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Les pratiques funéraires de l’Âge du Fer en Grèce du Nord: Ètude d’histoires régionales

Les pratiques funéraires de l’Âge du Fer en Grèce du Nord: Ètude d’histoires régionales

By Anne-Zahra Chemsseddoha (Scripta Antiqua 121). Pp. 533. Ausonius Éditions, Pessac, France 2019. €30. ISBN 9782356132499 (paper).

Reviewed by

Chemsseddoha has written a book that would not have been possible even a few decades ago. It might be a slight exaggeration by now to call the Iron Age and northern Greece two new frontiers in Greek archaeology, but it seems fair to say that it is only recently that tireless excavation and publishing activity by the Greek Archaeological Service and Greek universities (and others) has resulted in a critical mass of evidence that seems ripe for synthesis. The past decade has seen scholars—especially graduate students—pore over site publications, annual reports, and conference proceedings to begin to stitch together a broader picture of either the Iron Age or northern Greece out of what often seems like spectacular and tantalizing evidence. Chemsseddoha bravely combines both the Iron Age and northern Greece in her ambitious synthesis of funerary practices from the region between the Pindus range and the southwestern Rhodopes during the eleventh to seventh centuries BCE.

The scope of the work is inspiring and is particularly welcome given how wealthy northern Greek burials can invite a focus on one or a handful of exceptional tombs. Chemsseddoha studied 106 funerary sites, all published but some in cursory manner and others in great detail; several sites had only one published burial. The geographical extent is similarly impressive, particularly given how the book also briefly addresses funerary evidence from North Macedonia and Albania. The author does not try to justify what is by necessity a somewhat arbitrary scope, including areas that seem to have come under heavy southern Greek influence early on, along with parts of “Upper Macedonia” in the mountains. Indeed, much of the work focuses on looking at differences between sites rather than trying to argue for any sort of single entity; this seems like a reasonable approach and one supported by the evidence, but it makes any generalizations about the area under study difficult.

Chapter 1 discusses both entire cemeteries and the placement of individual burials within them. Chemsseddoha observes that the Iron Age saw the development of vast flat and tumuli cemeteries. Establishing a typology proves difficult because there is often overlap in the kinds of burial each contained, and flat cemeteries could also feature small grave mounds. Tumuli themselves could contain many types of interments, from pits to tholoi. Northern Greek tumuli seem collective and slightly haphazard in comparison to those from other regions with burial mounds. Northern Greece lacks the kind of clear "clan" tumuli developed around one individual that are found in North Macedonia and Albania; tumuli in the region are similarly rarely reserved for one individual, unlike in Phrygia.The locations of cemeteries, with tumuli or otherwise, were similarly quite varied, and indeed settlement and burial areas were often not clearly distinguished, although burials found within settlements are rare.

Chapter 2 zooms in to look at grave types. Once more, the picture is one of great variation, but the author also notes regional patterns such as urn burials in pits in Chalcidice and pits with slabs covering them around the Thermaic Gulf. Enchytrismos burials show interesting shifts as they go from being used for adults during the Geometric period to being only for subadults in later periods in Chalcidice, perhaps reflecting southern Greek practices.

Chapter 3 focuses in yet further and looks at the deceased. The task is made challenging by the limited bioarcheological data available. Even so, some interesting differences emerge: subadults, for example, are well represented at Nea Philadelphia, almost absent in Pieria, and monopolize the cemetery at Mende; the explanation for the difference is unclear, and it might remain so until entire cemeteries—or even better, all the cemeteries used by a given settlement—are excavated and published. Chemsseddoha suggests, however, that communities east of the Thermaic Gulf might have provided more people with access to burial, since children were included in cemeteries there more often. While orientation and other elements of burial varied, cremation is another variable that suggests an interesting pattern: the author notes that subadults were cremated at rates comparable to adults at Torone (in contrast to Makriyialos in Pieria), which might reflect a strategy of affirming the family’s social position by integrating neonates into communal rites.

Chapter 4, on “funerary geography,” makes a valuable contribution, presenting the full array of sites and carefully tracing variation and change across the region and period under study. It is, however, problematic. After reviewing Bronze Age patterns, Chemsseddoha identifies 10 Iron Age funerary regions. Somewhat confusingly, these do not in every case—or even in their total number—map onto the categorization used in the catalogue that forms the latter half of the book. There is, furthermore, great variation within some of these regions: for example, Pieria is noted to show at least three different patterns, while the Axios River valley is described as a mosaic without a single unified tradition. Chalcidice in this discussion is restricted to the “fingers” of the peninsula only, and even so, three different groups are identified. Possible parallels and cultural influences are similarly myriad. Finally, while the realities of the data available necessitate considering both sites that are well documented and those with only very limited information available, one wonders how valid it is to characterize and categorize regions for which even the approximate number of excavated tombs, much less more detailed information, is not known. Overall, one is left with the impression that the detailed observations about great variance and highly localized traditions are more fruitful than the (understandable) desire to impose broader patterns onto them.

Chapter 5 looks at grave goods, again with an eye to variation, and addresses several big questions in the process. While warrior men and women decked in gold and bronze catch the eye of many museumgoers, this picture is only partly representative. Chemsseddoha carefully picks apart the evidence and outlines several nuanced patterns. Weapons are relatively rare, and swords are mostly found in the western parts of the study area. At certain sites, weapons seem to come in standardized sets, with the deceased receiving either a sword or a spear; this poses tantalizing questions about social or military rank. Women’s burials show more variation in general and, east of the Thermaic Gulf, they are wealthier than men's graves. Additionally, the idea of the deceased having a banquet is a later emergence, with limited evidence from only Pieria and Chalcidice. Taken as a whole, the chapter provides much food for thought in considering patterns by gender, wealth, and region—sometimes overlapping but at other times not. A small point: Having tables in this chapter in percentages instead of absolute counts would make comparison between sites much easier.

The conclusion notes that the boundaries seen in the archaeological record, messy as they are, do not neatly correspond to regions known from later literary sources. As the author recognizes, this is hardly surprising since essentialist ideas of cultural packages and migrations have largely been debunked. Indeed, it is not the neatness but the variation and nuance, both geographically and in terms of social personae, that seem to be the findings most worth highlighting.

The second half of the book consists of a catalogue and appendices. The catalogue provides a valuable summary of each site, providing whatever information is available for each, which is sometimes a great deal, sometimes very little. It also includes excellent tables, illustrations, and plans. Two appendices briefly summarize funerary evidence from North Macedonia and Albania, which is admirable given the challenges of the multiple data sets, languages, and subfields involved.

Les pratiques funéraires de l’Âge du Fer en Grèce du Nord: Ètude d’histoires régionales originated as a dissertation, a fact reflected in both its strengths and weaknesses. It presents an ambitious synthesis of material that few people know well, and it will serve as a valuable resource for those interested in an up-to-date overview of northern Greek funerary evidence, as well as a great jumping-off point for further inquiry. Its painstaking presentation of the data is in places somewhat taxing on the reader, and one needs to work to tease out the bigger-picture conclusions and new findings. True data buffs, on the other hand, might lament the patchiness of the data; some discussions are illustrated by one example, leaving the reader uncertain whether it is representative of a broader pattern or simply the only data point available. Even so, Chemsseddoha’s contribution to the field will be appreciated by those interested in the Iron Age, mortuary archaeology, and northern Greece alike.

Elina M. Salminen
University of California, Santa Barbara

Book Review of Les pratiques funéraires de l’Âge du Fer en Grèce du Nord: Ètude d’histoires régionales, by Anne-Zahra Chemsseddoha
Reviewed by Elina M. Salminen
American Journal of Archaeology  Vol. 124, No.1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.Salminen

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