CULTURE

The inspiring journey of ancient Athenian plague victim Myrtis

the-inspiring-journey-of-ancient-athenian-plague-victim-myrtis

When Myrtis was brought back to virtual life in 2010, her image and story was shared on social media around the world. Now, the ancient Athenian 11-year-old is being mobilized in the battle against the novel coronavirus with a video produced by Into the Void in a joint initiative of the United Nations and the head of the scientific team that reconstructed Myrtis’ face, professor and orthodontist Manolis Papagrigorakis. In the video, which has been translated into English, Norwegian, Finnish, Arabic and Chinese, Myrtis advises viewers to listen to the experts on Covid-19 and follow their instructions.

Myrtis is believed to have died in the Plague of Athens in 430-427 BC after experts were able to isolate genes of the disease that caused the deadly typhoid fever from her teeth. Her entire skull was found to be in unusually good condition, which is what allowed the reconstruction of her face, a significant feat accomplished by Papagrigorakis and his team, who were able to give a face to an anonymous girl from the Age of Pericles.

“The journey with this young Athenian girl has been absolutely enchanting, filling me with beautiful and unique moments,” says the Athens University professor. “I have seen the incredible sparkle in the eyes of children thirsty for knowledge, the generosity of artists wanting to dedicate a piece to her – so that she stars in around 80 paintings, sculptures and engravings right now – and the enduring and tireless spirit of giving that defines the Greeks. This is something I want to stress: Not a single Greek who worked on this project with me mentioned money!”

After being unveiled to the public at the Acropolis Museum in 2010, Myrtis went on a global museum tour and was named a Friend of the Millennium Development Goals by the UN. She visited dozens of schools, now features in history books in Australia, took part in the closing ceremony of the 2011 Special Olympics in Athens, has inspired painters, sculptors and writers, has been the subject of doctoral theses and has graced a postage stamp issued by the Hellenic Post and a coin from the Bank of Greece. This 5th century BC girl has become a “face” of our time.

“Myrtis’ greatest advantage is that she is an anonymous child living in a very special and important time. She is a girl-next-door figure who resonates with children her age, no matter how distant she is,” says Papagrigorakis.

The project was a fascinating one for Papagrigorakis and his team, who were able to draw important conclusions from the analysis of the girl’s skull, including information about the bacteria that caused the Athens plague, while also adding important knowledge to the global dialogue on the evolution of man.

A number of different scientific disciplines were brought into play to give Myrtis a face. “An array of fields were involved, beyond my narrow area of expertise, but they were related to the historical and archaeological research I was doing, while the project was also connected to the fascinating field of school education,” says Papagrigorakis.

The professor was also excited to share the news of a new project being carried out with the support of the Greek-German Ellinogermaniki Agogi school, to recreate another ancient figure, nicknamed Hedyle, whose remains were found in Pherae.

“All of our scientific knowledge and experience with the two girls, Myrtis and Avgi (an 18-year-old girl who lived in Thessaly 9,000 years ago), lead to Hedyle, so that we will not only reconstruct her face, but her entire body,” says Papagrigorakis.

“Another innovative program stemming from this experience is the creation of an ‘open-view museum.’ It has been a dream of mine to create a museum based on Myrtis and the museum on ‘children from antiquity to the present’ will be able to create a network for multiplying new data that will significantly increase our knowledge of the past, which is the link to the present and will allow us to look into the future,” he says.


To learn more about the project, visit www.myrtis.gr. To watch the video with English subtitles, click here