In 491 BCE., Darius, king of the vast Persian Empire, sent ambassadors to several of the Greek city-states asking for “earth and water” – in Persian parlance symbols of submission. This move was part of his preparation to invade Greece and its aim was not simply to see who would submit, but to terrify as many Greek cities as possible into submission, thus isolating his main target, the city of Athens.
Several city states accepted the king’s envoys with respect and many submitted. However, in two cities, contrary to all laws and conventions of the era that commanded respect for the herald, the king’s men were executed.
Reportedly, Spartans threw them down a well, telling them that they could find all the “earth and water” they wished for at its bottom. The incident has been publicised by the film “300”, which, however, shows the events as happening at the time of Spartan King Leonidas, about 10 years later.
It is less known that Athenians did the same atrocity. According to the Persian Wars’ historian, Herodotus, they were thrown down a cliff normally reserved for the execution of criminals.
To this day, there was no proof that these events actually happened. However, there is a chance that this may already have changed.
I have been informed by an archaeologist friend, who wishes to retain his anonymity, that in a rescue excavation in Sparta, a well was found, which was in use from the 8th until the 5th century BCE. The excavation held a surprise, as among the various layers, archaeologists discovered a number of human skeletons. The pot sherds found among the skeletons and above them, date the find to the 5th century BCE.
The skeletons’ positions as well as the several fractures they bear, are consistent with the hypothesis that they were thrown into the well where they were discovered. As they were all found in the same layer, archaeologists presume that the find is the result of a single event and not several successive ones.
What makes this discovery even more interesting are the several metal artefacts found with the skeletons. These objects, mostly jewellery, have no parallels in Greece, but are very similar with what was in use in Persia around that time. The friend who informed me of the find said that it is almost certain that they date in the 5th century BCE.
Based on the evidence, archaeologists hypothesise that the skeletons found in Sparta are probably the remains of the Persian ambassadors who were murdered by the Spartans according to Herodotus.
The excavation has been completed a few months now and the finds removed. However, the excavating team have not publicised their finds for two reasons: first, their find coincided with the Amphipolis tomb excavation which became immensely popular in Greece, overshadowing almost every other piece of news. Secondly, especially after the Amphipolis fiasco, the team are very cautious and unwilling to publicise anything before they have the anthropological report and the final dating of the artefacts.
If their hypothesis is proven right, this is a unique find, equal in importance with the mass grave discovered in Kerameikos, containing victims of the plague that struck Athens during the Peloponnesian war (the latter has become widely known after the exhibition containing the reconstruction of an 11-year-old girl’s face, who became known as Myrtis).
Note: for obvious reasons, I cannot publish a photo of the excavation. The first photo of this post is simply indicative; it is from an excavation in Sardinia, Italy. The still from the film “300” is from here.
Update: obviously (look at the publication date) this is an April fool’s joke. I hope it was entertaining. Unfortunately, such a thrilling find has yet to be made, but, since nothing is ever final in Archaeology, I can still hope.