Tombs and Burial Practices in Early Iron Age Crete

Tombs and graves have always been of particular interest to archaeologists for the informa­tion they provide about the people buried in them: the quality of their lives, their diet and health, as well as their customs, personal habits, and even their values—information these people never knew they would re­veal about themselves millennia later. In the early days of archae­ology emphasis was on the discovery and study of the grave goods and the evidence they provided for burial rites, social status, and chronology. Objects were studied for them­selves—their artistic worth, type, technique, and evidence for foreign contacts and influence. Less atten­tion was paid to the skeleton; its position was usually noted but the bones themselves were seldom saved. Today, excavations in Greece save human and animal bones for study by biological anthropologists and zooarchaeologists respectively.The study of grave materials has now become a multidimensional analysis of all aspects of the burials: the spatial pattern of the graves, the form of burial and treatment of the body, the nature and frequency of grave goods and grave offerings, and the demographic and biological attributes of the people in the graves (Chapman, Kinnes, and Randsborg 1981:14). Graves have become important in reconstructing ancient societies, particularly for periods for which there exists no written evi­dence for social structure.The excavations of the tombs of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages (1200-700 B.C.) in the mountains behind the modern village of Kavousi in eastern Crete (Fig. 1) provide an interesting example of this development in archaeology. The first excavations at Kavousi were conducted by Harriet Boyd in 1900 and 1901. She discovered two sites: a 12th-11th century B.C. settle­ment on the Vronda ridge with a cemetery of eight tholos tombs, and an 8th-7th century B.C. settlement on the Kastro peak with tholos tombs nearby at Aloni, PIaï tou Kastrou, and Skouriasmenos (Fig. 3b). A ninth tholos tomb at Vronda was cleared in 1951 by a local landowner, George Sekadakis. From 1981 to 1986 the authors conducted cleaning and study seasons at Kavousi; during thi time the Boyd and Sekadakis tholo were cleaned and studied (Gesell Day, and Coulson 1983:394-413) When full excavations were resume( in 1987, two more tholos tombs o the 12th-11th centuries and a cemetery of 8th-early 7th century cis graves were found at Vronda (Ge sell, Day, and Coulson 1988:283-286 293-296). What were the graves like and what can they tell us about the people and life in the period of Greek history popularly known a the “Dark Ages”?

Tholos Tombs

The tombs excavated by Boyd at Vronda and those at Aloni, Plai tou Kastrou, and Skouriasmenos were of a type known as tholoi (Fig. 4). They are small versions (roughly 2 m in diameter and 2 m high) of the great Mycenaean tombs of mainland Greece and are similar to other examples from the same period on Crete. Although these tombs can be any shape at the bottom (round, oval, and even rectangular or square), the walls are always cor­belled to form a beehive dome. Each has an elaborately built facade with a doorway, or stomion, entered from a pit dug into the earth (Fig. 5); only one example (Vronda Tomb I) has anything resembling a Myce­naean-style dromos (passageway). The tombs vary in their construction only slightly from site to site, any dif­ferences being due to the available material and natural topographic features.

Tholos Tombs at Vronda

The tholos tombs at Vronda were dug into friable white bedrock of the area and lined with limestone or conglomerate. Most of them had been plundered by Byod’s time, but she found one intact. Here is here description of its excavation.

The tomb remained as it had been left almost three thousand years ago. Looking in we saw a large pithos, whole, lying upon its side surrounded by vases, with four skeletons stretched out beside it, their heads toward the south away from the dromos. Three of the skulls are well preserved, the fourth is partly disintegrated. In the jar there were no bones—nothing, in fact, save earth, a small quantity of black ash, a broken bronze fibula, and three pieces of iron blade. There was no regularity in the placing of the vases; some of the smaller were set inside the larger ones. Forty vases were banded out through the “window” made by the pick, but it was necessary to open the tomb from the top in order to remove the pithos without breaking; for al­though the huge jar must have been brought in through the dromos, it could not be taken out that way with safety. With the vases were found parts of iron swords and spearheads, a clay whorl, and a soapstone whorl; and when the earth which had drifted into the tomb was sifted it yielded a bronze bracelet, five bronze fibulae, and a bronze ring. (Boyd 1901:133-134)

When the authors cleaned Boyd’s tholos for study in 1981, they dis­covered that, although the interiors of the tombs had been excavated, the exterior and entrances had not.

When these entrances were cleaned, they provided new evidence for burial rites. The doorways had been blocked with earth and two or three flat slabs. The pit or promos was filled with earth and stones to the level of the lintel. At this point there were large flat slabs in front of the facade. These slabs appear to have served as a surface for some sort of burial or anniversary ritual, because fragments of drinking vessels and kraters were found above this surface. Still higher, a cairn of stones served as a marker over the en­trances. Since the doorways them­selves are so small that one can barely crawl through them, they may have served only as symbolic entrances; the burials would have been made by removing part of the dome.

The grave goods from the Vronda tholos give us information about the time of the burials. Pottery, which can be dated by its shape and decora­tion, is the best indicator. The earliest burials contain Subminoan pottery of the 11th century B.C. (see box on Pottery Styles); however, the presence of pottery of the Mature Geometric Period indicates that burials continued to be made in some of the tholol until the mid-8th century. The tomb pottery includes many small vessels, such as stirrup jars, bird vases, and flasks (Fig. 6), all of which occur frequently in other Cretan tombs of the same period. These small vessels are suitable for perfumes or precious liquids. Prac­tical shapes such as cups and oino­choai (jugs) were also found in the tombs. The bronze jewelry is simple—fibulae (large safety pins), hairpins, rings, and a bracelet. There was also some decorated bronze plate, possibly from greaves. The weapons, swords, and spearheads are all of iron, as is fitting for burials of the Early Iron Age.

No bones were saved by Boyd or Sekadakis, but during the cleaning some skeletal material was found in dumps near the tombs, in the en­trances, or around the edges. Simi­larly, although the two recently ex­cavated tombs had been plundered of artifacts, a few bones were pre­served in the rocks around the edges of the tombs. Enough skeletal evi­dence from the tombs thus remains to show that they contained multiple inhumations and that there had been a mixture of sexes and ages in them. Although much of the pottery is later, it appears that the tombs were built and first used by the inhabi­tants of the nearby settlement on top of the Vronda ridge.

Tombs near the Kastro

The tholos tombs at Aloni (Fig. 2) and Plaï tou Kastrou must have been used by inhabitants of the settlement on the Kastro. At Aloni the tholoi were generally built up against the hillside or on top of the ground, using flat schist slabs. They are otherwise similar to the Vronda tholoi. Boyd found two particularly interesting objects in these tombs, a bronze fibula in the shape of a horse (Fig. 7) and a strainer with anthro­pomorphic handles (Fig. 8). The former shows contact with Italy, the latter with Cyprus. Other pottery with Cypriote connections was found in the tomb or tombs dis­covered by farmers in the late 19th century on Plaï tou Kastrou. Al­though the tomb (s) was destroyed to build terraces, the farmers saved 117 vases and sold them to Sir Arthur Evans, who gave them to the Herak­leion Museum.

Both groups of tholoi tombs con­tained pottery dating from the Sub­minoan to the Geometric Period (1100-700 B.C.), showing a long period of active use. Pottery dating as late as the Orientalizing Period shows that burials were still being made at Plaï tou Kastrou in the 7th century. Although Boyd dated the nearby settlement on the Kastro to the Geometric Period, recent ex­cavation has provided evidence that the peak was inhabited from Late Minoan IIIC on. The tholoi at Aloni and Plaï tou Kastrou may have been built by the 12th-11th century inhabi­tants of the Kastro.

The largest and best preserved tholos tomb (2.90 m in diameter, 2.20 m in height) in the vicinity of the Kastro is that at Skouriasrnenos. This tomb was discovered by a farmer who fell through its roof while he was working in his fields. He im­mediately built his field house over it and gradually sold off the grave goods. By the time Harriet Boyd arrived, he had cemented his wine vat over the capstone. She, however, having heard rumors of a cave, insisted on removing the wine vat, found the tomb, and recovered the remaining grave goods, including seven vases, bronze arrowheads and plate with relief decoration, iron swords, spearheads and axeheads, a gold button, and some gold leaf. The authors’ cleaning revealed the en­trance, a blocked stomion with an impressive facade (Fig. 5). The re­maining finds from this tomb give a date of 8th-7th century B.C., but there is no record of the artifacts that had been sold.

Cist Graves at Vronda

The current excavations at Vronda (1987-1990) have revealed a wholly unexpected feature: numerous Geo­metric graves set in and around the buildings of the abandoned Late Minoan III settlement (Fig. 10). Although nearly all of the former houses were used for burials, there are clusters of graves: the wealthiest burials—those with the greatest num­ber of grave goods—are concen­trated on the northeast side of the summit, while other groups appear on the west side of the summit, in and around the shrine on the southwest slope, and in Buildings I and N to the west of the ridge. Boyd herself may have found one of these cremation burials, for she reports finding a hoard of iron objects, including a sword and spearheads, in the settle­ment (1901:132,136-137). Since these graves are difficult to recognize as such because the skeletal material within them is so fragmentary, Boyd’s workmen may well have failed to recognize what they were digging.

During the recent excavation of the graves at Vronda, we have used a variety of techniques to recover information about the actual burial, the people who were interred, and the plant or animal offerings that were placed with them. The project’s biological anthropologist, Maria Liston, has actually excavated the graves herself and has been able to identify the position of some of the bodies in the grave by recognizing scanty remains of major parts of the body in the ground. All soil from the graves has been saved and put through a water sieve to recover plant and small animal remains. Through water sieving we have recovered the bones of many infants and children, bones that are too small to be noticed during the course of excavation. When the plant remains and animal bones are fully analyzed by the palaeobotanist and the zoo-archaeologists, we will have a greater knowledge of the plant and animal offerings accompanying the dead. A comparison of these offerings with the plant and animal products used in daily life in the settlements may tell us whether the same products were placed in the tomb to be used by the dead in the same manner as when they were alive or whether special or selected products were thought to be needed by the dead, perhaps to accompany them to the underworld, or whether perhaps they were part of a special farewell meal shared by the living and the dead.

The Vronda graves date from the 8th to early 7th century B.C. We do not know for certain where the people who used these graves lived, but the nearest known settlement is the Kastro, which was expanding at the time, and its inhabitants may well have come down from there to bury their dead. In this cemetery the most common type of grave was a large, rectangular, stone-lined cists or box (roughly 2 m by 1 m; see Fig. 4) in which were placed multiple burials, the earlier ones pushed aside to allow for the later. The construction of the cist graves varied; sometimes the builders made use of the walls of earlier houses, but in other cases the casts were built independently in the middle of a room. Most of the burials were cremations, and the burning often took place right in the tomb. The walls and floors of the graves provide the evidence for the crema­tion: the stones of the walls have fractured or burned from the heat, while the floors are often fired hard and red. In one grave, the remains of burned beams were actually found in the cists. However, in a few cases the body was burned elsewhere and the remains placed in the tomb, usually in a pithos or an amphora. In addi­tion, several pyre sites have been identified throughout the cemetery, sometimes near a cist grave, else­where alone. Occasionally the bodies were not burned, but were laid out in a cist or placed in a pithos.

Although each grave is slightly different, there are typical features. Grave 18, for example, provides perhaps the clearest picture of the arrangement of the body and grave goods at the time of burial. This is a rectangular cist (Fig. 9) containing the remains of two individuals. The first burial had been disturbed by the second, and only a few bones re­mained. The second body was semi-articulated, still lying in the position in which it had been placed over 2500 years ago. The bones belonged to an adult, lying on its right side, its head to the west. Most of the grave goods were placed at the head and feet of the body; those on the east were set on a smooth “shelf” of bedrock. By the head were an iron dagger, 2 spearheads, a needle, and a small obsidian blade. By the feet were an iron chisel and fragments of iron blades. Two joining fragments of an iron pin were found at opposite sides of the grave, either broken in placing the body on the pyre or belonging to the earlier cremation. There were nearly 20 pots in the grave, mostly drinking vessels (Fig. 11). The most common is a large monochrome cup (not pictured), a type found in most of the graves at Vronda, but other cups (Fig. 11:3 and 4) and skyphoi (Fig. 11:8) appear as well. A small aryballos (Fig. 11:5), a type of per­fume jar that replaced the small stirrup jars and bird vases in the earlier tholoi, was also found. Rarer types include the 2 neck-handled amphoras (Fig. 11:1 and 2). Similar vases from tombs at Fortetsa in the Knossos area give us a date of 8th-early 7th century B.C. for this grave.

Grave 9, the richest tomb, gives us a better picture of the variety of grave gifts that appear in these burials. The remains of four cre­mated adults and an infant were found in this cist. Most of the grave gifts had been damaged by fire or were broken when the earlier burials were pushed aside to make room for
the later. It was not possible to separate the objects from the dif­ferent burials, but there were at least 40 metal items and 80 pots in the grave. The iron objects are practical weapons and tools, including 15 spearheads, 5 daggers, 3 axeheads, 4 knives, 2 sickles, and 2 scrapers. The bronze objects are more decorative: 3 fibulas, and bronze sheathing with rivets, suitable for attaching to wooden boxes.

Most of the fragments of pottery in Grave 9 came from drinking vessels, mainly undecorated cups. In the upper levels of the grave and scat­tered in the surface levels of the nearby trenches were fragments of a large painted pitbos dated to the Geometric Period. Since there is no trace of burning on the pithos, it must have been outside the grave, perhaps set up as a grave marker. Other evidence for grave markers exists; next to Grave 3, the only one of the cists actually found within the earlier cemetery, was a small paved area with a potstand built of upright slabs of stone.

Grave 28 produced the greatest number of burials in any single cist: nine individuals, including seven adults and two children. Of the six primary burials in the cist, two of the bodies showed enough articulation to determine their position, the second of these showing evidence of having been placed in a pit. Grave goods were scanty considering the number of burials: 6 large mono­chrome cups, 2 iron spearheads, an iron knife, an iron axehead, a possible iron spit, and a bronze fibula.

The three secondary burials were in the southeast corner of the cist in a pair of amphoras set in a ring of stones and covered over by a cup or bowl (Fig. 12). The amphoras present an interesting contrast, one dating to the Protogeometric Period (10th cen­tury) and the other to the Late Geometric, a period some two hun­dred years later; they show that people used family heirlooms for burial of the dead.

There were also occasionally graves with inhumations. Grave 5, for example, was a double-decker burial. The lower layer contained six cremations, while an inhumation was made in the layer above. The well-preserved skeleton of a 60 to 70-year­old man lay in an extended position, legs crossed at the ankles and arms crossed over the chest. He was tooth­less at the time of his death, and there were signs of healed wounds on his right arm and hands. Grave goods included a bronze straight pin and a skyphos.

Grave 21 also contained an in­teresting mixture of burial types. There were two separate groups of burials on the same spot: a cist containing three cremated bodies on top of an earlier pithos burial with two cremated adults and an un­burned child (Fig. 13). Two of the adult skulls, one from within the pithos and one from the cist, showed a common skull anomaly: an unfused metopic suture. Since this trait is inherited, we have some confirma­tion that the people in the grave are from the same family. This same feature was found in Grave 36 and was present in crania recovered from one of the earlier tholos tombs at Vronda as well.

Burial Practices

Altogether, 34 graves belonging to the 8th and early 7th centuries have been excavated at Vronda, but it will take years of study before we have a complete picture of the burials and the people who made them. Analysis of the bodies has already produced some interesting results. Although the bones are burned and fragmented during cremation or by later distur­bance, from certain parts (especially the petrous portion—the structure on the base of the skull that houses the inner ear) we can determine the number of individuals buried in each grave. Often, enough survives to reveal the age and even sex of the bodies as well. Those bodies that can be aged show that people lived to what could be considered a ripe old age for the day: the mean age is approximately 36 years, a life expec­tancy that accords well with known statistics for Bronze and Early Iron Age populations. One surprise has been the relatively few child burials; there are not enough children repre­sented for the adult population.

Of the bodies that can be sexed, more males than females have been recognized. This sex ratio probably does not reflect the actual population of Kavousi, but stems from the fact that the larger, more robust bones of males tend to survive better during cremation than those of females. Many archaeologists try to sex the burials by the types of grave offerings found with the body; weapons or tools are assumed to indicate a male burial, while jewelry or household goods identify the burial as female. Such a technique is dubious under the best of circumstances and does not work for the Vronda burials, where there is little correlation be­tween the types of offerings and the sex of the interred; both men and women, for example, are buried with jewelry and household pottery at Vronda, although weapons are found exclusively with men.

In general, the people of avousi led active, healthy lives; they had well-developed muscles, with some evidence of over-stressing, especially in the legs. Members of the excava­tion team who have made the steep climb up to and down from the Castro every day will appreciate this kind of stress. Although the general health of the population was good, some problems are evident: nutri­tional problems, broken limbs, sinus infections, osteoporosis, arthritis, and even histiocytosis (a syndrome in­volving nonmalignant lesions of bone and soft tissue).

The objects that accompanied these people still require much study. Like the early archaeologists, we must meticulously piece together the warped and fragmented pottery to determine from the shapes and decoration the dates of the burials, possible connections with the outside world, and the quantity and nature of the grave offerings. Already, pre­liminary study has shown connec­tions with pottery from the ceme­teries of the Early Iron Age at Knossos. It is also clear that most of the pottery shapes represented in the graves are drinking vessels, although whether these were part of the burial ritual or represent gifts to sustain the dead on the way to or in the afterlife is not known.

The metal objects also can be used to establish connections with other areas of Greece, and to reconstruct the society of 8th century Kavousi. Future analysis of the metal itself to track down the place and time of manufacture will tell us something about the patterns of trade and the economy in the period. Already we can say that although the people were not rich, the wide variety of iron and bronze weapons, tools, and jewelry used in the burials suggests a display typical of aristocratic so­cieties. The burials on the northeast side of the summit produced more metal objects than other graves and may have belonged to high-status individuals or families. Thus a picture begins to emerge of a highly struc­tured aristocratic society in 8th cen­tury Kavousi in which different groups asserted their position by the display of prestige items at the funerals of their members. Ethno­graphic and historical parallels for such behavior abound.

Much information is being amassed as the various aspects of the burials are analyzed by different experts. Reading this unwritten record of mortuary data will reveal many secrets of Early Iron Age Kavousi and cast light on the Dark Age of Crete.

Cite This Article

Gesell, Geraldine C., Day, Leslie Preston and Coulson, William D.E.. "Tombs and Burial Practices in Early Iron Age Crete." Expedition Magazine 32, no. 3 (November, 1990): -. Accessed July 19, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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