figure 30. Plan of the grave showing the position of the two pots and necklace elements located by GPS. Plan by Carla Ardis.

Seven soil blocks containing surviving remains from the grave were lifted for excavation under controlled conditions. All loose soil was collected and sent for flotation analysis.

Overview of English bed burials

The Harpole burial belongs to a group of elite female bed burials found in England. See Figure 27. These have broadly been dated to between AD 630 and AD 680, a period when there was increased investment in female burial, and in several cases, they contain some form of religious symbolism (Speake 1989; Hamerow 2016; Brownlee 2022). In Europe, most such burials have been dated to the sixth century AD, while those in Scandinavia are of ninth or tenth century date (Brownlee 2022).

The 17 definite or probable English bed burials group mostly into two loose clusters (Figure 27): five in present day Wiltshire and Dorset (Wessex), up to ten in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk (East Anglia) with two outliers in Derbyshire (Mercia) and North Yorkshire (Northumbria). Harpole is the second to be found in the kingdom of Mercia, outside and to the west of the East Anglian cluster. Most such burials are part of a larger cemetery and, as a rule, there seems to be only one per site, sometimes below a mound. Occasionally, however, two examples may appear together.

Harpole soil blocks

The layering, orientation and relationships of the materials present in the seven soil blocks are presently being recorded in detail. This includes still and video imaging under the microscope, as well as X-ray imaging, drawings and photographic overviews. The aim of this approach is to note subtle details while the remains are still fresh and in situ and preserve and record these as a basis for future analyses to further contribute to our understanding of this individual and their burial rite.

It is fortunate and unusual that the burial includes some areas of extant organic remains: wood, bone and fibrous matter, most likely due to their proximity to metalwork and localized moisture retention in certain parts of the grave.  At the same time, this is a challenging burial to study because the metals are highly corroded and the organic materials that survive are largely crushed or compacted due to decay and pressure during their time in the ground. Some of these, such as the notably sparse textile remains, are only mineral-replaced traces against ironwork. 

A principal aim of this work has been to record the presence and the relationship of the human remains and objects surviving in the grave to the materials around them: Firstly, to look for subtle traces of the bed structure in organic layering beneath the skeletal remains and in examining the fragmentary fittings from around the sides. Potential evidence for soft furnishings, coverings or linings within the burial has been tracked, particularly in relation to their extent across the grave and their relationships with any human remains or objects through the recording and sampling of fibres and other compacted matter. In particular the work aims to contribute to the understanding of a large cross-like object and its relationship with the body and with other elements of the grave. See Figure 31.  The intention is also to record clues to the taphonomy of the burial, such as evidence for movement during interment or collapse of structures, as well as environmental effects, which may explain the nature and position of the remains and may also suggest elements that may have been present originally but which are no longer extant.

Figure 31. X-ray of the large cross-like object in one of the soil blocks.

A range of scientific analyses of the surfaces and samples has been planned for the coming phases of work and it is hoped this will help clarify the stratigraphic sequence as well as conclusively identify and characterise materials and structures observed and recorded to date.

The bed

English beds are much simpler and more uniform than their Continental counterparts, being box-shaped with two horizontal side boards, mostly joined by double-ended cleats; some have a raised headboard. The Harpole bed follows this pattern, although its size is uncertain and we do not yet know whether it had a headboard, what the bedding was like or how the deceased was dressed. The fragmentary remains of the skeleton make description of the body within the bed difficult; however, surviving elements of the pelvis and femorae and their relative position to the necklace suggest that the deceased had been laid out in an extended supine (face up) position. See Figure 32.

Figure 32. A preliminary reconstruction of the burial (pre-analysis; some elements are conjectural). Reconstruction prepared by Hugh Gatt.

The grave goods

Of the English bed burials where the original contents are known (many were discovered in the nineteenth century and so poorly recorded), Harpole has the most gold, the most extravagant necklace and also the most explicit religious symbolism.

The necklace displays clear Frankish and Byzantine influences and is a definite statement of wealth as well as symbol of Christian faith. It is more elaborate than any other in England (Hines and Bayliss 2013: 538; Haworth 2021: 26) and certainly has more coin pendants: it includes eight examples which are either gold solidi made for the emperor Theodosious I (AD 379-395) or copies thereof. There are also nine oval cabochon pendants with settings of stone or glass in gold mounts, 12 biconical beads made of coiled gold wire and, most spectacular, a central pendant made from half of a hinged gold clasp with cloisonné decoration comprising a cross motif within a raised border, both set with mushroom garnet cloisonné, with filigree work in the recessed panels. See Figure 33. At present, the closest parallels are the shoulder clasps found in mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, dated to c. AD 620-630, although these are convex and rather larger (Bruce-Mitford 1978: 487-535; Adams 2010). Most pectoral crosses (worn on the breast) are circular, like those on the cross-like object (below), but the elaborate Desborough necklace (also found in Northamptonshire), which is the closest English parallel for the Harpole find, has a plain gold cross.  References in Bede imply that such necklaces played an important role in the identity of women, both secular and in the church, although they were later considered inappropriate in a religious context (Yorke 2011).

Figure 33. A preliminary reconstruction drawing of the necklace (pre-analysis; some elements are conjectural). Reconstruction prepared by Hugh Gatt.

Adjacent to the necklace, on the left side of the deceased’s upper body, was a large cross-like object lying face down, first recorded by x-ray of the soil blocks. See Figure 31 above. This find is remarkable not only for its size ( c. 300mm, but also its complex construction (silver foil with gold and garnets on a wooden backing). The cruciform design incorporates at least four (probably five) equal-armed crosses with a rounded outline, one large at the centre (c. 80mm diameter) flanked by smaller ones on the arms. The central cross is superimposed by a smaller gold cross with garnets, with simpler decoration on the outer ones. The rounded cross motif is typical of the period and very similar to the pectoral crosses with cloisonné work associated with five other bed burials (e.g. Trumpington, Cambs, and Wilton, Norfolk; Lucy 2017), but the significance of the cast anthropomorphic mounts with blue glass eyes at the terminals of the arms is presently unclear. See Figure 34. As the cross is still being investigated, we cannot yet tell if it was of Greek or Latin form. If it was a processional cross like that in the Staffordshire hoard, it will be a really exciting discovery which would increase the already high level of devotion symbolised in this burial.

Figure 34.  Anthropomorphic mount with blue glass eyes from a terminal of the cross. Photo by Carla Ardis

Although differing in shape and size, the two pots are made of the same clay and have the same incised linear decoration. Their source remains to be determined but they appear to be handmade (rather than wheel-thrown) and their decoration is also more Anglo-Saxon than Frankish.   


Bed burials with explicit religious symbolism appear to date to between c. AD 650 and AD 680. However, the burial of elite women seems to peak in the 660s. The use of gold and the pendant and bead forms are typical of the necklaces dating to the mid/later seventh century AD (Geake 1997: 109-11; Haworth 2021: 26, 335-36), as are pectoral crosses. Documentary evidence tells us that the kingdom of Mercia converted to Christianity c. AD 655, but as the pagan King Penda tolerated Christian preaching it could be earlier than this. On balance, the burial is likely to fall between AD 625/650 and 660/680 (Hines and Bayliss 2013, tables 8.2, 10.1: phase AS-FE). As assessment and analysis of the preserved organic remains, skeletal remains and wooden objects progresses, a programme of radiocarbon dating may allow us to further refine the date of burial.

Age and identity

Where data exists, the occupants of the English bed burials noted by Brownlee (2022) range between infant (Cherry Hinton) and 45+ years of age (Collingbourne Ducis), but one was 14-18 (Trumpington), two are 17/18-25 (Edix Hill G18, Swallowcliffe) and one was 25-32 (Barrington G60). Preservation of the human skeletal remain from the Harpole burial is, unfortunately, poor. However, remaining fragments of tooth enamel suggest the individual was likely a young adult. It may be possible to have better insight into the person’s life through analyses of stable isotopes, ancient DNA and enamel peptides.

Harpole is outside the East Anglian cluster, but the stylistic links between the finds from these sites suggest close contact between them. The deceased buried here could, therefore, be from that area. Alternatively, she could equally be a Frankish woman who moved to England for marriage and/or for the church.

Status and the church

The number of finds included in bed burials varies greatly – the richest in terms of the number of grave goods is Swallowcliffe in Wiltshire, which contained objects of silver but no gold and little jewellery (Speake 1989). The Harpole bed burial is, however, richer in terms of the investment of wealth, and the strong religious symbolism suggests an extremely devout person. The wave of high-status female burials in the mid seventh century AD seems to reflect a new ideology and the changing role of women in society leading to them establishing and/or becoming abbesses of family monasteries from the 660s onwards (Hamerow 2016: 443-47). It will be fascinating to investigate whether the Harpole woman was a religious leader and how she fitted into this important period in Mercia and the development of Anglo Saxon England.  Please keep tuned for future developments!

  • Adams, N., 2010. Rethinking the Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps and armour. In C. Entwistle, and N. Adams, Intelligible Beauty’: recent research on Byzantine jewellery. London: British Museum Research Publication 178: 83-112
  • Bruce-Mitford, R. L. S., 1978. The Sutton Hoo ship burial volume 2: Arms, armour and regalia. London: British Museum Publications.
  • Hines, J. and A. Bayliss (eds.), 2013. Anglo-Saxon graves and grave goods of the 6th and 7th centuries AD: a chronological framework. London (Society Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33).
  • Brownlee, E., 2022. Bed burials in early medieval Europe. Medieval Archaeology 66/1: 1-29.
  • Geake, H., 1997. The use of grave goods in conversion-period England c 600–c 850. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports (British Series 261).
  • Hamerow, H., 2016. Furnished female burial in seventh-century England: gender and sacral authority in the Conversion Period.  Early Medieval Europe 24(4): 423-47.
  • Haworth, K. D., 2021. ‘Most precious ornaments’: Necklaces in seventh-century England, Durham theses, Durham University, accessed April 2023.
  • Lucy, S., 2017. The Trumpington Cross in Context. Anglo-Saxon England 45: 7-37., accessed April 2023.
  • Speake, G., 1989. A Saxon bed burial on Swallowcliffe Down: excavations by F de M Vatcher. London: English Heritage Archaeological Report 10.
  • Yorke, B., 2011. “‘The weight of necklaces’. Some insights into the wearing of women’s jewellery from Middle Saxon written sources”. In S. H. Brookes and A Reynolds (eds.), Studies in Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honour of Martin G Welch: 106-11. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports (British Series 527).

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The BIOSOCIOPOLIS Project: Exploring the impact of diachronic status-quo transitions on the way of life and burial environment, using ancient Amphipolis as a model case study

Dimitra Ermioni Michael1*, Christophe Snoeck2,3, Panagiotis Tselekas1, Ilias Sverkos1, Dimitra Malamidou4 and Sevi Triantaphyllou1

1Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Research in Archaeology, (L.I.R.A.), School of History and Archaeology, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
2Vrije Universiteit Brussel
3Multidisciplinary Archaeology Research Institute, Vrije Universiteit Brussel
4Ephorate of Antiquities of Serres, Greece

Living under different social and political regimes (e.g., under an oligarchic or democratic system) shapes the human body both biologically and culturally (e.g., Goodman and Leatherman, 1998). In theory, having knowledge of the types of political systems and aspects of their social hierarchy allows us to measure how different regimes may impact lifeways and the cultural practices surrounding death (deathways) for both rich and poor in a given society.

Thanks to funding from a European Individual Marie Sklodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellowship (to D.E. Michael), the BIOSOCIOPOLIS project (2022-2024) aims to develop a new understanding of how multiple socio-political transitions representing different forms of urbanism may impact lifeways and deathways across a diachronic scale. See Figure 35. This is accomplished through a combination of different archaeological analyses, both destructive and non-destructive. The diachronic case of ancient Amphipolis (currently located in the modern regional unit of Serres, Macedonia, northern Greece) experienced many different political models between the Late Archaic/Classical and Roman periods, and serves as an ideal illustrative case study. See Figure 36.

Figure 35. Our official logo (on the right), was inspired by the silver coin from Amphipolis on the left, which is dated at the first half of the 4th c. BC. The torch, which is the main theme, was connected with the great celebrations and torch relay races in honour of Artemis, the patron deity of the city. The symbol of the torch also appears later (during the time of Philip II and Alexander III), highlighting the diachronic character of the city. Our project logo was designed by the archaeologist and graphic designer Mr. Nikos Valasiadis.

Figure 36. Amphipolis, located 97.94 km north-east of Thessaloniki. Map courtesy of Mr. Giannis Apostolou.

Amphipolis’ status quo transitions and cultural changes

During the Late Archaic period, before the Athenians established a colony there in 437/6 BC (Thucydides IV.102.1), Amphipolis was mostly inhabited by the Hedonians (a local Thracian tribe). By the last quarter of the 5th c. BC, after a very brief period of Spartan occupation, the city practically gained its autonomy. Said autonomy lasted until the mid-4th c. B.C. In 357 B.C, Philip II of Macedonia entered “in a tide of slaughter” and Macedonian political and military officials settled in the city (Hammond and Griffith, 1979). During the mid-2nd c. BC, Macedonia became a Roman province. Amphipolis continued to be an important commercial center as the Via Egnatia passed nearby (Papazoglou, 1988). See Figure 37.

These transitions were accompanied by cultural changes that were reflected in Amphipolis’ cemeteries. The modest pit graves of the Late Archaic period gave way to elaborate chamber tombs at the end of the 5th c. BC, which accommodated both inhumations as well as cremations. Monumental Macedonian-type tombs appeared at the end of the 4th/beginning of the 3rd c. BC (Malamidou, 2006). During the Roman period, a shift can be observed with the appearance of monumental underground chamber tombs whose marble sarcophagi were often marked out by elaborate funerary altars and stelae belonged to distinguished citizens (Lazaridis, 1976). See Figures 38-41.

Figure 37. Brief timeline of Amphipolis’ status-quo transitions and cultural changes between the Late Archaic/Classical and Roman periods.

Figure 38. A typical cist burial of the Classical era which could be characterized as ‘rich’ based on the funerary findings. Image © Ephorate of Antiquities of Serres.

Figure 39. A ‘rich’ Hellenistic period cremation burial. Image © Ephorate of Antiquities of Serres.

Figure 40. The façade of a Macedonian tomb construction which has been looted. Image © Ephorate of Antiquities of Serres.

Figure 41. Roman built cist tomb characterized as ‘middle state’ (neither poor or rich) based on the funerary offerings. Image © Ephorate of Antiquities of Serres.

Project Overview- An interdisciplinary approach

In sum, Amphipolis went through major changes in the status quo between the Late Archaic/Classical and Roman periods. The core aim of BIOSOCIOPOLIS is to develop a new interpretive model to reveal the extent to which multiple and consecutive socio-political transitions on a population affect human lifeways and deathways over time. Insofar as Amphipolis experienced different forms and ideologies of urbanism (e.g., colonization, political autonomy, consolidation and imperialization), the city provides an ideal setting to achieve this diachronic perspective. The project draws from different disciplines to do the following:

  1. Better understand the relation between cultural identities as displayed in the burial environment (i.e., funerary practices) and lived reality (as manifested through health, diet, activity patterns and human mobility) under the prism of diachronic socio-political processes.
  2. Reveal the degree and ways in which health and lifestyle are affected by multiple political systems.
  3. Provide a high-resolution overview of how cultural and biological factors (such as access to food and/or genetic predisposition) may lead to stress and disease. This will be accomplished through investigating mobility and biodistance (i.e., biological distance between groups of people) combined with health/lifestyle. This approach will also offer a contextualized framework for the holistic study of human mobility.

These research objectives will be addressed in an integrated manner through a combined analysis of burial environments and lifeways. See Figure 42. The research objectives include:

  1. Funerary practices and Deathways: The analysis of a maximum of 300 inhumation burials and 100 cremations is scheduled to take place within the framework of the project. Different burial types and elements of burial deposition as well as their relative frequencies in each period will be identified and analyzed in depth. Scoring grave goods by virtue of number, materials and/or elaborateness per burial will allow for the identification of an element of status differentiation. Funerary practices will be studied in relation to basic demographic data (i.e., age and sex), health, lifestyle, and mobility.
  2. Health and Lifestyle: Indicators of physiological stress, metabolic diseases, traumatic lesions (of violent or accidental origin) and activity patterns are macroscopically examined. Diet is to be investigated through a combined analysis of dental diseases and stable isotopes (carbon-δ13C, nitrogen-δ15N, and sulphur-δ34S). Apart from the bulk bone collagen analysis, a more detailed incremental dentine collagen analysis will be implemented in select cases for carbon and nitrogen isotopes as a means of identifying short term dietary changes.
  3. Biodistance and mobility: Stable isotope data will be combined with morphological cranial and dental non-metric analysis. Non-metric traits represent variants of the normal skeletal anatomy that cannot be measured as they are not pathological and their presence causes no symptoms (Tyrrell, 2000). Statistical modelling of non-metric traits has the potential to offer important information on affinities and biological distances between groups of people based on the assumption that phenotypic variability expresses phylogenetic variation (e.g., Scott, 2008). Oxygen-δ18O, strontium-87Sr/86Sr and sulphur-δ34S isotope ratios will be used as mobility proxies. Strontium analyses will be implemented on cremated bone (e.g., Snoeck et al., 2016). Additionally, human mobility will be explored through cranial and dental non-metric traits to infer biological distances among individuals from the different use-life periods within the cemeteries. This method is also implemented within the same period to investigate the concept of a kin-based structure of the Amphipolis’ cemeteries and the likely familial use of collective tombs (Prevedorou and Stojanowksi, 2017). In simpler words, we will explore the possibility that Amphipolis’ cemeteries were structured based on kinship relationships and that multiple inhumation burials were potentially used my members of the same family.

Figure 42. Our interdisciplinary methodology along with the project’s three key research questions.

Together with the health data, this last approach forms the basis of exploring the sources of heterogeneous frailty at a biological level (while controlling for cultural factors). Heterogeneous frailty relies on the fact that every individual alive at a particular age is not at the same risk of dying at that age, due to biological (e.g., genetic predisposition) and cultural (e.g., access to food, migration) reasons. Mobility, health, and lifestyle data along with funerary practices will form the basis of investigating heterogeneous frailty as a consequence of cultural factors. Through the holistic investigation of frailty—which is a subject that remains rather unexplored (DeWitte and Stojanowski, 2015)—we aim to make a true methodological advancement for the field of social bioarchaeology. We also aim to create awareness of the importance of properly addressing the complex matter of heterogeneous frailty when dealing with contemporary crises (such as the recent COVID pandemic).

Moreover, the project aspires to make important progress for the Humanities, as Amphipolis was a city that formed intense inter-state relations with all the main forces of the Classical Greek world (Figueira, 1991). While written sources are extremely valuable as they can form the basis of hypothesis-driven bioarchaeological studies, we are nonetheless cognizant that they can be manipulated by their creators (or other individuals), thus offering an altered version of history (Shanks and Tilley, 1987). It is therefore imperative to critically integrate evidence derived from the written sources into bioarchaeological research, to enhance if not re-define our understanding of lifeways in the ancient Greek world and (by extension) in the Classical World on the whole. More specifically, we will attempt to approach palaeodemography with fresh eyes by combining the methodological toolkits of ancient history and historical bioarchaeology. We believe this constitutes a novel approach that may create significant methodological impacts for the field of historical bioarchaeology.

Final Remarks

The BIOSOCIOPOLIS project started in November of 2022 and is hosted by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTh). It brings together researchers from different disciplines, creating an ideal interdisciplinary environment. Apart from the MSCA post-doctoral fellow who is a human osteologist (D. Michael) the project consists of five members: 1) Associate Professor Sevi Triantaphyllou (AUTh-Primary Supervision) who is a bioarchaeologist and an expert on mortuary practices, 2) Assistant Professor Panagiotis Tselekas (AUTh), who is a Classical archaeologist, 3) Associate Professor Ilias Sverkos (AUTH), who is an ancient historian, 4) Assistant Professor Christophe Snoeck (BB-LAB, VUB-Secondary Supervision), who is an expert on isotopic analyses and 5) Dr. Dimitra Malamidou (Director of the Eforeia of Antiquities in Serres), an archaeologist, who has extensively excavated the ancient cemeteries of Amphipolis.


We would also like to thank Mr. Giannis Apostolou (MSc) for providing the map of Amphipolis (Figure 36).

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  • Figueira, Thomas J. 1991. “Athens and Aigina in the Age of Imperial Colonization”. Baltimore, London
  • Goodman, Alan H. and Leatherman, Thomas L. 1998. “Traversing the chasm between biology and culture: an introduction”. In: Goodman, A.H., Leatherman, T.L. (Eds.), Building a New Biocultural Synthesis: Political-Economic Perspectives on Human Biology. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, pp. 3–41.
  • Hammond Νicholas G.L. and Griffith Guy T. 1979. “A History of Macedonia”. Volume II: 550–336 BC. Oxford: Oxford University Press
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  • Shanks, Michael and Tilley, Christopher. 1987. “Re-Constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice”. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Snoeck, Christophe, Pouncett, John, Ramsey, Greer, Meighan, Ian G., Mattielli, Nadine, Goderis, Steven, Lee-Thorp, Julia A., Schulting, Rick J. 2016. “Mobility during the neolithic and bronze age in northern ireland explored using strontium isotope analysis of cremated human bone”. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 160, 397–413.
  • Tyrrell, Andrew. 2000. “Skeletal non-metric traits and the assessment of inter-and intra-population diversity: past problems and future potential”. In: Cox M, Mays S, editors. Human osteology in archaeology and forensic science. London: Greenwich Medical Media, pp. 289–306.

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3000-year-old cold case: Shark attack victim from Okayama, Japan

J. Alyssa White1,2 & Rick J. Schulting1

1University of Oxford
2Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, University of Michigan

Individual No. 24 from the Tsukumo Shell-mound site in Okayama Prefecture, Japan was excavated in 1919 (Kiyono 1969). See Figure 43. Over the last century, numerous researchers have puzzled over his unusual burial position (Figure 44; Yamada 2001) and the degree of trauma present on his surviving skeleton. With the notable exceptions of the head and spine, the rest of his skeleton has extensive traumatic lesions consistent with being caused around the time of his death. As an international collaborative effort, my colleagues and I took on this cold case with the aim of better understanding the circumstances surrounding the death of individual Tsukumo No. 24, and in particular his brutal injuries. What we found was evidence for one of the oldest human shark attack victims (White el al. 2021).

Figure 43. Map of the location of Tsukumo Shell-mound site in Okayama Prefecture, Japan.

Figure 44. The original excavation photograph of Tsukumo Shell-mound site. You can see that No.24’s right leg was missing at the time of recovery and that his left leg was buried in an inverted position and atop his upper half. Photograph courtesy of the Laboratory of Physical Anthropology, Kyoto University.

Shark attack?

The first question that usually comes up when presenting this evidence is, how do you know it was a shark attack? The answer is that we determined this through a process of elimination.

What initially sparked our interest in the skeletal lesions on No. 24 was the possibility of warfare or violence, which we were in Japan to research at the time. The lesions on his skeleton are incredibly smooth and sharp, reminiscent of wounds caused by metal weaponry. Yet, during the hunter-gatherer period of the Japanese archipelago, there is no evidence for the use of metal weaponry (Hudson et al. 2021).

What differentiated the lesions on No. 24 from some kind of anomalous metal weapon use was the pattern of consistent, serrated wound profiles (Figure 45) and the distribution of gouges, punctures, fractures, and overlapping striations on his skeleton. If not the result of weaponry, then another common cause of trauma in the archaeological record is animal scavenging. Of the possible terrestrial scavengers present on the Japanese archipelago, none would cause the combination of lesions present (particularly the serrated lesions), even if some might cause punctures (such as dogs) or fractures (Fernández-Jalvo, Andrews 2016; Johnson 1985; Sorg 2019; Tsujino, Yumoto 2014; Ubelaker 1997).

Figure 45. Close-up photograph of the largest gouge (33.2 × 20.2 mm, 21.3 mm deep) found on the skeleton, located on the left hip bone. On the right-most wall of the gouge, the scalloped edge is clearly visible. Photograph by JAW, courtesy of Kyoto University.

If we turn our focus to the sea, though, there are large predators with serrated teeth and a crushing bite that have been known to attack fishermen in the Seto Inland Sea, even in recent times: sharks. The vast majority of sharks do not preferentially or even occasionally attack humans, but of the attacks that do occur, three species in particular are implicated: tiger, (great) white, and bull sharks (Burgess 1991; Burgess, Callahan 1996; Caldicott et al. 2001; Clua et al. 2014; Coppleson 1962; Davies and Campbell 1962; Howard and Burgess 1993; İşcan, McCabe 1995; Nakaya 1993). Tiger sharks are even known to scavenge human remains in the sea (Ihama et al. 2009; İşcan, McCabe 1995; Rathburn, Rathburn 1984; Stock et al. 2017). Today, Japanese waters fall outside of the range of bull sharks, though white and tiger sharks are known to inhabit them. Within the Seto Inland Sea, white sharks were responsible for at least two attacks in the 1990s (Nakaya 1993; Schultz, Malin 1963). Based on estimates of sea surface temperatures (SST) in the prehistoric period, we can further conclude that conditions would have been most suitable for tiger (in the summer) and white sharks (in the winter) (Kawahata et al. 2017; Payne et al., 2018).

Yet, how likely would it have been for Tsukumo No. 24 to be, presumably, on a regular basis in shark-inhabited waters? 

The archaeological context

Radiocarbon analysis of Tsukumo No. 24’s bone collagen (3090 ± 25 BP, 1370–1010 cal BC once adjusted for the marine reservoir effect) revealed that he lived during the Final Jōmon period of the prehistoric Japanese archipelago. As the name suggests, this period marked the twilight of a long (over 10k year) fisher-hunter-gatherer culture that spanned the archipelago. Stable isotopic analysis of individuals from the Tsukumo cemetery indicate that they regularly consumed marine foods, including predatory fish. Moreover, there is ample evidence of material culture relating to fishing practices from the site and more widely among the Jōmon (Kusaka et al. 2010; Tajima 2015). 

Archaeological evidence of sharks dating to the Jōmon is not common, but they are present throughout the archipelago. Sharks are largely cartilaginous, meaning that their remains do not survive well in an archaeological context. Nevertheless, their vertebrae and teeth are exceptions (Steel 1985). Despite these limiting factors, we summarised evidence of prehistoric shark remains from the archipelago in an attempt to find what patterns were present. 

We found reports of possible tiger and white shark teeth and vertebrae from 20+ Jōmon sites spanning from Okinawa to Hokkaido. Many reports do not specify the species of shark, unfortunately, so it was not possible to produce a detailed distribution map by species according to period. That being said, we know that shark teeth and vertebrae are present both as ornamental and/or ceremonial objects (Nakazawa et al. 2017; Watanabe 1990) and in contexts that indicate that they were likely a food item (Shimane Prefecture Board of Education 2019). Other evidence includes an engraving of a hammerhead shark on a potsherd (Takahashi, 1972) and, from the subsequent protohistorical Yayoi period, accounts of divers and fishermen tattooing their bodies to ward off large fish and fowl (Kidder 2007:14).

Importantly, during this period, it was common to construct cemeteries in shell middens. The calcium carbonate in the shells creates an excellent preservation environment for bone in conditions which, due to high precipitation and warm temperatures (Barnes 2022), tend to result in very poor to no skeletal preservation in Japan. At the Tsukumo Shell-mound site, the presence of a shark vertebra was reported (Tomioka 2020). After our paper was published in 2021, researchers at the Tsukumo site once more examined the animal remains from the site and found a shark tooth in the assemblage as well (M Nakatsukasa 2021, personal communication, 7 July).

Shark attacks

Examination of patterns found in modern shark attacks was invaluable in helping to determine what may have happened to Tsukumo No. 24. To our knowledge, previous detailed reports of archaeological shark attacks amounted to one case from Puerto Rico dating to ca. 1000 AD (c.f. Keegan, Carlson 2008). An even older case from the Americas has been suggested (Benfer 2008:373; Quilter, 1989:59), but needs to be more fully documented and presented. Therefore, it was imperative that we rely on the extensive forensic literature. Nevertheless, when we first came across images of the Puerto Rico case, we knew that we were onto something. 

From modern cases, we know that unprovoked shark attacks largely fall into three categories – ‘hit-and-run’, ‘bump-and-bite’, and ‘sneak’ attacks. Of these, the latter are the most fatal and tend to result in more injuries, which would be most consistent with the Tsukumo No. 24 case. Sneak attacks are the result of a shark intentionally targeting a human as prey. These attacks usually occur in deeper water (Allaire et al. 2012; Auerbach and Burgess 2007; Burgess 1991; Caldicott et al. 2001; Howard, Burgess 1993; Lentz et al. 2010; Stock et al. 2017).

Forensic reports of injuries resulting from shark attacks categorise injuries into crushing, cutting, and tearing, which on the skeleton are best seen in blunt force fractures, (overlapping) striations from teeth dragging across bone, and incised bone gouges. The areas of the body most targeted are those more likely to be underwater (such as the extremities) and those that have more fat and muscle (such as the torso, including the buttocks) (Allaire et al. 2012; Auerbach, Burgess 2007; Coppleson 1963; Davies, Campbell 1962; Lentz et al. 2010).

Reconstructing the attack

The injuries to the victim’s remaining skeleton number over 790, ignoring severity of injury. His left hand (Figure 46), right leg, and most of his left foot all show evidence of traumatic removal. Based on the original excavation photo (Figure 44), his left leg was disarticulated by the time of burial and the right leg was missing. His hip bones and left leg show the largest and most numerous injuries. The front of his chest shows evidence of extensive fracturing and tooth marks. His arms and shoulders show evidence of bite marks as well, but these tend to be smaller than those seen on his lower body. The patterning of injuries in this case tells a gruesome story.

Figure 46. A photograph of the injuries to Tsukumo No. 24’s left ulna (at his wrist), where you can see that part of the bone has been sheared off and associated tooth marks. Photograph by JAW, courtesy of Kyoto University

According to George Burgess, former curator of the International Shark Attack File and a collaborator on this project, the first shark bite tends to be the largest and most traumatic. Therefore, we can surmise that the first bite was likely to the missing right leg. The loss of the individual’s left hand may have occurred at the same time while defending from these first bites. Injuries to the arms and hands often represent defensive wounds in the case of shark attacks (Ballas et al. 2017; Coppleson 1963). We know that the body was not in the water long enough for it to degrade significantly (due to how complete the skeleton is) (Haglund 1993). The simplest explanation is that the deceased’s left hand was sheared off when he was trying to defend himself from the shark, implying that he alive at the time of attack. His injuries are extensive and he would have bled out and gone into shock quickly. The number of injuries to the front of his body are best explained by a position in which the body floated face-down as the shark mauled him thereafter.

Companions must have been nearby or found him soon after, given the state of his body. He was buried in what was, presumably, the cemetery of his home village with respect and care.

Examine the evidence for yourself

As a part of our recording and examination of the injuries on Tsukumo No. 24, we mapped the preservation of the skeleton and the type and pattern of his injuries on a 3D model of the human skeleton using ArcGIS (see White et al. 2021 for more details). This model is freely available to interact with as a webapp, thanks to our collaborator John Pouncett (Figure 47), so that researchers and the public may interrogate the data for themselves. 

Figure 47. A screenshot of the Tsukumo No. 24 skeletal map webapp. The key features are labelled. Webapp by John Pouncett.

Shark species

We CT scanned the bones with the largest bite marks in the hopes of finding an embedded shark tooth fragment, but none were present. Both white and tiger sharks are capable of causing the serrated injuries found on Tsukumo No. 24. As mentioned previously, the prehistoric remains of both have been found on the archipelago and SST estimates indicate that the environment would have been ideal for either. Unfortunately, due to the severity and intensity of the attack, with numerous overlapping bites, we could not confidently isolate one to perform analyses, such as interdental measurements (cf. Lowry et al. 2009), to gain more precise details about the shark.


It was our hope that by reporting on the Tsukumo No. 24 case in such detail that we could raise awareness of what kinds of injuries sharks can cause to the human body and their feeding behaviours. Humans and sharks have a long history of interaction with attacks on humans being just a small part of that relationship (Charpentier et al. 2020; Westbrook et al. 2018; Worm et al. 2013), yet one that is likely underreported in the current archaeological literature. 

This case also demonstrates the value of re-examination of individuals housed in university and museum collections. When Tsukumo No. 24 was excavated, a majority of the research on human remains from the Jōmon period focused on questions of ancestry and descent – trying to determine how these individuals related to each other and the modern Japanese people. Research focus and questions shift over time and the ability to re-examine and cross-examine evidence is key to the scientific endeavour and to really knowing about how people lived in the past. 

The oldest shark attack case known previously from the Japanese archipelago dates to the 19th century AD ( We now have evidence for a shark attack dating to approximately the 13th century BC, greatly recontextualising our understanding of human-shark relations in the (pre-)history of the Japanese archipelago. Nevertheless, some things remain the same. Today, fishermen are out in the Seto Inland Sea and so might be a passing shark, both going about their daily business (Figure 48).

Figure 48. A photograph of the Seto Inland Sea by JAW (2018). 

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