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The Early Iron Age: The Cemeteries

July 2019 (123.3)

Book Review

The Early Iron Age: The Cemeteries

By John K. Papadopoulos and Evelyn Lord Smithson (Agora 36). Pp. 1,120. American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2017. $150. ISBN 978-0-87661-236-1 (cloth).

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The Greek Early Iron Age has attracted some of the most influential scholarship in Mediterranean archaeology since the 1980s. Although this scholarship has often focused on burial evidence, the field is still lacking in final publications of extensive burial assemblages covering both the archaeological and the physical anthropological evidence. Exceptions are limited to the voluminous publications of the cemeteries of the Athenian Kerameikos, Lefkandi, Knossos, and Torone. John Papadopoulos, who previously published the cemetery of Torone, now offers another impressive study of the extensive burial evidence of the Early Iron Age from the site of the later Athenian Agora.

Fittingly, the new volume is part of the authoritative series of publications on the Athenian Agora, which is sponsored by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Yet, it differs from other works in the same series in several respects. First, the volume is dedicated not to a particular artifact class, monument, or chronological period, but rather to a specific type of assemblage: burials and associated deposits. It thus emphasizes contextual association, in accordance with current considerations in Mediterranean archaeology. Second, Papadopoulos effectively integrates the archaeology of the Athenian Agora into that of the surrounding city, which involves paying commendable attention to rescue excavations by the Greek Archaeological Service. And third, this work occupies more than 1,000 pages and is double the size of the second largest volume in the series so far (and matches the size of Athenian Agora volumes 1–6 put together). Perhaps it should have been divided in two to survive the extensive use it will attract.

The volume publishes 83 tombs that date to ca. 1100–750 B.C.E., from the Late Helladic IIIC/Sub-Mycenaean to the Middle Geometric/Late Geometric period. These tombs were of varied but nonelaborate form, largely contained single inhumations or cremations, and yielded over 415 objects in a range of materials (including textile and floral remains, the study of which is not included in this volume). A few of these tombs—including the richest ones—have been published previously, but they are republished here with more extensive documentation, notably drawings of the finds and physical anthropological information.

Most of the tombs discussed were excavated in the 1930s, the largest part of the remainder by the 1970s, and a few up to the 2000s, by which time recovery protocols had improved immensely. The 50- to 80-year gap between excavation and final publication, which is surprisingly long for an important body of material from a flagship project of the American School, is addressed by Papadopoulos in the preface. As he explains, Smithson started working on this material and on the nonburial deposits of the Early Iron Age from the Athenian Agora ca. 1950. Her publications of select tombs extended to the 1960s and 1970s, but she continued with the study until her death in 1992, at which point Papadopoulos was assigned the publication of the material and started building the team of experts who contributed to this volume. It took 20 years for the new study to be completed and seven more years for the manuscript to appear in print. This second delay should be a matter of concern to the American School, especially since bibliographic updating of the volume was necessarily selective. One hopes that the manuscript of the forthcoming volume on the Early Iron Age nonburial deposits from the Athenian Agora, by Papadopoulos and Bartłomiej Lis, will go through an editorial process that is no less rigorous but is considerably faster.

The present volume comes with a thesis that pervades several of its chapters. Papadopoulos challenges the long-held idea that the tombs of the Athenian Agora represent scattered burial plots interspersed with different hamlets, which are represented primarily by well deposits. Elaborating on ideas expressed by excavators of the site, he argues instead that the area of the Agora was largely reserved for burial since the Late Bronze Age, and the nonburial deposits are associated with ceramic production rather than settlement. Papadopoulos also suggests there were many more Early Iron Age tombs in the Athenian Agora, but these were either destroyed by later buildings or lie below them in areas where excavation has not reached bedrock (e.g., 10–12). These ideas remain to be fully evaluated after the publication of the nonburial deposits from the area, but presently, it is worth noting that there is a potential tension between the argument for numerous destroyed and unidentified burials and Papadopoulos’ identification of (at least) four distinct Early Iron Age cemeteries: the north slope of the Areiopagos, the Kolonos Agoraios, and the north and south banks of the Eridanos. If we accept the argument for numerous destroyed or unidentified tombs, can we still treat the four (or more) cemeteries as distinct entities, or should we envisage instead an extensive burial space filled unevenly? The issue probably cannot be resolved. However, the author’s use of these four cemeteries as the basis for the structure of his catalogue and for the numerical designations assigned to the tombs may raise some skepticism. Given the uncertainties, a more neutral structuring principle might have been preferable. Perhaps the sequence could have followed the arrangement of the known tombs in a roughly circular pattern around the central part of the Agora.

Chapter 1 presents the ideas summarized above and also discusses Papadopoulos’ reflexive approach to established periodization. Despite retaining the traditional sequence, he expresses healthy skepticism about treating Sub-Mycenaean as a chronological phase, and he also notes the paucity of evidence for a Middle Protogeometric phase in the Agora, which led him to consider using the alternative term "Developed Protogeometric" (which creeps in on pages 258 and 271). Additionally, Papadopoulos shows convincingly that vases attributed stylistically to Late Protogeometric and Early Geometric are occasionally found in the same grave, suggesting some fluidity in the transition between the two phases. More revolutionary is the briefly mentioned argument for lowering the date of Attic Late Geometric to 670 or 650 B.C.E. Although readers are reassured that this revision will not have an “accordion effect” on the Attic sequence (30 n. 158), I think it will have an important “ripple effect” on other Greek sequences.

In its nearly 500 pages (which could have formed a volume of its own), Chapter 2 offers a comprehensive catalogue of the tombs and their contents featuring exhaustive entries and lavish illustrations, which make an invaluable contribution to the discipline. The lengthy texts contrast with the style of the British publications of the cemeteries at Lefkandi and Knossos, or the German ones of the tombs in the Kerameikos. Digital applications could have made some of this material (and also several of the invaluable tables in other chapters) more easily searchable and accessible, thus complementing the impressively rich, 40-page long indexes that close the volume and constitute a notable accomplishment in themselves.

The studies of the human and animal bones in chapters 3 and 4 considerably expand the poor data set available for the Aegean Early Iron Age. A minimum of 95 human individuals were identified by Liston, but only 53 were available for study. Liston discusses demography in relation to burial rite, sex ratios, disease, and trauma, and she proves wrong the influential argument of Morris (Burial and Ancient Society: The Rise of the Greek City-State [Cambridge 1987] 58–62, 72­–3) that children are heavily underrepresented in Athenian Early Iron Age burials until an assumed social revolution in the late eighth century B.C.E.

For decades, animal bones were poorly recovered during fieldwork in the Athenian Agora. Preserved faunal remains derive from only 12 tombs, and those are in a poor state of preservation. In chapter 4, Ruscillo explains that the limited diagnostic material belongs to an unsurprising range of species and presents no obvious patterning.

Chapter 5 offers an exemplary discussion of burial rites, enriched by numerous tables that systematize the typological variety, the spatial and temporal distribution, and the orientation of the tombs, in addition to their primary attributes and contents and the age and sex of the deceased. The penetrating analysis reveals that the burial customs of early Athens were more complex than is often assumed, and it also involves systematic comparisons across the Aegean, which establishes this chapter as essential reading for anyone interested in Greek burial customs. It is interesting to compare Athenian burial customs to those of Argos (E. Pappi, “Ταφικές πρακτικές της Γεωμετρικής εποχής στο Άργος.” [Ph.D. diss., University of Athens 2014]).

Pottery is the subject of Chapter 6, which Papadopoulos coauthors with Strack, who studied the handmade material. The discussion is organized according to shape, with interesting discussions of nomenclature based on Linear B and later textual evidence. Established typological subdivisions are based on form, decoration, or chronology. The discussion of typology is comprehensive and provides exhaustive comparisons from across the Aegean. For comments on the consumption of the pottery, one relies on chapter 5, while the study of the fabrics of wheelmade material is reserved for the forthcoming volume on the nonfunerary material. However, as Papadopoulos notes: “Not one of the wheelmade and painted pots presented in this volume was imported” (691), which is very much unlike the pattern seen in cemeteries of other major Aegean sites.

Chapter 7 treats the items of personal adornment, and the weapons and tools from the tombs. These pieces come in varied materials and represent a fairly broad variety of items and types, including rare ones. The associated discussion involves rich and systematic reference to sites across the Aegean and is thus relevant to any study of small finds from the Greek world.

It would perhaps have been preferable to place the synthesis on burial rites that is in chapter 5 after the analyses of artifact types in chapters 6 and 7, especially since these last two chapters come without conclusions and are followed by a brief epilogue. In any case, all three chapters offer wide-ranging analysis of the archaeological record, and this mine of information will no doubt inspire further investigation. I found particularly interesting the rich and occasionally exclusive attestation of many types of personal adornment in the Tomb of the Rich Athenian Lady (Tomb 15), or of weapons and tools in the Warrior Tomb (Tomb 13), as well as the clustering of pyxides and kantharoi in specific parts of the Agora.

The “social and historical conclusions” of the epilogue are short and focus on “what is special about Early Iron Age Athens: continuity across the Bronze Age/Iron Age divide” (973). Bridging this traditional divide is in need of much work on a range of socioeconomic phenomena, on regional trajectories, and on varied classes of material (see I.S. Lemos and A. Kotsonas, eds., A Companion to the Archaeology of Early Greece and the Mediterranean [Hoboken, N.J. 2019]). Focusing on Athens and drawing inspiration from resilience theory, Papadopoulos argues for continued use of the core settlement area, which he places on the Acropolis, and of the burial grounds in the area of the later Athenian Agora. He promises his readers he will return to this in his forthcoming volume on the nonburial deposits from the Athenian Agora.

The book concludes with an appendix by Dimitriadou that offers an invaluable map on the distribution of Early Iron Age burials across Athens, based on her Ph.D. dissertation, which has just been published (Early Athens: Settlements and Cemeteries in the Submycenaean, Geometric, and Archaic periods [Los Angeles 2019]). The accompanying text describes the map and offers two brief attempts at interpretation based on Thucydidean myth-history. Three lists of concordances and five indexes close this incredibly rich volume.

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of this work. Papadopoulos has offered a landmark study of an important body of material and an authoritative analysis that is indispensable for anyone interested in the archaeology of Athens, the Aegean of the Early Iron Age, or burial and society. This is a major reference work, like many volumes in the series of the Athenian Agora, as well as a superb model for future publication of cemeteries in Greece and the Mediterranean.

Antonis Kotsonas
Institute for the Study of the Ancient World
New York University

Book Review of The Early Iron Age: The Cemeteries, by John K. Papadopoulos and Evelyn Lord Smithson

Reviewed by Antonis Kotsonas

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 3 (July 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.kotsonas

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