A Corinthian helmet with a skull inside, found at Marathon

This picture has been doing the rounds on twitter.  It was pointed out to me by the excellent Loretta Ross (who as it happens is a debut author!), taken from the twitter account of @History-Pics.

The skull at bottom was found inside the helmet!  It was found on the plain of Marathon, where as you surely know was once fought a famous battle.   The helmet and skull therefore is usually described as being from the Battle of Marathon.

So are we looking at one of the heroes of Marathon?  Well, probably not.  But maybe.  Since my book The Marathon Conspiracy recounts the battle at once point, I thought I'd go through the pros and cons of this rather remarkable find:

First off, it's genuine.  This is a for-real Corinthian helmet that dates to the time of Marathon, plus or minus a few decades.  We are absolutely looking at a classical Greek warrior.

The Corinthian style was very popular so it's no problem that it was found at a place where only Athenians fought.

This helmet and skull is old news.  It was discovered in the 1800s by inquisitive amateurs.  They claimed they found it at Marathon.  By modern standards the provenance is horribly broken.  By the standards of Victorian England there's no problem; they're probably telling the truth.

After the battle the Athenians counted their dead.  There were 192 fallen heroes.  They were buried under a mound at the southern end of the battlefield.  The dead were cremated, a little unusually for the time but not outrageously so.  This skull was found elsewhere on the battlefield.  The only way this could be an Athenian from the famous battle would be if the Athenians somehow managed to miss one of the dead.  Since they also buried the Persian dead (their bones were found underneath a vineyard to the north of the battlefield) and since the site was revisited several times over the following days, it seems hard to believe they missed one of their own.

The Athenian casualty list was made public at the time (and parts have been recovered).  If a casualty wasn't on the list, but never came home, someone was bound to say, "Where's Uncle Bob?"  Bob would have been found for sure, because the men who fell at Marathon were treated like Trojan Heroes.

Here's a big problem: in those days, armour was always recovered before a burial.  This was expensive stuff.   It would typically go to the warrior's heir, or be snaffled by someone from the other side.  It might seem a little creepy to go into battle wearing armour that someone had died in, but that's how they did it.

So for those reasons it's far from obvious that this guy fought at Marathon.  He might have died on the plain any time from a few decades before to a few decades after.  He probably wasn't murdered (though that thought crossed my mind) because the helmet is still there.  Any criminal would have taken it.

So the skull in the helmet remains a mystery!


Anonymous said...

I wonder what the forensics folks have had to say about the skull: carbon dating, dirt in the cracks, evidence that skull and helmet had a good long sleep together in very close quarters?

RWMG said...

He was decapitated in the battle while running away and the family didn't want him or the armour.

Gary Corby said...

I read that someone's tried a variation on the decapitation theory. The idea goes that the body was found and buried with the 192, hence made the list, but that they couldn't find the head.

Personally, I'm dubious. If I found a headless body after a battle I'd look for the head not far away.

Anne, the skull was found inside the helmet. They definitely go together. The style dates the helmet to within a few decades of the battle. My understanding is carbon dating couldn't narrow it any more than that.

Obviously the guy's not Persian. He could be Athenian, but it's hard to see how they could miss a head. He could be from Plataea. That city came to the aid of the Athenians and suffered eleven known casualties. Same problem with missing heads.

Colin Smith said...

Oh so many possibilities!! How about, post-Marathon, a thief steals the armour. A family member finds out, kills the rogue, and cuts his head off. Why cut his head off? And why leave the helmet? That's for Nico and Diotima to find out... :D

And here I was the other day wondering how many more stories you'll be able to draw out of Ancient Greece...

Gary Corby said...

More stories than I have time to write!

Misha Gericke said...

Hmm... that is an interesting mystery. :-/

Gary Corby said...

Hi Misha! Where I'm really stuck is explaining why the helmet wasn't taken. Surely a helmet with a head in it didn't just lie around for years?