The charm of Ischia in the Bay of Naples gave Cyril Connolly small cheer when he holidayed there in the summer of 1956: he was an Eeyore in the sun, brooding on his flighty wife abandoning him for a younger man. If he had known what archaeologists digging on the island at the time were turning up, he might have reflected that there are worse things to suffer. At Monte Vico, on the island's north-western edge, excavation had recently unearthed a grave dug around 720 BC to house the remains of a ten-year-old boy. Alongside them, his family had placed a set of mixing bowls and jugs, and an adult's drinking cup inscribed with a Greek verse on the rim: 'I am Nestor's cup, good to drink from: desire for fair-garlanded Aphrodite will immediately seize whoever drinks from me.' They are mementos of parental grief, poignant tokens of the grown-up pleasures – the wine parties, the concomitant lovemaking – that a treasured young son would never taste.
The grave is informative of far more than a single family's tragedy, however. For students of antiquity, it touches on central and difficult questions about an early period of Greek history that the ancients’ own historians found – and left –