Archaeologist Hilke Thuer Wants to Prove Bones Are of Cleopatra’s Sister, But Without the Skull There’ll Always Be a Shadow of a Doubt
Wishing that something is true isn’t the same as a theory being proven as fact without a shadow of a doubt. And I so wanted this discovery to be proven, but it may not happen for some time if not ever. Which renders it as largely circumstantial for now, and this development is disappointing to say the least.
In the first year of this blog, 2009, I featured information about an upcoming documentary regarding the possible find of the bones of Arsinoë IV, the sister of the famous Egyptian Queen Cleopatra VII, who consorted with both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Arsinoë IV was a daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes as was Cleopatra VII, but she may not have shared the same mother as the queen (and that mother may not have been Greek either). Dr. Hilke Thuer, based at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, is convinced now as she was before that she has found the bones of the Egyptian royal who was assassinated on the steps of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, a Greek colony in what is modern Turkey. Unfortunately, DNA examination of the bones have come up snake-eyes.
Dr Thuer admits that DNA tests she and her colleagues tried to carry out on the remains were less than satisfactory.
She told the Charlotte Observer: ‘They tried to make a DNA test, but testing didn’t work well because the skeleton had been moved and the bones had been held by a lot of people. It didn’t bring the results we hoped to find.
‘I don’t know if there are possibilities to do more of this testing. Forensic material is not my field.
‘One of my colleagues on the project told me two years ago there currently is no other method to really determine more. But he thinks there may be new methods developing. There is hope.’
Well, you need more than hope, Dr. Thuer. That’s like saying that your pet theory will be confirmed in some library that hasn’t been excavated yet. When you start talking about a famous ancient royal being part-black, you had better have all your ducks in a row, because they will come and try to tear you and your theories all the way up and all the way down. They—scholars and observers who don’t subscribe to an alternative reading of a mostly European depiction of ancient history—don’t want black ancestry to be ascribed to people that they are holding up as distinguished and admirable. And as I have said before, DNA is everything these days.
But despite a string of excitable headlines reporting the findings, other researchers were sceptical about the judgements of the woman’s ethnicity and, indeed, her true identity.
‘We get this skull business and having Arsinoe’s ethnicity actually being determined from a reconstructed skull based on measurements taken in the 1920s?’ wrote David Meadows, a Canadian classicist and teacher, on his blog rogueclassicism.
What snotty grousing.
I will have to agree that without the skull, the bones and even the artist rendering above may be of little or no consequence. The skull from the skeleton found in 1920 is said to have disappeared sometime during World War II. Fresh DNA research on the skull, if it still exists, would confirm once and for all who this is, but in its absence other methods will be used. The DNA tests on the bones, while inconclusive because of handling, did reveal that they were of a younger girl between the ages of 15 and 18, which also stokes the skeptics’ criticism. (Cleopatra, by the time she had her sister whacked, was closer to 30.)
On this score, the skeptics conveniently forget that there were child kings and queens of Egypt, as well as princes and princesses of the blood, of which Tutankhamun, who was 9 when he became king, is the most famous example. Cleopatra was 18 when she became queen of Egypt, and Ptolemy XIII, the co-ruler she supplanted, was supposedly about 11 or 12 when he assumed the throne and was 15 when he was finally killed. Even though Ptolemy, like his sister Arsinoë, had advisers and mentors who directed him because he was a minor (and who sometimes encouraged the factionalism and palace intrigue rife at that time), he had a sense of who he was and no doubt, insisted on his own rights.
It is perfectly reasonable to believe that Arsinoë’s life was spared because the girl wept bitterly at her fate, which would have been strangulation at the close of Caesar’s triumph. Her lack of regal composure shows that she was possibly quite childlike, and this is consonant with the surprising youth of the skeleton.
Below is the documentary, Cleopatra, Portrait of a Killer. This is the full documentary, but with Greek subtitles. Bring popcorn.
Dr. Thuer appeared today at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh, lecturing on “Who Murdered Cleopatra’s Sister? And Other Tales from Ephesus,” so I am sure she came in for some polite, but pointed questioning regarding her findings, as well as how she made her conclusions about the bones:
I’m an architect as well as an archaeologist, and Ephesus – a large and important city on the coast of Asia Minor centuries before it became part of the Roman Empire – has long been one of the biggest archaeological sites. It is the main excavation of the Austrian Archaeological Institute.
“I was a student when I started working there in 1975, and have based a great deal of my career around the site. From 1997 to 2005, I was assistant director of the Ephesus excavations.
“An English engineer directed the first archaeological digs there in 1869, but since 1895, only Austrian-led projects have permission to do that, though Turks sometimes have excavations. I’d like to add that it’s quite an international team there, with researchers from all over the world.
“My specialty is interpreting buildings and monuments. The excavations of one monument, The Octagon, began in 1904. In 1926, a grave chamber was found inside The Octagon. The skeleton inside it has been interpreted to be that of a young woman about age 20.”
“When I was working with the architecture of The Octagon and the building next to it, it wasn’t known whose skeleton was inside. Then I found some ancient writers telling us that in the year 41 B.C., Arsinoe IV – the half-sister of Cleopatra – was murdered in Ephesus by Cleopatra and her Roman lover, Marc Antony. Because the building is dated by its type and decoration to the second half of the first century B.C., this fits quite well.
“I put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
There is more of this interview at the link provided, but as I said before, you cannot hang a theory on a hope, much less a surmise. I’ll see what she said at her lecture, and I’ll try to post it as soon as possible. When I was finally able to view the BBC One documentary a couple of years ago, I was astounded about how much puff there was in it, but little concrete evidence that would assuage both wanna-believers and detractors alike. Alternately, that skeleton could have been of some ancient personality who was a devotée or a priestess of the goddess who gained favor with the populace enough to be buried close to the temple.
Barring a stone from the tomb that has Arsinoë’s name and origins inscribed on it, I’d like to think that this is Cleopatra’s royal sister, but there has got to be more proof, if not from Dr. Thuer, then from someone else.
- Were those the bones of Cleopatra’s murdered sister? (csmonitor.com)
- Murder mystery swirls around Cleopatra’s sister (science.nbcnews.com)
- Cleopatra’s Murdered Sister – Found? (secretsofthefed.com)
- Arsinoe’s Tomb Redux? Really? (rogueclassicism.com)
- Have Bones of Cleopatra’s Murdered Sister Been Found? (news.discovery.com)