DNA explodes Greek myth about women – or maybe NOT

Mask of AgamemnonThe Guardian‘s headline reads, “DNA explodes Greek myth about women,” but after reading the story, I’m not particularly impressed by the magnitude of the explosion.

In the 1870s Heinrich Schliemann excavated the Bronze Age tombs of Mycenae, which contained 35 bodies and a great deal of treasure, including the gold funerary mask pictured at left. A decade ago scientists used facial reconstruction techniques to offer portraits of seven of the bodies, and now geneticists have extracted DNA from some of the bodies. One pair, previously thought to have been husband and wife, turned out to be closely related. The article announces rather dramatically that the DNA “revealed they were brother and sister” but then in the next paragraph has Professor Terry Brown of Manchester University admitting, “To be precise our DNA evidence suggests the pair were closely related, possibly siblings or possibly cousins. However, the facial reconstruction work…also shows they were very similar in appearance which indicates they were brother and sister.”

Oh really? As to the facial resemblance being so close that they must have been brother and sister, well, I have only to look at my sister-in-law, who resembles one of her first cousins more than she does her brother (my husband). I have a niece who looks so much like me that people confuse whose picture is whose, and an aunt and niece are far less closely related than siblings. The Mycenaean graves may well belong to a brother and sister, but on the other hand, they may just as easily not.

But what difference does it make whether they were cousins or siblings? It matters because of the historical argument being made from the DNA and facial reconstructive evidence. “The critical point,” according to the article, “was that the woman was thought to have been buried in a richly endowed grave because she was the wife of a powerful man. That was in keeping with previous ideas about Ancient Greece – that women had little power and could only exert influence through their husbands.”

“But this discovery shows both the man and the woman were of equal status and had equal power,” the article quotes Prof. Brown as saying. “Women in Ancient Greece held positions of power by right of birth, it now appears.”

At the risk of repeating myself: oh, really?

Marriage between first cousins was common in the aristocracies of both Greece and Rome, and the pair could easily have been both first cousins and spouses.

In announcing a complete overturning of the scholarly paradigm on gender relations in Bronze Age Greece, Prof. Brown is making more of the evidence than is there, and The Guardian is reporting speculation as established fact.

Comments 4

  1. judith weingarten wrote:

    Your scepticism is more than justified. I repeat the remark I made on the Anahita-List: “all this based on a statistical sample of one?” :-)

    Posted 05 Jun 2008 at 3:35 pm
  2. Kate Gebler wrote:

    Let’s say they aren’t married — lets say they are related — siblings, child/parent, etc. That still doesn’t indicate that any of the woman in those graves had “equal” status.

    What it proves is that they were members of a powerful family and were buried with that family, as would only be proper. Women gained their status from their husbands, but also from all their male relatives.

    The only article seems simple minded.

    Posted 05 Jun 2008 at 4:29 pm
  3. Brigette Russell wrote:

    Thanks for weighing in, Judith and Kate. I was dumbfounded when I read the article, and am hoping that the ignorant Guardian reporter simply took the professor’s remarks out of context or misinterpreted them. I have a difficult time believing that a scholar involved with such an important project could be so simplistic in his analysis. I realized after posting that I implied he was, and wanted to make clear that I suspect sloppy journalism rather than sloppy scholarship may be at fault here.

    Posted 05 Jun 2008 at 7:01 pm
  4. Matt wrote:

    The claim that these DNA findings “explode” the myths about anything is debatable; however this article highlights once again the way that our perception of what is ‘true’ constantly changes as we are given more information. Soon we will see a large scale shift in both our collective perception of reality and in our understanding of the cause of our suffering, as the information that we so desperately need is increasingly revealed to us. For more information, see: http://www.laitman.com/2008/06/scientists-have-turned-everything-upside-down-again/

    Posted 10 Aug 2008 at 1:19 pm

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