Archaeologists claim that they were the targets of a mass execution. But it is still unknown who they were, how they got there, and why they seem to have been buried with some care.
They were discovered earlier this year in a section of the Falyron Delta necropolis, a sizable ancient cemetery that was discovered while building a national opera theater and library between central Athens and the port of Piraeus.
It has been difficult for many individuals to enter and take a closer look.
But on a rare tour of the site, experts painstakingly showed Reuters the skeletons, some of which were stacked on top of one another with their limbs and legs twisted and their jaws hanging open in the dug-out sandy ground.
“They have all been put to death in the same way. However, they were buried with respect “The director of excavations, Dr. Stella Chryssoulaki, remarked.
“They are all tied at the hands with handcuffs and most of them are very very young and in a very good state of health when they were executed.”
The experts hope DNA testing and research by anthropologists will uncover exactly how the rows of people died. Whatever happened was violent – most had their arms bound above their heads, the wrists tied together.
But the orderly way they have been buried suggest these were more than slaves or common criminals.
The cemetery dates from between the 8th and 5th century BC.
“It is a period of great unrest for Athenian society, a period where aristocrats, nobles, are battling with each other for power,” said Chryssoulaki.
One of the more compelling arguments is that they were supporters of Cylon, an Athenian aristocrat and Olympic champion who, with the aid of his father-in-law, the ruler of Megara, mounted an unsuccessful coup attempt in Athens in 632 BC.
Cylon hid in an Acropolis temple after the coup attempt failed. He was able to flee, but others who supported him were slaughtered.
“We may validate or disprove this idea that these deceased, these young individuals could have been… part of a coup… an effort by a noble to take power by force,” Chryssoulaki said of the DNA testing that will be performed on the skeletons.
More than 1,500 bodies lie in the whole cemetery, some infants laid to rest in ceramic pots, other adults burned on funeral pyres or buried in stone coffins. One casket is made from a wooden boat.
Unlike Athens’ renowned ancient Kerameikos cemetery, the last resting place of many prominent ancient Greeks, these appear to be the inhabitants of regular neighbourhoods.
The dig is within a 170,000 sq m landscaped park, shadowed by the vast new modern library and opera house buildings being built by the Stavros Niarchos philanthropic foundation.
High-rise apartments dot the skyline to the north while a noisy motorway snakes by the site’s east side.
Chryssoulaki wants to see a museum built on the spot, as a monument to the daily lives of Athenians from another era.
“A cemetery is a first and last photograph in antiquity of those people that pass from life to death,” she said