Strange Skulls: Arsinoe's So-called Tomb at Ephesus

Lot of silly claims about Cleopatra in the press again this week-end ... for a sane summary of them, see David Meadows here.

I don't know whether The Octagon tomb in Ephesus was that of Cleopatra VII's half-sister Arsinoe IV, and until someone finds an inscription saying it is we will never be sure.

A scholar made a dubious argument a few years ago that the Tower of the Winds in Athens was built by Anthony and Cleopatra because it's octagonal, just like the Pharos in Alexandria, so it must be Ptolemaic ... - she ignored all the ancient sources, evidence which to other scholars would seem to place it's construction before either was born. Octagonal buildings were rare - I argued conclusively that the Amazon monument in Sparta was not in fact octagonal, removing one of the few others octagonal structures from our corpus ... - but so were round buildings (tholoi), and I think it's highly tenuous to draw conclusions on such flimsy pieces of evidence.

The article which suggested the identification of the Ephesus Octagon is:
Thür, H.: Arsinoe IV., eine Schwester Kleopatras VII., Grabinhaberin des Oktogons von Ephesos ? Ein Vorschlag. ÖJh 60 (1990) 43-56, Abb.

I found Hilke Thür's arguments interesting when I read them years ago. It's an interesting tomb architecturally, and in a prominent position suggesting someone important. However, we have the tombs of rich but otherwise unknown people that survive, so it could have been built by some local billionaire not necessarily a royal. And despite press reports, we do know of a number of prominent people who died at Ephesus during the period.

I also find the idea of 'proving' that someone (Cleopatra) was 'black' based on a skull which is now lost and whose 'measurements' (what these were is unclear) suggest something or other which might or might not imply ethnicity because someone has argued that the skull comes from a tomb that might have been that of Arsinoe (highly disputed), who may or may not have had a black mother, though not necessarily the same mother as Cleopatra, and then concluding that Cleopatra was black ... frankly ridiculous. It's why I avoid television.

The first photo in the post shows the body as preserved ... ie headless. To go from that to the 'reconstruction' on the left is a wild flight of fantasy. Most of the 'African' features such as skin color, hair color, the cartilage of the nose are based on things that did not survive when the tomb was excavated, and purely in the imagination of whoever made up this reconstruction.

(I've covered my 'Cleopatra was not black' theory already.)

What is more interesting is the Egyptian practice of skull deformation - it seems to have been done to children using bandages as a sign of high status. It's something we see in a lot of depictions of Egyptian Pharaohs and their families, and over several Dynasties which suggests that it was not some genetic quirk but a deliberate practice.

This practice was not restricted to Egypt.

When I received my copy of Adrian Goldsworthy's The Fall of the West, I flipped through the photos, and one he included of a deformed Hun skull fascinated me. Adrian covers the Huns in his book, so if you want to learn more about them I suggest picking up a copy (it's brilliant in terms of academic research, but reads as smoothly as a novel).

Everyone has heard of Attila the Hun, but few people realize that he was probably an egg-head.

A whole series of Hunnish tombs have been excavated both in Central Asia and in Europe, showing that this was a wide-spread practice amongst the elite, and so popular that it caught on with other tribes they came into contact with such as the Gepids (academic article here; Cliff notes version of cranial deformation in various cultures here).

This skull in the collections of the Institute of Ethnography, Moscow and St. Petersburg, was excavated in southern Kazakhstan. It is dated by the Russians as coming from the 1st-3rd centuries AD, and if this is correct (I assume they are basing it on its context), then this would make it a very early example of Hunnic skull distortion, dating to the period before their migration into Europe. (photo)

This Hephthalite or Alchon (White) Hunnish coin appears to depict a ruler whose skull was deliberately elongated. It's history is complicated, since the style imitates Sassanian coins and it was found in the deposit of the Tope Kelan stupa in Afghanistan, which was built in the late 5th century AD ... but this is the only example of a depiction of a Hun ruler that I can think of, and the profile conforms to excavated skulls. (British Museum) The White Huns are a little bit of a mystery to us, though the second skull might be linked to them, if we locate their homeland to the north of the Persian Empire - see Procopius, History of the Wars 1.3.

For more on the Huns, I recommend picking up a copy of:

The Fall Of The West: The Death Of The Roman Superpower: The Long, Slow Death of the Roman Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy - Amazon.co.uk

How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy - Amazon.com


  1. Have you considered the possibility that this is not a sign of skull deformation but actually a more ancient race that had cone shaped heads. The skull has a larger volume and doesn't look like it's been deformed

  2. An ancient race with "cone-shaped" heads, really?? No, come on, that's just ludicrousness I must say as a bioarchaeologist.


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