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Picking over the bones: the practicalities of processing the Athenian war dead

Owen Rees

Abstract

Thucydides’ account of the Athenian war dead creates a false image of a clean and efficient, systematic processing of the dead. To look beyond his description it is necessary to assess the practicalities involved in the process. In so doing, it has been necessary to reassess our own historical models. The logistics of identifying the dead accurately, combined with the amount of wood necessary to offer a complete cremation for hundreds of bodies, brings into question the notion that the war dead were cremated by tribe and kept separate up to their public burial. Similarly the notion of ash or bone returning to Athens is too clean, so use of the term “cremains” is proposed to offer an accurate terminology and bring ancient history in line with archaeological practices. When the practicalities and logistics involved in the processing of the dead are considered, some significant issues are raised concerning not only our own presumptions, but also the narrative that Thucydides himself offers.

Acknowledgment

I am greatly indebted to Dr. Jason Crowley, Dr. Jo Ball and Dr. Matthew Lloyd for their invaluable comments on various drafts of this article.

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Published Online: 2018-12-01
Published in Print: 2018-11-27

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