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Mycenaean Cemeteries in the Peloponnese

July 2019 (123.3)

Online Review Article

Mycenaean Cemeteries in the Peloponnese

Reviewed Works

The Mycenaean Cemetery at Agios Vasileios, Chalandritsa, in Achaea, by Konstantina Aktypi, with contributions by Olivia A. Jones and Vivian Staikou. Pp. xii + 296. Archaeopress, Oxford 2017. £42.00‚Äč. ISBN 978-1-784916978 (cloth).

Ayia Sotira: A Mycenaean Chamber Tomb Cemetery in the Nemea Valley, Greece, edited by R. Angus K. Smith, Mary K. Dabney, Evangelia Pappi, Sevasti Triantaphyllou, and James C. Wright; with contributions by Panagiotis Karkanas, Georgia Kotzamani, Alexandra Livarda, Camilla MacKay, Maria Ntinou, Maria Roumpou, Alan M. Stahl, and Georgia Tsartsidou (Prehistory Monographs 56). Pp. xxviii + 336. INSTAP Academic Press, Philadelphia 2017. $80. ISBN 978-1-931534901 (cloth).  

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The two volumes under review present state-of-the-field publications analyzing one of the most important and foundational areas of Mycenaean studies: death and burial. Growing from pioneering work in the 19th century focused on tombs from Mycenae, the field of Mycenaean studies is heavily dependent on the evidence provided by ancient burials, tomb architecture, human remains, and associated grave goods. Great progress has been made since the time of Heinrich Schliemann in scientific analysis, particularly with regard to human osteology. Likewise, advances in archaeological theory have added greatly to our understanding of what death and burial might have meant to people over 3,000 years ago. Scholars recognize that the tombs and burial patterns were important in the construction of Mycenaean identity long after the burials ceased and that the tombs played an active role in the landscapes of death and negotiations of power.

The excavation of any cemetery is normally the work of specialists from multiple disciplines, and these two case studies, at Agios Vasileios and Ayia Sotira, provide clear examples of the fruitfulness of collaboration in the final analyses. The report on Agios Vasileios has three authors but builds on the work of several earlier excavators and collaborators. The Ayia Sotira publication has five main authors and eight contributing specialists. Both works address the challenges archaeologists face when dealing with bodies of material that have been subject to plunder and illegal excavation. They also deal with rescue excavations, which at times provide their own challenges in terms of limited record keeping and incomplete information on deposition, excavation, and context.

It has now been 100 years since the first chamber tomb cemetery in Achaea was excavated by  Nikolaos Kyparissis. Achaea was once thought of as a kind of backwater where there was an absence of coherent evidence for Mycenaean polities, in contrast to other parts of Greece, such as the Argolid, Messenia, and Boeotia. In the past, the region was often overlooked, perhaps since no definitive evidence was found for a regional center or palace. The unique fortifications and settlement architecture at Teichos Dymaion, 40 km to the west, offer, for now, the closest possible evidence for something like a regional center. It is, however, not entirely clear from the fortified site what kind of settlement was here.

The excavations and publication by Aktypi et al. of the cemetery at Agios Vasileios in Chalandritsa in the northwest Peloponnese have much to contribute to our revised understanding of the Mycenaean age in Achaea. The Mycenaean chamber tomb cemetery is located a few kilometers west of the village of Chalandritsa near a small eponymous chapel. It is cut into limestone, covering an area of 1.3 ha. Locally, the site is called Alepotrypes after the many foxes found in the area. The first excavations at Agios Vasileios (1928–1930) were conducted by Kyparissis, who uncovered four chamber tombs. In 1961, Efthimios Mastrokostas excavated three tombs at Chalandritsa, and Aktypi does as much as possible to publish this work from the excavator’s notes. New excavations by Maria Stavropoulou-Gatsi and Michalis Petropoulos of the (then) sixth Ephoreia of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities resumed in 1989 and continued until 2001. This work revealed 29 additional chamber tombs and forms the main focus of the present publication. The full extent of the cemetery has not yet been revealed, and it is important to remember that additional tombs may be found in the future. The area has suffered from illegal digging and looting, and this makes the systematic excavation presented here that much more valuable. Lying approximately 15 minutes away by foot, the site of Stavros at Chalandritsa is identified as the settlement connected to the cemetery at Agios Vasileios. The material shows that the cemetery was in use from Late Helladic (LH) IIIA1 to the end of the LH IIIC period. The absence of evidence, however, for material dating to the LH IIIB period, the high point of Mycenaean palatial culture elsewhere, is notable. This poses interesting questions for shifting power dynamics in Mycenaean Achaea and the greater Peloponnese while other centers of Mycenaean culture were thriving and Achaea was not.

Aktypi, who edited the book and is the primary researcher for this cemetery and its finds, deserves much of the credit for the research and publication of the cemetery at Agios Vasileios. She is to be highly commended for her Herculean efforts to bring order to and make sense of records and inventories of excavations some of which were done in a hasty manner as rescue projects. She has done a very good job of explaining what is certain from the archaeological record and what is most likely, based on her best understanding of the spotty records. Archaeologists who examine this material will be extremely grateful for the detailed work and expert analysis she has put into this publication.

The Agios Vasileios book consists of a preface and 22 chapters, which are labeled in a somewhat peculiar way: some chapters contain subsections (chapter D, e.g., has five: D.1, D.2, D.3, D.4, D.5, covering the excavation seasons of 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1999–2000, respectively). The book concludes with a short epilogue (284–85) and has a rich bibliography. As in the Ayia Sotira volume, material related to each tomb is illustrated in the relevant chapters throughout the text. In this volume, the illustrations are in color and often are paired with their proper, scaled drawing. The finds are especially well illustrated. There are also volumetric tomb reconstructions that are helpful for visualizing the complete tombs and for understanding their varying scales. The color maps are very clear and legible. There is no index. 

The Ayia Sotira volume is a pioneering publication of six chamber tombs excavated in the region of ancient Nemea and dating to the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.E. The settlement with which these tombs are likely associated is Tsoungiza, which two of the authors (Wright and Dabney) have spent a great deal of their professional lives excavating, studying, and publishing. The book opens with a short introduction (ch. 1) that discusses the location of Mycenaean tombs in the Nemea Valley and the region’s problematic history of illegal excavation and looting. The methodological and interdisciplinary approach to the excavation and publication of the chamber tombs contributes to an understanding of the multiple phases and sequence of use for each tomb. The Ayia Sotira project builds on the surface survey of the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project and expands to a wide range of fields to provide a rich understanding of this important area of Greece.   

One noteworthy aspect of this volume is the identification of commingled remains, evidence indicating the postburial manipulation of human remains. It is noted that 24 of the 34 burials in the chamber tombs with skeletal remains showed evidence for secondary treatment, despite poor preservation. This evidence helps us consider the importance of bone “curation” in Mycenaean cemeteries. Clearly, bones had power and meaning, perhaps more so than complete “bodies” or “skeletons.” The great challenge is to understand this meaning. This publication provides a great deal of evidence for one site from which we can now look for similarities in the Corinthia, the Argolid, and beyond.

The largest part of the book (chs. 2 and 3, covering 111 pages) is dedicated to the six excavated chamber tombs. The results of the specialists’ studies, including geophysical survey, micromorphology, bioarchaeology, archeobotany, archeomalacology, lithics, phytoliths, and residue analysis, are presented in chapters 4 through 9. The implications of the micromorphological studies pioneered by Karkanis are well evidenced. Karkanis provides focus on the complicated stratigraphy in multiple-use tombs by isolating microlevels to provide detailed reconstructions of reuse independent of ceramic analysis. His methods have been employed successfully elsewhere in the Aegean (e.g., Mitrou), and his work provides a model for what is possible with micomorphology. Plant and other food remains have also revealed clear evidence for meals (for either the living or the dead) as part of the burial performance. Among the interesting analytical results are residues of fatty lipids and wood possibly used for torches, which suggest lit lamps during the burial process. In chapter 10, the main authors bring all of the diverse data sets together, with a small appendix on the medieval pottery and coins by MacKay and Stahl. A rich bibliography is followed by an adequate index, 62 tables, and 54 black-and-white plates. The authors and all specialists are to be highly commended for taking a truly multidisciplinary approach.

The Ayia Sotira volume is copiously illustrated, with ceramic drawings and architectural plans and sections included within the chapters. The ceramic illustrations, primarily of jugs and stirrup jars, seem somewhat uneven, and the attributions suggest several team members were involved in the drawings. The architectural and section drawings are more consistently and sharply presented. Unlike in the Agios Vasileios volume, the use of color in the illustrations is sparing. The volume’s authors have gone to great lengths to provide a comprehensive and coherent presentation of the evidence from their excavation. The work is truly very impressive.

As archaeologists continue to excavate and publish Mycenaean remains from Greece, the two works reviewed here should provide models for how the data can be successfully published and widely disseminated.

Brendan Burke
University of Victoria

Mycenaean Cemeteries in the Peloponnese

By Brendan Burke

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

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.burke

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