The Mystery of Nestor’s Cup: Who Was Buried With the Oldest Greek Inscription?

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Mocking Homer: The enigmatic Nestor's Cup
Mocking Homer: The enigmatic Nestor's CupCredit: Marcus Cyron
Ariel David
Ariel David

The Tomb of Nestor’s Cup, a burial that contained one of the oldest known Greek inscriptions, housed the cremated remains of at least three individuals, it turns out. A new study sheds some light on this enigmatic burial from nearly 2,800 years ago on a southern Italian island, but still doesn’t tell us who exactly was laid to rest there, or why they were memorialized with a dirty limerick that mocks the epic poetry of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

First uncovered in the 1950s, the tomb was one of thousands of burials in the necropolis of Pithekoussai, one of the first overseas colonies of the ancient Greeks, located on the picturesque island of Ischia, just off Naples.

Lacco Ameno, Ischia, Italy. Monte Epomeo in the backgroundCredit: Chiara Marra

Ancient Greek Viagra

The burial contained a rich set of grave goods, including a silver brooch and two dozen fragmented pottery vessels. But what captured the attention of the archaeologists was a small ceramic wine cup dated to second half of the eighth century B.C.E.

Decorated with simple black geometric motifs, the cup had been imported from the Greek island of Rhodes. At some point after it was made, somebody scribbled on it the following text: “I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink from. Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway desire for beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him.”

Drawing of the inscription on "Nestor's Cup", Cumae alphabet, 8th century BCECredit: ללא קרדיט

The inscription is fragmentary so the exact translation is a matter of some debate, and some scholars read the first part as reciting “Nestor’s cup was good for drinking, but whoever drinks from this cup… etc. etc.

The text is a clear, if somewhat parodic, reference to Nestor, king of Pylos and one of the Greek heroes in Homer’s Iliad. Nestor owned a giant golden chalice so heavy that, when it was filled with wine, “another man could scarce have availed to lift that cup from the table.” (Iliad, book 11, 635)

But while Nestor’s mythological cup was described by Homer as large, beautifully decorated and possessing the power to restore the strength of the battle-weary Greeks in the Trojan war, the real-world cup of Pithekoussai was a modest ceramic chalice that promised an aphrodisiac effect for whoever quaffed from it.

The Homeric Nestor and his cup in a 16th century illustrationCredit: ללא קרדיט

The question then arose of who had been buried in the tomb. Part of the problem is that the dearly departed were cremated and the archaeologists only recovered a bunch of ashes and small bone fragments.

Previous studies of those fragments concluded that the tomb belonged to a child ages 10 to 14. That was even more surprising: yes, children in ancient Greece could be the introduced to wine as early as age 3 (especially since alcohol could often be safer than water taken form polluted sources). But still, a funerary offering with an inscription promising lustful delights seemed more suited for a raucous banquet than a child’s burial.

Now, a new study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, has reexamined those burnt fragments performing a microscopic analysis of the bone tissues.

Of 195 fragments in the tomb, only about 130 were human, while at least 45 belonged to animals, including goats and possibly dogs. These may have been included as food and/or companions for the deceased, says Melania Gigante, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Padua, who led the study.

As for the human fragments, Gigante and colleagues analyzed the amount of bone remodeling that had occurred in the remains.

During our lifetime, old bone tissue is constantly being replaced with newly formed bone, in a process that leaves microscopic evidence of how much remodeling has occurred, Gigante explains. This in turn can give us an indication of an individual’s age at death, she says.

The bone fragments could be grouped into three distinct age groups, the researchers found, meaning that at least three individuals were buried in the tomb. While heat damage from the cremation made it impossible to determine their ages with precision, none of the bones belonged to a child, Gigante and colleagues conclude.

The human bone fragments found in the Tomb of Nestor's CupCredit: GIGANTE MELANIA

The triple burial is unique in Pithekoussai’s necropolis, where all the tombs that contained non-cremated remains were found to house one or two individuals at most, Gigante tells Haaretz. Burial within the same tomb usually indicates there was a bond between the deceased, but whether in the Tomb of Nestor’s Cup these ties were familial, social or of some other kind we will probably never know. The extensive damage from the cremation fire makes it impossible to extract DNA from the remains to check whether the deceased were kin, she notes.

Scribbled on a wine jug

Still, Gigante hopes future research will be able to reveal more about those buried with Nestor’s Cup. This artifact and its context have fascinated scholars for decades, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the cup gives us some crucial information about the history of Homer’s poems and their composition. It suggests that by the eighth century B.C.E. the oral traditions that formed the epic story of the Trojan war must have already been put in writing and widely circulated across the Mediterranean – to the point that they could inspire satirical imitation at Pithekoussai.

The inscription also gives us information about the early history of the alphabet itself. Nestor’s Cup is considered one of the two earliest known texts written in the Greek alphabet. The other is the Dipylon inscription, a shorter text which was found in the Dipylon Cemetery in Athens. It too is dated to the second half of the eighth century B.C.E. and scribbled on a wine jug (apparently the ancient Greeks really liked to drink and write).

The Dipylon inscriptionCredit: Durutomo

The phonetic alphabet that eventually became the basis for most modern western writing systems is believed to have first been developed nearly 4,000 years ago by Canaanite laborers in Egypt who couldn’t handle hieroglyphics. Over the centuries, the alphabetic system spread back to the Levant and was adopted by the Phoenicians. Sailing from the coast of what is today northern Israel and Lebanon, Phoenician merchants and colonists spread throughout the Mediterranean taking with them their script and giving rise to variants of their alphabet used to write Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin and other languages.

We don’t know exactly where the Phoenicians and the ancient Greeks first met, but Pithekoussai was most probably one of the earliest points of contact. The settlement on Ischia was founded by Greeks from the island of Euboea in the early eighth century B.C.E. – and is considered the first Greek colony in the western Mediterranean. At the same time the Phoenicians had already expanded across the region, founding colonies like Carthage, in today’s Tunisia, which would later play its own key role in history.

It’s not all Greeks

Pithekoussai was in an ideal position to function as a key trading post, not only with the Phoenicians, but also with the Etruscans, Latins and other local Italic peoples.

And in fact, archaeological finds at the ancient settlement and its necropolis have shown that the residents of the colony, who numbered in the thousands, likely hailed from all these groups and formed a cultural melting pot

Different funerary rites, like the co-existence of cremation and burial; artifacts of Greek, Italic and Phoenician origin; and ancient written sources all point to “Pithekoussai as a mixed society composed of different cultural and ethnic identities where people with non-native ancestries and origins lived together with the locals,” Gigante says.

Nothing exemplifies better this Mediterranean melting pot as Nestor’s cup: a ceramic vessel from Rhodes, inscribed with a reference to Greek myths on a war in Anatolia written in an alphabet influenced by the Phoenicians, buried in a tomb on an Italian island.

Perhaps Nestor’s Cup and its bawdy limerick were nothing more than the result of a drinking game or the halting debut of an aspiring poet, but for us they open up a glimpse onto an entire world from thousands of years ago. This world has long turned to dust, but it has also influenced our present in more ways than we can imagine – including by shaping the letters you are reading right now.

An 18th century painting of the town of Lacco Ameno on Ischia, where the Greek colony used to beCredit: Wellcome Library, London / Wellc

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