Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.45 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.45

Metaxia Tsipopoulou, Petras, Siteia: The Pre- and Proto-Palatial Cemetery in Context. Acts of a Two-Day Conference Held at the Danish Institute at Athens, 14-15 February 2015. Monographs of the Danish Institute at Athens, 21.   Aarhus:  Aarhus University Press, 2017.  Pp. 446.  ISBN 9788771841572.  Kr. 499.95.  

Reviewed by Ilaria Caloi, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice (

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This publication, edited by Metaxia Tsipopoulou, is the proceedings of the 2nd Symposium (held in Athens in 2015) devoted to the (still ongoing) excavation of the Petras cemetery (2005-2006, 2009-2016) on the Kephala hill or Hill II, overlooking the bay of Siteia, East Crete. Five years on from the publication of the proceedings of the 1st Symposium, which was dedicated to the excavation of Hill I at Petras, where the Bronze Age settlement and the palace are situated, this book demonstrates the effort of a terrific array of specialists, who “presented their work in progress and discussed their interpretations, conclusions and ideas…” (p. 16). The idea of presenting preliminary results of a well-preserved cemetery (exceptionally connected with a settlement and a palace) so soon after its excavation has the inestimable merit of informing scholars about new and fresh data from ongoing excavations on Crete that can be compared with the existing evidence. The impression, however, is that the results were so preliminary that they have not been entirely digested and, in turn, not properly compared with the new and most up-to-date evidence provided by recent publications. This is particularly true for the chronological study of some classes of material, especially ceramic and lithic,1 but glyptic as well. We can look forward to the final publication taking into account the full range of the newest and most up to date relevant evidence from across the island.1

Thirty-seven experts contributed to this volume of 26 papers (one by Theodoropoulou on shell material is actually merely an abstract) written in English. Due to the great number of contributions, I have devoted particular attention to a selection of the articles.

The book is not separated into sections and its chapters are not numbered, but it can be divided into two parts, each corresponding to one of the two main goals of the volume. The first part (16 papers) is devoted to the presentation of the Pre- and Protopalatial cemetery of Petras, as well as to its LM III reoccupation, while the second (10 papers, including also the final discussion and remarks) to its historical and cultural contextualisation not only at Petras, but also in Pre- and Protopalatial Crete as a whole.

As illustrated in the first paper by Tsipopoulou, the cemetery comprises 13 House Tombs (HTs), dating from EM II to MM IIB, and a Rock Shelter (EM IB-MM IIA). After a detailed architectural description of all the HTs (only six have been completely excavated), she presents the four main chronological phases of the cemetery: EM II, EM III-MM IA, MM IB and MM IB-IIB, describing the evidence of the HTs belonging to each phase. The contexts of each tomb are well documented, with mapping of the finds and many high-quality pictures of the material. Tsipopoulou also focuses on the MM IB spatial organisation of the cemetery that consists of the arrangement of Corridors between HTs and of two Ceremonial areas, CA1 and CA2. CA2 served several HTs to the North of the cemetery, while CA1, located to the East of HT2, was associated only with this exceptional (elite?) tomb. Throughout the book particular attention has been paid to HT2 because it is the best preserved of the burial places, the only one revealing special architectural features (i.e. six low benches outside the building on its eastern walls), primary burials (in contrast to the others providing only secondary burials), as well as the most interesting seals. Both CA1 and CA2 were used from MM IB to MM IIB as ritual places, where the “ritual killing” of pottery and stone vases was the focus of the ritual.

Betancourt, Tsipopoulou and Clinton write about the Tripartite Façade identified to the south of CA2, East of HT2. As a suitable setting for funerary ceremonies connected with elites buried in HT2, they argue that the concept of the Tripartite Façade existed already in MM IIB in correlation with funerary ceremonies with elite associations.

The second paper by Tsipopoulou is devoted to the pottery evidence of CA1, which she preliminarily attributes to the following phases: MM IB-MM IIA and MM IIA-MM IIB. The useful diagrams (pp. 114-117) show a notable variation in the attestation and frequency of forms in the two discrete phases of use of CA1, which could offer good hints for discussion on differences on food and drink consumption between the two phases.

The petrographic analysis of samples dating from MM IA to MM IIB from HT2 and CA1 has allowed Nodarou to demonstrate a strong continuity in fabrics and recipes from the Prepalatial period to the emergence of the palatial system at Petras (MM IIA).

The central part of the book includes detailed specialist papers on the following classes of material: seals (Krzyszkowska), stone vases (Relaki and Tsoraki), querns (Dierckx), metal objects (Giumlia-Mair et al.), plant (Margaritis) and faunal remains (Isaakidou). Intriguing finds have also received specific attention: the Petras ‘Sphinx’, whose multi-faceted hybridity has been connected by Simandiraki-Grimshaw with the “in-between world”, and 12 small bronze discs compellingly interpreted by Brogan and Giumlia-Mair as possible symbolic balances (to weigh the soul in the afterlife?). These finds, together with the variety of objects produced in different silver alloys analysed by Giumlia-Mair et al., reveal both the sophisticated metal workshop in use at Petras and the richness in metal grave goods of its cemetery.

From her analysis of the material from the Rock Shelter of Petras, Isaakidou indicates a substantial absence of animal bones, suggesting a low consumption of meat during funerary feasting that also seems to be attested in other Prepalatial, but mainly Protopalatial, cemeteries of Crete.

The brilliant paper by Margaritis sheds new lights on the use of fire during burial practices, showing that the deposition of very well-preserved food through fire acts as mnemonic signifiers, connecting the dead with everyday life.

The two papers devoted to the human skeletal remains from HT2 and HT5 of the Petras cemetery are fascinating (the first by Triantaphyllou, the second by Triantaphyllou, Kiorpe and Tsipopoulou). As Triantaphyllou underlines in her first paper (pp. 284-285), the cemetery of Petras has allowed anthropologists to deal with new evidence on manipulation of the body after burial in the Pre- and Protopalatial periods, thus putting in doubt the previous perspectives on the manipulation of the deceased and revealing a multi-stage character of the burial processes. On the basis of their study, Triantaphyllou and her colleagues have convincingly proposed that at Petras human bones were moved between the various rooms of the HTs during different stages of decomposition of the body. If this is confirmed, the “traditionally posited” two-stage process must be reconsidered.

Rupp’s paper presents the LM IIIA2-IIIC structures extended on Hill II. He persuasively argues that the reoccupation of the hill is connected with a veneration of ancestors buried in the Pre- and Protopalatial cemetery.

The second part of the volume starts with a paper by Cadogan on the Myrtos-Pyrgos cemetery, which offers many remarkable comparisons with the Petras cemetery.

Papadatos carries out an exhaustive analysis of the funerary and mortuary evidence of the Petras region organised by phase, from EM II to MM IIA. He convincingly argues that the high variability of mortuary burials of East Crete in EM IIA, attested also by the emergence of a typical Mesara tholos tomb at Mesorrachi, decreased in EM IIB, in concomitance with the Petras growth. He reasonably suggests that by MM IB/MM IIA Petras was the centre of its region.

The paper by Nikita et al. deals with dental analysis of human material from tombs extending from the Mesara region to East Crete in order to compare cultural similarities with biological similarities. The best results from this promising study come from the EM I-EM II period. The genetic proximity between the Livari material and the Moni Odighitria assemblages (table 4, p. 331) is fascinating, and may suggest human mobility from the Mesara to East Crete.

Between the two papers presenting the tombs of Pezoules Zakros I (Platon) and II (Platon and Tsiboukaki), the second shows that the Protopalatial pottery from Zakros follows different shapes and decorative patterns from those of contemporary Petras; this is in surprising contrast to the numerous parallels identified between Petras and Palaikastro, the other major coastal site in East Crete.

The case study of Sissi, presented by Schoep et al., makes evident how variable the mortuary burials in the Pre- and Protopalatial periods are. In contrast to the pattern observed in the Petras cemetery, at Sissi most of the burials from HTs in Zones 1 and 9 are primary depositions. The authors interestingly distinguish between secondary depositions (actually scarce at Sissi) from the different practice of removing or rearranging bones or body parts.

Knappett and Ichim present a new fascinating model that would indicate that in the Protopalatial period and especially in MM IIA (palatial foundation), Petras focused inland rather than on the coast, as in the Neopalatial period.

In the final discussion, Macdonald reasonably indicates the main points that the final publication of the cemetery should focus on, e.g. to refine the date of various classes of material, to identify the specific changes of the cemetery during the discrete phases of the Protopalatial period, and to define the influence of the palace foundation on the cemetery.

In his final remarks Haggis highlights that Petras gives the excellent opportunity of “reconsidering the form, function and socio-political context of the Minoan mortuary landscape” (p. 425). Haggis reasonably points to the existence of three distinct and contemporary arenas in MM IB Petras (i.e. tombs, CA1 and Lakkos on Hill I) that might be worth pursuing in order to understand who were the people using the cemetery and controlling the rituals performed there.

The quality and the size of pictures and drawings of the material are exceptional, whereas the plans could have been larger. The discussions that follow most of the papers are inspiring and contain much additional information and interesting suggestions. For example, the discussion between Wright, Relaki, Triantaphyllou and Tsipopoulou (pp. 177-178) underlines two special characteristics of the Petras mortuary rituals: the intentional fragmentation 2 and dispersal of material, whether human remains or stone vases, throughout the rooms of a house tomb (but also within the living area, if we consider the missing fragments of skeletons and stone vases) and the critical role of fire during these rituals, as testified by burnt human bones, stone vases, as well as by remains of charred plants.

In conclusion I recommend this book to anyone interested in Bronze Age Crete and the Aegean. Experts specialising in the study of thanatoarchaeology and biological anthropology will find plenty of material for comparative studies.

Table of Contents

List of Contributors
Works Cited
Greetings from Rune Frederiksen
Greetings from Kristina Winther-Jacobsen
Documenting sociopolitical changes in Pre- and Proto-palatial Petras: the house tomb cemetery, Metaxia Tsipopoulou
The Tripartite Façade at the Petras cemetery, Philip P. Betancourt, Metaxia Tsipopoulou & Miriam Clinton
Ceremonial Area 1: Identity and dating of a special ritual space in the Petras cemetery, Metaxia Tsipopoulou
Pottery fabrics and recipes in the later Pre- and Proto-palatial period at Petras: the petrographic evidence from House Tomb 2 and Ceremonial Area 1, Eleni Nodarou
Further seals from the cemetery at Petras, Olga Krzyszkowska
Variability and differentiation: A first look at the stone vase assemblage in the Petras cemetery, Maria Relaki & Christina Tsoraki
The Petras ‘Sphinx’? An essay on hybridity, Anna Simandiraki-Grimshaw
The use of querns and other ground stone hand tools in Early to Middle Minoan mortuary practices at Petras, Heidi M. C. Dierckx
Special silver alloys from the Pre- and Proto-palatial cemetery of Petras, Crete, Alessandra Giumlia-Mair, Philip P. Betancourt, Susan C. Ferrence, & James D. Muhly
An intriguing set of discs from the Protopalatial tombs at Petras, Thomas M. Brogan & Alessandra Giumlia-Mair
The plant remains of the house tombs at Petras: Acts of destruction, transformation and preservation, Evi Margaritis
Feeding the dead, toasting the living? The view from faunal remains, Valasia Isaakidou
Male bonding and remembering the ancestors? The Late Minoan III reoccupation and use of the Kephala-Petras Cemetery Area, David W. Rupp
The sea in the afterlife of the Minoans: the shell material from Petras cemetery in context, Tatiana Theodoropoulou
‘Οσο ψηλα ανεβεις λεξη μην πεις μεγαλη ‘πο χωμα σε εφτιαξε ο θεος κι κι εκεια γυιριζεις παλι’. Cretan mantinada for death, Sevasti Triantaphyllou
House Tomb 5: A preliminary analysis of the human skeletal remains, Sevasti Triantaphyllou, Sotiria Kiorpe & Metaxia Tsipopoulou
Compare and contrast: the house tomb at Myrtos-Pyrgos, Gerald Cadogan
Mortuary practices, the ideology of death and social organization of the Siteia area: The Petras cemetery within its broader funerary landscape, Yiannis Papadatos
Mobility patterns and cultural identities in Pre- and Proto-palatial central and eastern Crete, Efthymia Nikita, Sevi Triantaphyllou, Metaxia Tsipopoulou, Diamantis Panagiotopoulos, Lefteris Platon
Pezoules Kephala, Zakros. I. Form of the tombs and burial habits, Lefteris Platon
Pezoules Kephala, Zakros. II. The chronological and evaluative position of the finds in the framework of the life of the neighboring settlement, Lefteris Platon & Maria Tsiboukaki
Funerary practices at Sissi: the treatment of the body in the house tombs, Ilse Schoep, Isabelle Crevecoeur, Aurore Schmitt & Peter Tomkins
Funerary ritual and social structure in the Old Palace period: A multifarious liaison, Giorgos Vavouranakis
East Cretan networks in the Middle Bronze Age, Carl Knappett & Cristina Ichim
Final discussion, Chaired by Colin F. Macdonald
Final remarks: Some comments on the Pre- and Proto-palatial cemetery and the Late Minoan IIIC settlement of Petras Kephala, Donald C. Haggis


1.   Recent publications can help with the chronological study of ceramic and lithic material from the cemetery of Petras. For example, the recently published volume on Protopalatial Phaistos (I. Caloi, Festòs Protopalaziale. Il Quartiere ad Ovest del Piazzale I. Strutture e ritrovamenti delle terrazze mediana e superiore, Venezia 2013) shows pottery coming from stratified levels dating to MM IB, MM IIA and MM IIB, thus offering good evidence for correlations with other contemporary Cretan sites. Although the ceramic regionalisms are well attested in Protopalatial Crete, there are some trends in pottery production and consumption that can be identified all over the island (e.g. the evolution of the carinated cup from MM IB to MM IIB). Concerning stone vases, O. Palio, I vasi in pietra minoici di Festòs, Padova 2008 provides an up to date point of reference for typology and chronology of lithic production in Protopalatial and Neopalatial Crete.
2.   New insights on intentional fragmentation can be found here: K. Harrell and J. Driessen (eds.), Thravsma. Contextualising the Intentional Destruction of Objects in the Bronze Age Aegean and Cyprus, Louvain 2015.

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