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Τσέπι Μαραθῶνος: Ὁ Ἀποθέτης 39 Τοῦ Προϊστορικοὺ Νεκροταφεῖου

Τσέπι Μαραθῶνος: Ὁ Ἀποθέτης 39 Τοῦ Προϊστορικοὺ Νεκροταφεῖου

By Maria Pantelidou-Gofa (Library of the Archaeological Society at Athens 310). Pp. 559. The Archaeological Society at Athens, Athens 2016. €64.69. ISBN 978-618-5047-32-0 (paper).

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This book is a detailed presentation of the archaeological finds from a large pit in the prehistoric cemetery of Tsepi at Marathon (Attica, Greece), named Deposit 39. Researchers of prehistoric burial customs in the Aegean will be interested in this study, which also examines material culture, most notably archaeological ceramics. The book should be read in association with Pantelidou-Gofa’s previous publication of the tombs of the same cemetery (Τσέπι Μαραθῶνος: Το Πρωτοελλαδικὸ Νεκροταφεῖο [Athens 2005]). The detailed presentation of the results of the excavations in both volumes provides the necessary data to understand Tsepi and compare it with other Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age I cemeteries. The author, who is professor emerita of the University of Athens, has made the study of prehistoric Attica her life’s work, setting the groundwork with her Ph.D. dissertation and subsequently producing several major archaeological publications of prehistoric Nea Makri and Marathon during her impressive career. This latest volume is important mainly because it documents a phase of the latest Neolithic in Attica, also known as “Athens North Slope,” dated to the second half of the fourth millennium B.C.E. A single radiocarbon sample from Deposit 39 provides the absolute date 3638–3381 B.C.E. (95.4% probability). This phase is attested elsewhere in Attica, mainly in rescue excavations, and is associated with increasing evidence for seafaring, mining, and metallurgy.

The author is primarily concerned with providing detailed archaeological information on the pit rather than comparisons with archaeological and ethnographic parallels on burial rituals and feasting. The pit contained 760 complete or almost complete pots and 960 diagnostic sherds, an overwhelming amount of pottery, especially compared with the fewer than 80 pots reported from the tombs in the previous volume. The human remains found in the pit were very fragmentary (604 fragments, minimum number of individuals calculated to eight). Therefore, there is a strong emphasis on ceramic typology, which is the author’s specialty, and on documenting the typological variation of the assemblage. The typological characteristics of the Tsepi pottery are distinguished from their Cycladic parallels (e.g., the Tsepi style of amphoriskoi, also known as pyxides). I would argue that this evidence stands in opposition to older culture-historic arguments for Cycladic colonies in Attica, which are still popular today. Detailed typological observations, apart from extensively documenting new ceramic forms, also lead to novel interpretations of well-known yet still highly debated shapes, such as the so-called cheese pots, some of which are interpreted as boat models, with the holes below the rim serving as holders of nonsurviving wooden oars. From the excavation data it becomes evident that the use and consumption of animal parts (mainly pigs, sheep, goats, and cows), shells, obsidian, and pottery in rituals are characteristic at Tsepi. The author draws attention to sets of objects associated with episodes of deposition and especially to the deposit, in the earliest phase, of a plate containing a pebble and a goat bone, which could have been used in a foundation ritual. There is also evidence for the mass transfer of pots and animal bones; heavy compact soil masses were not thrown in the middle of the pit, most likely due to their weight. The well-documented archaeological evidence allows for fascinating reconstructions of these activities in the cemetery. An important distinction is also made between depositing pots along with animal bones, most likely in the context of feasting, and episodes of throwing (and breaking) masses of artifacts into the pit. Some objects, like the jars, were not broken during the ritual, while others, like small plates, after being thrown and surviving the fall in the pit, were intentionally destroyed with stones. The detailed description of the excavation data allows the reconstruction of the processes behind them: fire was used occasionally but most likely not in every ritual episode, the triton shells may have been used for music, and stones from destroyed tombs were also thrown in the pit together with the few human remains.

The book’s appendices deserve special attention; they are well written, effectively summarizing a large amount of data presented in tabular form and providing important information on the study of archaeological materials. In fact, the appendices are written by several specialists, who have greatly contributed to the scientific value of the book. Pomonis suggests that all the pottery sampled for petrography is compatible with the local geology and identifies different fabrics and technological recipes represented in the assemblage. A careful study of the mat imprints by Koufovasilis suggests that the Tsepi potters left their pots on mats to dry. Mats were also used as rotating devices, and the potters made special efforts to hide mat imprints in their final products. Syrigou attests that the obsidian tools were thrown into the pit with the intention never to be used again, even though they were still functional. The study of human remains by Papathanasiou and Tiliakou documents the importance of crania and long bones as opposed to other human parts. An especially intriguing find is the identification of carnivore tooth traces on two crania, suggesting that at least a few of the dead were exposed to carnivores during a secondary burial before being thrown into the pit. Gotsinas documents that the animal remains were consumed and burned elsewhere in fires of high temperature, before being thrown into the pit. The animal bones do not present evidence of exposure to carnivores, as opposed to the two human crania mentioned above. The evidence also suggests that only the meatiest parts of the pigs were consumed in the cemetery, as opposed to the sheep and goats, which may have been killed on the spot since all their parts are represented. The meals seem to have been of small scale, and there is a preference for horned animals. Finally, Facorellis provides us with rare analytical data on the composition of a silver artifact from the deposit, attesting the purity of the metal (more than 85% Ag); copper is present in very little quantity (0.39%) as an alloy.

The author has followed the general style of the publications of the Archaeological Society at Athens. A detailed catalogue of the finds, and especially the pottery, holds a central place in the book. The language is Greek, using the polytonic system of orthography. The conclusions are toward the end, preceding the detailed appendices of studies of petrography, mat imprints, obsidian, human remains, animal bones, metal finds, and dating of one radiocarbon sample, all written by experts in each field respectively, thus rendering the book an example of a fruitful scientific collaboration. The English-language reader can use the eight-page summary of the finds in English and the plentiful black-and-white illustrations; only the Harris matrix is available in color.

Throughout the discussion of the pit construction technique and the excavation details at the beginning of the book, there is an emphasis on providing exact measurements and dimensions that could perhaps better have been avoided, as they render the text heavy with information that can be obtained from the well-drawn overall maps and illustrations of the deposit. On the other hand, the detailed description of groups of finds is necessary in order to understand the associations of objects illustrated in the black-and-white photographs of artifact groups in the pit. Unfortunately, the photographs in the discussion of the excavation data lack scales. Other minor issues: in the initial chapter, the catalogue numbers of pots are not highlighted in bold, although this is the convention in the rest of the book. And later on, in the typological discussion of the pottery, there are frequent references to the catalogue numbers in bold, yet one needs to search for the specific pots in several plates, something that could have been avoided with an abbreviated system in the text referring to the exact place of the illustrated pottery, or a concordance. An abundance of numerical information in the text discussing the pottery types and quantities could have been presented in tabular form, although this approach is most likely attributable to the author’s admirable effort to systematize the description of the pottery.

To conclude, this is a major publication for Attic prehistory, invaluable to archaeologists working with ceramic material, as the detailed typological discussion allows comparisons of pottery of the same period from other, numerous yet unpublished, Attic sites. The amount of work involved in producing such a well-organized volume is huge, and the book is the result of well-managed collaborative effort. The thoroughly documented archaeological evidence raises intriguing research questions about the social dimensions of prehistoric Attic burial habits. What were the sets of artifacts and the contents of the pottery used in feasting rituals, and why were only some of them intentionally broken? Were these rituals intended to honor the ancestors or silence them by destroying their tombs? This book—though on the pricey side for a student of archaeology, especially considering the lack of color illustrations—is certain to be widely used to answer these questions and is essential for every library worldwide that has a section on Aegean archaeology, ceramics, and prehistoric burial customs.

Margarita Nazou
Université Catholique de Louvain

Book Review of Τσέπι Μαραθῶνος: Ὁ Ἀποθέτης 39 Τοῦ Προϊστορικοὺ Νεκροταφεῖου, by Maria Pantelidou-Gofa (Library of the Archaeological Society at Athens no. 310)

Reviewed by Margarita Nazou

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 4 (October 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.nazou

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