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Mortuary Behavior and Social Trajectories in Pre- and Protopalatial Crete

Mortuary Behavior and Social Trajectories in Pre- and Protopalatial Crete

By Borja Legarra Herrero (Prehistory Monographs 44). Pp. xviii + 359, figs. 141, tables 8. INSTAP Academic Press, Philadelphia 2014. $80. ISBN 978-1-931534-74-1 (cloth).

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This book is the first comprehensive examination of Prepalatial and Protopalatial Minoan mortuary customs and is a must-read for anyone who is interested not only in these mortuary customs but also in Minoan society. While earlier works on this theme, such as Keith Branigan’s volumes in the 1970s and Jeffrey Soles’ in the 1980s and 1990s, focused on limited geographical areas, Legarra Herrero explores the evidence from the whole island and includes all recent discoveries and most of the publications.

The two primary goals of the book are to reinvestigate and update the study of funerary contexts and to evaluate and understand the changes on Crete during the Pre- and Protopalatial periods (2). The author also states in both the introduction (3–6) and conclusions (160) that he aims to present a spatial and temporal analysis of the tombs and the related society. He contends that current interpretations of these tombs are problematic because traditional typologies of tombs undermine the individuality of each funerary context (22) and that the traditional strict periodization blurs the processes and dynamics that occur in the transitional periods (21). To overcome these problems, he uses a contextual approach, as advocated by Ian Hodder (16–17), in his examination of the mortuary system. Legarra Herrero starts his analysis by assessing the immediate spatial and taphonomic relationship of each artifact in a tomb’s assemblage. He then connects individual tombs to the cemetery, the cemetery to the community, and then contextualizes the mortuary patterns in a regional study of the whole island. He combines this contextual approach with an equally detailed assessment of the chronology in the tomb, which he breaks down into more “meaningful periods” (17). To circumvent further the issue of periodization, he delineates a clear sequence for each cemetery and then contextualizes them in the larger island-wide picture (22).

The book consists of nine chapters, a gazetteer of all known funerary contexts in Pre- and Protopalatial Crete that includes a basic description of each site and a bibliography, and a short list of sites that scholars once thought were funerary sites. The first three chapters consist of a brief introductory overview of the volume, a discussion of the theoretical and methodological issues of dealing with the mortuary data from long-used communal tombs, and an assessment of previous research on the topic. The structure of the main body of the book is a key part of the author’s argument: that we need to examine Crete not as part of the geographical or modern division of the island—north, south, east, and west—but that we must subdivide it based on the ancient cultural patterns. To this end, he divides both the island and the main body of the book into five chapters that cover south-central Crete, north-central and central Crete, the Mirabello Bay and Ierapetra region, east Crete, and west Crete. This subdivision enables him to highlight the cultural patterning, which he discusses in great detail by time period, as I outline below. He summarizes his work at the end of each chapter and again in the final discussion chapter. While the book is clear and well written, these summaries help the reader stay focused on the most significant evidence and arguments and not get distracted by the large amount of data presented.

The last section of the book is a testament to the author’s significant commitment of time and energy into collating a wealth of information on the artifacts in the tombs and the size and architecture of the tombs, which he outlines in more than 150 figures consisting of tables, maps, and graphs. Although the author summarizes large amounts of data in the graphs and integrates them into his discussion, he does not do so in the same depth that he has done in earlier papers. In contrast to his earlier work, the author here clearly privileged the presentation of the data from the tombs over interpretation.

By narrowing his focus to a presentation of the data rather than embedding them in a deep interpretive narrative, the author is providing the field of Minoan studies with a rich resource that will be drawn on heavily by the current and next generation of scholars. As is inevitable in a synthetic work of previous scholarship, much of the interpretive narrative will be familiar to those knowledgeable on the subject. Despite the increase in the number of the identified funerary contexts over the past 40 years, the author’s discussions are limited to the ones that are already well known from their publications. What is novel about this work, however, is the way the author uses the available data to explore in great detail the internal dynamics in any individual cemetery where the information has been well-published (e.g., Lebena, Moni Odigitria, Mochlos). The author, however, moves his argument beyond those of earlier works by paying detailed attention to the chronology and context of the tombs’ use, which was frequently downplayed in the earlier works.

Legarra Herrero’s focus on the individual tombs allows him to create both overarching patterns and highlight tombs that show a distinctly different pattern. I have included here only a handful of his more interesting arguments. He contends that while Early Minoan (EM) IIA practices continue and develop from those evidenced in EM I, during EM IIB there was significant and widespread change and diversification in the earlier mortuary practices (144). He also maintains that it is difficult to connect temporally the changes that we see in the different regions of the island because of the problems with the traditional chronologies mentioned above. He further argues that EM III/Middle Minoan (MM) I show a break with the older mortuary practice and that during this time period, especially MM I, far-reaching cultural changes were taking place on the island. Additionally, Legarra Herrero suggests that the tombs in certain areas were not the tombs of individual settlements but belonged to a larger network that was spread over a region, such as around Moni Odigitria (35–7, 59). He stresses that the evidence in the tomb is not cumulative toward a growth in vertical organization but instead contains clear breaks in the record that point to great change in the social organization. Finally, he highlights that the enduring communal element of the tombs gives Crete a unique path to statehood, which is alien to that being practiced and valued in Egypt and the Near East, where individuals and kings were at the height of the hierarchy. Several of his conclusions would have been stronger if he used anthropological parallels or models to explain them.

This book illustrates the importance of revisiting the material from old excavations and combining it with new excavations. It also shows how much more clearly we can understand the mortuary customs by examining the data in chronological and contextual detail. This work will be of benefit to both students and scholars who are looking for a detailed breakdown of the tombs of Pre- and Protopalatial Crete.

Joanne Murphy
Department of Classical Studies
University of North Carolina–Greensboro

Book Review of Mortuary Behavior and Social Trajectories in Pre- and Protopalatial Crete, by Borja Legarra Herrero

Reviewed by Joanne Murphy

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 1 (January 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1201.Murphy

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