Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.08.18

Andonis Vasilakis, Keith Branigan, Moni Odigitria: A Prepalatial Cemetery and Its Environs in the Asterousia, Southern Crete. Prehistory Monographs 30.   Philadelphia:  INSTAP Academic Press, 2010.  Pp. xxxi, 316; 144 tables, 137 figures, 70 plates.  ISBN 9781931534581.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by Luca Girella, UniNettuno University of Rome (

Table of Contents

This volume is the final report on the excavation of the two Prepalatial tholos tombs at Chatzinas Liophyto near the monastery of Moni Odigitria on Crete. It is organized in four parts and thirteen chapters, complemented by a large apparatus of 144 tables, 137 figures, and 70 plates.

Chapter 1 illustrates the results of the 2003 survey, completing thus the previous survey of the lower Hagiopharango valley catchment area undertaken in 1971-72. The authors identified six new sites, such as a Protopalatial house (pp. 16-18) and a possible house tomb (pp. 22-25) used between MM IB and the very beginning of MM IIIA. The first human occupation is documented in the late Final Neolithic period, with intensification toward EM I and II, argued reasonably to be connected with the construction and use of the tholos tombs (pp. 26-27). The authors expect the settlement organization to consist of at least twelve households in this period. Occupation of the area continued to flourish but witnessed a rapid decline in MM III. The Late Minoan through Hellenistic periods are not represented, and any extensive settlement appears to have developed only later on, between the 1st and 5th centuries A.D. The Roman period is illustrated in more detail by means of an appended catalog of Roman pottery (J. Francis, pp. 28-46). A second hiatus sets in during the late Roman Period, lasting until the second Byzantine period (961-1204 A.D.).

One of the main merits of this volume is the extraordinary effort to publish an excavation that suffered illegal and heavy looting between 1979 and 1980 (Fig. 15). Worth mentioning is the smuggling a large group of Prepalatial objects unanimously considered to come from the Moni Odigitria cemetery (pp. 52, 69) which in the end landed in the Mitsotakis Collection, now part of the Archaeological Museum at Chania. Moni Odigitria. The Mitsotakis collection is mentioned also on several other occasions throughout the book but the frequent assumption that the other material contained in the collection derives from Moni Odigitria is not a straightforward one. In any case, the looted material is analyzed, studied and illustrated by A. Vasilakis in chapter 2. The looters targeted not only the inner parts of the tombs, but also the rectangular annexes of Tholos B and the area between the two tholoi. Vasilakis also presents the architectural components of the cemetery. The excavation report itself (pp. 48-59) is divided into two parts describing the two excavation campaigns. The author carefully describes the discovery of the looting, the methodology applied for collecting the material from the disturbed soil, and the excavations of the undisturbed parts. This section is very important, as it separates the groups of artifacts which escaped the attention of the looters and came from disturbed soil, from those collected from untouched areas.

Part two of the book is devoted to the study of pottery and consists of two chapters. Chapter 3 (K. Branigan, T. Campbell-Green) focuses on the ceramic assemblages. The authors identify 26 ware groups (pp. 71-76) and eight functional groups based on shapes (pp. 76-83). Description of ware groups (based on macroscopic examination only) contains information about the surface treatment, decoration, fabric and chronological time span. The pottery assemblages are discussed according to depositional groups, divided in two broader sections: Group A related to the 1979 excavation of Tholos A (pp. 85-108), and Group B related to the 1980 excavation of Tholos B (pp. 108-125). Each depositional group includes a description of the quantity of sherd material and calculation of the MNV (Minimum Number of Vessels), a cataloged selection of the material, and a final discussion about the chronological range of the artifacts. Examined were over 49,000 sherds, resulting in calculated 3,733 MNV, to which another 298 complete or restored vessels can be added. The essential counterpart of this chapter is the breakdown of the depositional groups by wares presented in the tables 1-84. These are particularly important since the cemetery was dug by two different directors, in two seasons, with two different methodologies employed. Compared to the large amount of pottery recovered from the site, the catalogue encompasses only 382 entries, but the basic information is tabulated at the end of the volume. A larger number of drawings, however, would have been useful. The line drawings are very clear (figs. 32-56), but the photographs illustrated in plates 39-46 are unfortunately not in focus. Existing comparanda are discussed within the respective ware groups’ descriptions but they refer almost entirely to the area of Knossos. Although several comparisons are presented also for south-central Crete (with a special preference to Lebena), this study would have greatly benefited by using also recent publications produced by the Italian team working at Phaistos and Haghia Triada.1 A few additional problems emerge also regarding the chronology of some pots, which might have serious consequences for the date of the tholos cemetery as such. For example: Group BA (pp. 109-110), dated otherwise to MM I/II contains in our opinion a LM I ogival cup (P 264), two MM IIIA early straight-sided cups (P 266 and P 267), three MM IIIA conical cups (P 272, P 276, P 277), and one MM IIB-IIIA bridge-spouted jar (P 281).2 The complementary Chapter 4 (K. Branigan, T. Campbell-Green) deals with the discussion of functional, spatial and chronological aspects of the pottery assemblages (pp. 127-143).

The third part of the volume presents the non-ceramic material. Chapter 5 (K. Branigan) discusses 37 items of copper and copper alloy (daggers, awls, chisels, scrapers, pins and tweezers), so far the largest assemblage recovered from any tholos excavated on the southern slopes of the Asterousia mountains (pp. 147-150).

Chapter 6 (T. Carter) presents the chipped stone tools. The burial complex generated 801 relevant artifacts, 111 of which were cataloged (pp. 166-169), represented mostly by obsidian (59.2 %, figs. 61-3), followed by chert and other siliceous stones (40.8 %, fig. 64). Carter focuses on two recognized techno-typological traditions (pp. 152-156) but investigates also aspects of contextual analysis. Although very little can be said about the exact provenance of the material and consequently about the chronology (pp. 157-160), Carter analyzes the two technological traditions in the context of the production and consumption spheres of the cemetery and the western Mesara (tables 94-5). In particular, it emerges that the Moni Odigitria assemblage of the obsidian artifacts relates technologically to a larger central Cretan koine linked in turn with the Cyclades. Such relationship must have been mediated via sites like Knossos and Poros/Katsambas (pp. 164-6, table 96).

Stone vessels and tools are presented in Chapter 7 (D. Evely). A brief presentation of the corpus (pp. 172-73) is followed by a catalog of 56 items (pp. 173-77), dated almost entirely between EM I and MM I or II. Finally, the material, the technology and the comparisons with other tholos cemeteries (Ayia Kyriaki, Lebena, Koumasa, and Platanos) are discussed (pp. 177-183, table 97).

Chapter 8 (F. Mikelaki and A. Vasilakis) includes jewelry and small finds. The most common types are pendants, amulets, necklace beads and single beads made of bone, ivory, seashell and gold (pp. 187-194). Other categories discussed are the so called gaming counters made of rounded sherds (pp. 194-96), figurines (pp. 196-97) and other minor objects (p. 197).

Chapter 9 (K. Sbonias) contains a valuable study of the Moni Odigitria seal (stones?), which contains also a discussion of 218 items from the Mitsotakis Collection (table 100). The cemetery itself yielded 52 seals, with major groups coming from Tholos B (pp. 201-203, but erroneously indicated as Tholos A in table 99) and from the ossuary (pp. 204-206). The discussion of the corpus is then divided in three parts: the presentation of chrono-typological subdivision in three periods (Early, Late and Final Prepalatial, pp. 207-10), followed by the attribution of the Moni Odigitria seals to the three identified periods (pp. 210-20), although a small number might have a transitional character (MM I) towards the beginning of the Protopalatial period (pp. 220-21). Finally, the data is interpreted in a wider context (pp. 221-25). It emerges that in the later Prepalatial period Moni Odigitria was part of an important network with regard to the production and consumption of ivory seals and one of the few centers, beside Kaloi Limenes, that specialized in the production of white paste seals.

The fourth part of the volume, Chapter 10 (S. Triantaphyllou), presents the study of human bones. This comprehensive study is the first of its kind ever attempted for a Minoan cemetery and includes plentiful data tabulated (tables 101-140) and illustrated (figs. 85-133) at the end of the book. By comparing the data related to the treatment of the deceased, the demographic composition, health and oral status (pp. 230-43), Triantaphyllou identifies remarkable differences between the population of Tholos A and B (pp. 244-46).

Chapter 11 (K. Branigan) deals with the general history of the cemetery and the associated activities. Branigan identifies three phases (pp. 251-53): the construction of the two tholoi during EM I (fig. 134), the addition of the rectangular building to Tholos B and the definition of the external areas in EM IIA (fig. 135), and finally, the extension and remodeling of Tholos B rectangular building and the use of the ossuary till MM II (fig. 136). However, as we have stated above, the use of Tholos B after MM II is not unlikely, which is supported also by the radiocarbon dates obtained from bone samples (p. 235, table 107). Particular attention is given also to the description of practices which took place in the cemetery (pp. 256-61). A final point of the chapter is the identification of the social group using the cemetery, estimated to be about 7 to 19 nuclear families (pp. 261-64).

Chapter 12 (K. Branigan, A. Vasilakis) presents a new map of the Hagiopharango valley in the EBA (fig. 137) profiting from the cumulative data obtained from the publication of the Moni Odigitria cemetery, including the upper catchment data illustrated in chapter 1. The authors estimate (pp. 266-67) a population between 25 and 35 nuclear families in EM II, equating ca. 120-170 people. It also emerges that after MM I, the valley as a whole was not abandoned, but rather a nucleation of population north of Moni Odigitria in at least two settlements in MM II and one in MM III and LM I is observable.

The book is completed by a comprehensive Greek summary (271-86), three concordance lists (287-97), and an exhaustive bibliography (299-309).

In conclusion, this volume is a valuable publication, an excellent documentation of a Prepalatial tholos tomb assemblage and a relevant contribution to the study of Minoan tholos tomb cemeteries. All the chapters are well-argued and well-structured; the copious data tabulated at the end of the book is easy to consult during the reading. I am sure that researchers will make great use of this volume, and I am looking forward to seeing more publications on Minoan tholos cemeteries.


1.   For Phaistos: La Rosa, V. 2002: Le campagne di scavo 2000-2002 a Festòs, ASAtene LXXX/2: 635-883; Todaro, S. 2005: EM I-MM IA ceramic groups at Phaistos: towards a definition of a Prepalatial ceramic sequence in south-central Crete, Creta Antica 6: 11-46. For Haghia Triada: Todaro, S. 2001: Nuove prospettive sulla produzione in stile Pyrgos nella Creta meridionale: il caso della pisside e della coppa su base ad anello, Creta Antica 2: 11-28; Todaro, S. 2003: Haghia Triada nel periodo Antico Minoico, Creta Antica 4: 69-95. Now Todaro, S. 2009: The latest Prepalatial period and the foundation of the first palace at Phaistos: A stratigraphic and chronological re-assessment, Creta Antica 10/1: 105-145.
2.   See Girella, L. 2007: Toward a definition of the Middle Minoan III ceramic sequence in South-Central Crete: returning to the traditional MM IIIA and IIIB division?, in F. Felten, W. Gauß, and R. Smetana (eds.), Middle Helladic Pottery and Synchronisms. Proceedings of the International Workshop held at Salzburg, October 31st to November 2nd, 2004, Wien: 233-255. Now Girella, L. 2010: Depositi ceramici del Medio Minoico III da Festòs e Haghia Triada, Studi di Archeologia Cretese VIII, Padova.

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