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2,500-Year-Old Skeleton is Oldest Known Remains of a Panathenaic Athlete

In ancient Greece, successful athletes were rich and celebrated like they are today. Evidence for this comes in the form of the oldest known skeleton of a young athlete, buried with rich honors at Taranto in Greco-Italy 2,500 years ago. His bones and grave goods show all the signs he was an athlete.

Four large Panathenaic amphorae that likely contained precious olive oil were buried with him. These large jars showed scenes of the pentathlon, four-horse chariot race and boxing, says a 1984 National Geographic New Service article.

In addition to the amphorae, he had clutched in his left hand a small jar that contained ointment of a type used by athletes.

The skeleton of the ancient athlete found at Taranto. He can be seen with the small jar of ointment by his left hand. (

Taranto was in Magna Graecia, the part of Italy then controlled by Greece.

The Panathenaic Games, held at four-year intervals, were the most popular in Athens. There is no way to know if the athlete in question competed in the more prestigious Olympic Games upon which the Panathenaic Games were modeled. Researchers believe his success at the Panathenaic Games may have made it possible for him to have competed in the Olympics, though.

Unlike the Olympics, during which only olive branches were awarded, the Panathenaic Games included rich prizes. The extreme antiquity of the burial precludes any chance of finding botanical evidence of olive branches in the tomb, says a story on

Investigations show muscle markers where the muscle attached to his bones were large, especially in his trapezius and deltoid muscles, according to an article by archaeologist Kristina Killgrove on This, plus the fact that he had a lot of wear and tear in his right shoulder joint and a large right forearm bone reveals he may have been a great discus thrower.

He also had well-developed calf muscles, indicating he could have had the ability to jump up to 3 meters (9.84 feet), according to simulations conducted by physical anthropologist Sara C. Bisel and her team in the 1980s.

Another research team, led by Gaspare Baggieri in the 1990s and 2000s, found the ancient athlete was likely in his 20s or 30s at death. He stood 5 feet 7 inches (1.7 meters), which was taller than average for that era. He had strong muscles with powerfully built shoulders and was stocky. He likely ate a diet of meat and seafood, and his teeth were in good condition, confirming a low-carb diet, wrote Dr. Killgrove.

The fine condition of his teeth and the straightness of his nose confused the researchers somewhat because of the boxing amphora found in his tomb, which was unearthed in 1959 when construction workers discovered the skeleton and tomb.

A tomb of athletes at Taranto (Photo by TarantoSotteranea)

“The boxing amphora is interesting because there is no indication on this man’s skeleton that he competed in a sport that involved hand-to-hand combat or wrestling,” wrote Dr. Killgrove in Forbes. “His teeth were perfect. His jaw and nose were straight. A complete lack of broken, healed bones in his body means that this amphora is still a bit of a puzzle for archaeologists.”

Archaeologists also were puzzled by the presence of the chariot-racing amphora because they think he was a sponsor of races rather than a competitor.

His remains showed no sign of the cause of death, but Dr. Killgrove writes that at the time there were no antibiotics to save him from any number of diseases that could have killed him.

The Panathenaic Games were celebrations of the goddess Athena and other Greek deities, including Poseidon. Sacrifices were made to the goddess, and people competed in cultural events and poetic and musical contests in addition to athletics.