When Nike Was a God

By Eric Powell|Tuesday, August 01, 2000
RELATED TAGS: ARCHAEOLOGY


Two thousand years before multimillion-dollar endorsement deals, top athletes in Greece were so revered they got star treatment even after death— although in life they took some hard knocks. Manfred Kunter, a physical anthropologist at the University of Giessen in Germany, uncovered evidence of the jock life in a cemetery near the city of Miletus, dating from between the fourth century B.C. to the first century A.D.

While examining more than 280 burials in the Miletus necropolis, Kunter noticed an odd pattern. The fancy stones and engravings indicated that this was a burial place for the rich, yet he kept finding robust bones with extremely strong muscle attachments. Such signs of physically demanding activity are common among the remains of poor laborers, not those of the wealthy elite. Puzzled, Kunter looked for archaeological clues. Some of the graves were outfitted with paraphernalia associated with intense physical training, such as strigils, curved metal blades that were used to scrape the body after bathing. Kunter's team also recovered a cestus, a leather fist strap augmented with lead used in Greek boxing. Combatants often lost some front teeth in these brutal matches and, indeed, many of the men buried in the necropolis were short on incisors and canines, despite good overall dental health.

The evidence convinced Kunter that the bones belonged to pampered pro athletes. The posh cemetery was even laid out on a hill within view of the city stadium— where, presumably, the spirits of the dead could enjoy a good bout without having to worry about flying, metal-clad fists.

 
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