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Hagios Charalambos: A Minoan Burial Cave in Crete I. Excavation and Portable Objects

July 2017 (121.3)

Book Review

Hagios Charalambos: A Minoan Burial Cave in Crete I. Excavation and Portable Objects

By Philip P. Betancourt (Prehistory Monographs 47). Pp. xviii + 120. INSTAP Academic Press, Philadelphia 2014. $60. ISBN 978-1-931534-80-2 (cloth).

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The volume under review is beautifully illustrated with high-quality drawings, plans, and photographs and is a valuable addition to our knowledge of Minoan funerary practices. In keeping with the tradition of the site publications of the Institute for Aegean Prehistory (INSTAP), the work undertaken in the Hagios Charalambos Cave is published in several volumes. This is the first of five volumes and deals with the excavation of the cave and the publication of the portable objects. The pottery, the history of Minoan Lasithi, and the faunal and human remains will be published in four other volumes. The mortuary practice evidenced in the Hagios Charalambos Cave is unusual not because it represents secondary burial but rather because it is an extreme case of this funerary practice: the human remains and portable objects from closed Early Minoan (EM) I–Middle Minoan (MM) IIB funerary contexts (e.g., rock shelter or built tombs, as suggested by the state of preservation of the bones) outside the cave were moved, after decomposition of the bodies, to inside the cave in a single period in MM IIB (5, 29). The original burial place has not been located, but a MM III–Late Minoan (LM) I cemetery containing burials in pithoi was found at a distance of about 120 m (38). A group of articulated vertebrae in Room 5 suggests that the original body part had not yet decomposed when it was moved. The secondary deposition of all this material in the cave was no mean feat, considering that the original entrance to the cave was a vertical shaft leading down from the ancient ground surface into the cave. Such large-scale and temporally concentrated clearance of a cemetery in MM IIB is unattested elsewhere on Crete. Secondary burial is well attested in the house-tombs and, as recently argued by Triantaphyllou (“Managing with Death in Prepalatial Crete: The Evidence of the Human Remains,” in Y. Papadatos and M. Relaki, eds., From the Foundations to the Legacy of Minoan Society [Oxford (forthcoming)]), also in the tholos tombs, but it seems to have usually been a continuous process over a long period of time rather than a single event. Thus, in the cemetery at Sissi, for example, there is clear evidence that some (but not all) house-tombs were cleared out periodically, presumably to make space for new burials (I. Schoep et al., The Cemetery at Sissi.  Report of the 2011 Campaign [Louvain-la-Neuve 2012] 31–54). The only close parallel for Hagios Charalambos to date is the Trapeza Cave, where the arrangement of skulls along one of the sides could suggest a secondary burial. A mass of jumbled bones, however, does not necessarily mean secondary burial, as a primary burial can be affected by different types of post-depositional treatment. Pendlebury, Pendlebury, and Money-Coutts  (“Excavations in the Plain of Lasithi. I: The Cave of Trapeza,” BSA 36 [1936] 127–28) mention at least 20 mandibles and 118 skulls and fragments from the Trapeza Cave and claim that both sexes and different ages were represented.

This first volume is organized in three parts, each comprising several chapters. Part 1 discusses the geomorphology of the cave and its excavation. The cave is located on the western side of the Lasithi Plain near the village of Hagios Charalambos, and it had been formed along a fault that separates gray dolomite from limestone. Tectonic activity facilitated the degradation of the rocks, thus gradually enlarging the sinkhole, which was then further enlarged by water draining through it. Although the bedrock outcrop in which it is situated is a visible landmark, the cave itself was invisible since the end of the Bronze Age due to its collapse. It was discovered in 1976 during road work and excavated between 1976 and 1983 by Costis Davaras (Rooms 1–4). Excavations were resumed in 2002 by Betancourt, Davaras, and Eleni Stavropodi (Rooms 3 and 4, passageway between Rooms 4 and 5, and Room 5). The cave consisted originally of seven interconnected rooms, of which only five survive. The original entrance was located at the south end of Room 1.

The secondary deposit inside the cave that contained Final Neolithic (FN), EM I–III, MM I–II, and some MM III and LM I pottery was mixed and unstratified (29). The presence and position of Neolithic pottery rather than indicating occupation of the cave in this period are taken to suggest “that burials from as early as the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age were moved to the cave along with the MM II objects. Although the pottery is published in the second volume of the Ayios Charalambos series (L.C. Langford-Verstegen, Hagios Charalambos: A Minoan Burial Cave in Crete II. The Pottery. Prehistory Monographs 51 [Havertown 2016]), it would have been useful to the reader if some quantitative information about the pottery had been included in this volume. The amount of pottery from a given period would also provide an idea as to the number of burials per period and the associated demographic group. For instance, there may actually not be much pottery dating to FN and EM I–III (29).

In general, most rooms in the cave display a similar stratigraphy: a lower level of small broken bones, sherds, and some objects mixed with red soil, on top of which were placed complete skulls, vases, and/or disarticulated bones (24). Sherds and objects of different periods were scattered through this thoroughly mixed deposit. Micromorphological analysis made clear that the red soil is post-depositional and seeped into the cave through fissures in the rock. That some care was taken in the placement of the material is suggested by a gridlike arrangement of bones that formed a sort of platform to support the deposit of disarticulated human bones in the passageway between Rooms 4 and 5. Room 5, the largest in the cave, also contained a mass of small disarticulated and broken bones, pottery, and artifacts, on top of which were placed skulls, long bones, and complete vases. It is estimated that between 1983 and 2002, some 20 complete vases were looted from this room (26). Room 7 was not used in the Bronze Age, and the material found in it had washed down from Room 5.

The secondary deposition of the human bones and grave goods seems to have been accompanied by a ceremony involving the consumption of food and drink outside the cave in MM IIB. Animal bones with cut marks testify to the consumption of cattle, pigs, sheep or goats, and a hare. Because of the presence inside the cave of some MM III and LM I pottery, it is suggested that it remained open until permanently sealed in LM I (24, 29, 37–41). However, it then seems odd that although the fill inside the cave’s mouth dates to MM II (pottery, black soil from burning, animal bones with cut marks, and charcoal [34–5]) some MM III and LM I material was found inside the cave. This either illustrates the complexity of excavating a mixed secondary context or raises the question whether the MM III–LM I pottery inside the cave could be intrusive (e.g., brought in by looters).

Although there is no doubt that the deposit is a secondary burial and therefore mixed, it would have been useful to provide the reader with some quantitative and qualitative information on the human bone because it could have shed light on the treatment of the body (primary, secondary, or both) prior to the placement of the deposit in the cave. The estimated minimum number of individuals of 400 excludes much of the material from Davaras’ excavations. Because of the mixed nature of the deposit, however, it is hard to identify bones from any single individual, and thus, each bone is counted as an individual.

Part 2 contains a catalogue of all portable objects per category (larnakes, figurines, metal objects, seals, stone vases, stone tools, and others), each preceded by a very useful and up-to-date discussion of comparanda on the island. Because of the mixed nature of the deposit, the objects from the cave are dated by comparison with objects from stratified contexts. The presence of metal (bronze, gold, copper, silver, lead) and hippopotamus ivory shows that the inhabitants of this mountainous area of Crete had access to exchange networks to obtain these luxury goods. Some of the networks went via north-central Crete, others via south-central Crete. Thus, for example, the gold ring with naturalistic marine elements evokes the technology and style in Malia, and the three-prism seals point to the “Atelier de Sceaux” at that site. Other objects such as ivory theromorph stamp seals and circular seals clearly point to the Mesara. It is also noteworthy that the cave yielded the largest collection of microliths (lunates and trapezes) from the Aegean. The prismatic blades are paralleled in the funerary assemblages of Hagia Photia and the Kyparissi, Trapeza, and Pyrgos Caves.

In part 3, the chronology, stratigraphy, and use of the cave are summarized, while some thoughts are provided on the reason for moving the remains of a cemetery from outside to inside the cave in MM IIB. Betancourt suggests that the increasing popularity of a more individualizing way of burial rather than a collective one resulted in new types of burial grounds (100–1). Elsewhere on Crete, house-tombs (e.g., at Mochlos, Sissi, and Petras) and tholos tombs (e.g., at Lebena and Moni Odigitria) stop being used for burial during the course of, or at the end of MM IIB, but in none of these cases is there evidence for a single large-scale clearance of the associated cemeteries. It is therefore likely that the explanation for the use of new burial grounds is more complex and multifaceted than a mere desire for individual burial.

Ilse Schoep
Department of Archaeology, Art History and Musicology
Catholic University of Leuven

Book Review of Hagios Charalambos: A Minoan Burial Cave in Crete I. Excavation and Portable Objects, by Philip P. Betancourt

Reviewed by Ilse Schoep

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 3 (July 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1213.Schoep

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