Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.34

R. Angus K. Smith, Mary K. Dabney, Evangelia Pappi, Sevasti Triantaphyllou, James C. Wright, Ayia Sotira. A Mycenaean Chamber Tomb Cemetery in the Nemea Valley, Greece, Prehistory Monographs 56.   Philadelphia:  INSTAP Academic Press, 2017.  Pp. xxviii, 202; 54 p. of plates.  ISBN 9781931534901.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by Yannis Galanakis, University of Cambridge (

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

Tombs have been used extensively as one of the most informative sources for reconstructing social structures and beliefs in the archaeology of the Late Bronze Age in the southern Aegean. Rock-cut chamber tombs, in particular, have been found by the thousands over the last 150 years; they are the most prevalent Mycenaean tomb type. Yet, most have been excavated as part of salvage operations with limited documentation and no final publication. Furthermore, for a long time, attention was drawn to the objects that were coming out of the ground, with limited interest in the deceased population for whom the tombs were built and the objects deposited in the first place. Interdisciplinary studies have been few and far between, and what has been lacking is an integrated social archaeology of death in which people, organic residues, and artefacts formed the focus of attention in order to learn more about the bio- and social archaeology of the population under investigation. With the number of secured archaeological contexts dwindling fast, not least because of the constant damage caused by looting (as also attested in the case of the Ayia Sotira tombs), developing new approaches is imperative if we are to recover as much data as possible and to advance our knowledge of the role that funerary ritual had for ancient societies.

This publication of six Mycenaean chamber tombs found on the hillside of the church of Ayia Sotira near ancient Nemea in the northeast Peloponnese, dating to the 14th and 13th centuries BC, does exactly that: it presents the results of such an integrated archaeological approach, developed by Mary Dabney, Jim Wright, and their colleagues of the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (NVAP), which they piloted in the excavation of a chamber tomb at Barnavos, not far from Ayia Sotira, in 2002.1 They aimed to recover the maximum amount of information from the tomb contexts so that episodes of use could be reconstructed, an element that has rarely been seen before in the mortuary archaeology of Bronze Age Greece. To achieve their goal, the Ayia Sotira team combined in three seasons (2006–2008) geophysical and surface survey, test trenches, careful excavation, and the systematic use of a series of specialized studies (micromorphology, bioarchaeology, archaeobotany, the study of shells, lithics, and phytoliths, and organic residue analysis). This integrated methodology helped the Ayia Sotira team fulfil its goals of offering us a more nuanced knowledge of mortuary practices, even when those tombs have been looted or disturbed.

A pioneering element of this project was the successful application of micromorphology. The narrowness of the space in Mycenaean dromoi (passageways leading to the burial chamber) limits the possible views of the stratigraphy, which hampers interpretation. The homogenous composition of the sediment and complicated stratigraphy (e.g., due to repeated use, backfilling, or looting) thwarts further the identification of layers of use. Balks (vertical sections of earth) were left during excavation in the dromoi of the tombs at Ayia Sotira as well as at the stomia (entrances) and in the chambers. These balks allowed for close macroscopic examination and recording of the remaining sediment and for the collection of targeted micro-morphological samples, which led to a clearer understanding of the use sequence of the excavated tomb.2

The volume publishes in exemplary fashion the six Mycenaean chamber tombs at Ayia Sotira. Following a brief introduction (Ch. 1) on the location of the tombs in the Nemea Valley, the history of looting in the area, and the project’s methodology, the publication deals primarily with the presentation of the six excavated tombs (Chs. 2 and 3, pp. 13–124). Unlike, however, other “interdisciplinary” publications, where specialized studies are still unfortunately presented as appendices detached from the main body of the archaeological work, this volume does justice to the true meaning of the word by integrating all the results by location (dromos, stomion, chamber) and burial, thus facilitating the reconstruction and understanding of episodes of use for each tomb. Shorter chapters briefly present the methodology, research questions, and outcomes of the specialized studies (Chs. 4–9, pp. 125–166).

There are several observations made by the Ayia Sotira team worth highlighting here. For example, for some members of the local community at least, it was very important to reuse the tombs, even when these had partially collapsed and access was difficult (e.g., tomb 6, p. 124). In some other tombs, the intentional removal of burials and their contents was documented; such a practice has already been hypothesized in a number of Mycenaean tombs, but this project was able to closely reconstruct the episodes leading to these final events. Additionally, it appears that when further use was not possible, special care was taken at Ayia Sotira to “close” the tomb, as indicated by vessels placed in the grave without an associated burial (e.g., tombs 3, 4, 5, 6; p. 124).

Understanding the sequence of use and reuse of tombs advances our knowledge considerably on the interaction of the living communities with the realm of the dead. To that end, there are several patterns that the Ayia Sotira project identified. For example, dromoi in undisturbed tombs were reopened at least five to six times. These dromoi were not left open long enough for humus to accumulate, which would have taken about a year, leading to the conclusion that at least in these tombs their passageways were filled in with soil soon after a burial or a specific action had taken place. At each reopening, progressively less of the earth filling the dromos was removed, thereby creating a narrower passageway each time with a steeper slope to the floor (e.g., in tomb 2, the slope of the dromos floor increased from 12 to 33 degrees; p. 170).

Of the 34 burials with skeletal remains in the Ayia Sotira tombs (Chs. 2, 3, and 5), 24 of them showed discernible post-burial manipulation.3 Closer taphonomic observations helped the team to reconstruct a series of snapshots of post-burial activities, despite the poor preservation of the bones (e.g., the careful arrangement of isolated, fresh bones in a pit in tomb 4, and the in situ relocation of anatomical parts of a primary burial in tomb 6; p. 130). This focus on the manipulation of the deceased has considerable potential, as reflected also in this study, in the presence/absence, intentional relocation and removal of the human skeletal remains (p. 131). In short, we are only now fully grasping the range and sequence of actions performed in Mycenaean graves based on both biological and artefactual data — an aspect of burial performance with massive potential with regards to detecting site and/or regional similarities and differences when it comes to mortuary practice.

Ceramics formed the most popular artifact in the Ayia Sotira tombs (82% painted and 18% unpainted). More than half of the pots found in these six tombs consisted of only two shapes, jugs and stirrup jars, which are actually uncommon at Tsoungiza, the settlement with which the tombs are associated. This distribution reinforces the idea that a conscious choice was made in the selection of the objects deposited with the dead. Stone or vitreous beads formed the second most common category of finds. With the exception of a bronze leaf-shaped razor in tomb 1, no other metal objects or other imported materials or manufactured goods were found in the graves, nor were there any markers of authority (e.g., seals, signet rings, and weaponry). From the dromoi of these tombs, a large percentage of the ceramics recovered belongs to unpainted kylikes, which appear to suggest that drinking or libations took place in the dromoi or the immediately surrounding areas (p. 172).

Food plants were found in every excavated tomb sampled (tombs 2–¬6) and included a range of cereals, legumes, and fruits in various combinations but consistently in low numbers. The occasional occurrence of glume bases of glume wheats (e.g., in tombs 3, 4, and 5) led the Ayia Sotira team to hypothesize that some food preparation was taking place, either for consumption of food by the participants or part of the food offerings (Ch. 6, p. 143). As stressed in the publication, however, more relevant information from sites of corresponding date and type, as well as the use of radiocarbon dating in archaeobotanical analyses4, would contribute to the clarification of these issues (i.e., the use of plants in Mycenaean burial practices).

The presence of black pine wood in the dromoi of some of the tombs may represent the remains of torches that accompanied the funerary rituals (Ch. 7). As for the organic residue analysis (Ch. 9), the sample was small and the preservation was generally poor. In the stirrup jars analyzed, fatty acids were detected along with plant sterols, remnants of a lipid-rich substance such as plant-derived oil, an interpretation consistent with current archaeological knowledge on the use of stirrup jars.

The conclusions (Ch. 10) offer a useful synthesis of the available data by discussing the broader Nemea Valley context of the Ayia Sotira tombs, their construction and dates of use, the burial and post-burial activities performed therein, and the relationship of the tombs to the settlement at Tsoungiza as well as with tombs across the Argolid and the rest of the Aegean.

The editing of this volume is of high quality, and the accompanying visual material is crisp and clean (62 tables, 54 plates, 139 in-text figures). The architectural drawings are particularly good and include several sections, which are often absent from similar studies. The drawings of objects are also good, though sometimes their outlines are rather thick. While some micromorphological samples are shown in color, most of the figures are actually in black and white.5 More color photographs would improve the readability of the excavation’s records and assist comparability with other samples, contexts, and assemblages.

If we are to expand our knowledge of the social dimensions of Mycenaean burials, the integrated excavation approach of the Ayia Sotira team and their exemplary publication should be a source of guidance and inspiration. Methodologies may be adapted and improved, particularly as new technological advancements are discovered and implemented. Yet, the questions we ask drive our excavation approach, and the quality of our methodology and overall collection strategies affect the quality of the data we have available for study, all of which consequently affects our interpretations. In this respect, the Ayia Sotira publication of these six small and modestly furnished Mycenaean chamber tombs is the best of its kind yet available in Aegean archaeology. It confirmed a number of aspects previously suspected or hypothesized in scholarship, while also adding extra layers of knowledge with regard to the use of Mycenaean tombs and their associated practices. One can only reiterate the wish of the authors of this volume (pp. 181–182) that similarly rigorous methodologies will be extended in the future to “all Mycenaean cemetery excavations” so that these results can be compared, contextualized, and scrutinized, and so that they may stand as the foundation for further discussion and debate.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction (1)
Chapter 2. Evangelia Pappi and Sevasti Triantaphyllou. Tomb 1 (13)
Chapter 3. Mary K. Dabney, Panagiotis Karkanas, R. Angus K. Smith, Sevasti Triantaphyllou, and James C. Wright. Tombs 2–6 (35)
Chapter 4. Panagiotis Karkanas. Geoarchaeological Study (125)
Chapter 5. Sevasti Triantaphyllou. Human Remains (129)
Chapter 6. Georgia Kotzamani and Alexandra Livarda. Archaeobotanical Remains (139)
Chapter 7. Maria Ntinou. Wood Charcoal Macroremains (147)
Chapter 8. Georgia Tsartsidou. Phytolith Analysis (153)
Chapter 9. Maria Roumpou. Organic Residue Analysis (157)
Chapter 10. Conclusions (167)
Appendix. Camilla MacKay and Alan M. Stahl. Medieval Pottery and Coins (183)


1.   Wright, James C., Evangelia Pappi, Sevasti Triantaphyllou, Mary K. Dabney, Panagiotis Karkanas, Georgia Kotzamani and Alexandra Livarda. 2008. “Nemea Valley Archaeological Project, Excavations at Barnavos: Final Report,” Hesperia 77.4, 607–654.
2.   The methodology is described in detail in Karkanas, Panagiotis, Mary K. Dabney, R. Angus K. Smith and James C. Wright. 2012. “The geoarchaeology of Mycenaean chamber tombs,” Journal of Archaeological Science 39.8, 2722–2732.
3.   Due to the poor preservation of bones it was not possible to carry out DNA analysis. The stable isotopes study, including analysis from the tombs at Barnavos and animals from Tsoungiza, are not included in this volume and will appear in a separate article in the near future.
4.   This publication does not include any radiocarbon dates. It is a desideratum to get more radiocarbon dates from Mycenaean contexts; see e.g., Olivia A. Jones, Johannes van der Plicht, Lena Papazoglou-Manioudaki, and Michalis Petropoulos. 2018. “Timing is everything: Radiocarbon dating multiple levels in the Mycenaean tholos tomb of Petroto, Achaia, Greece,” STAR: Science and technology of archaeological research.
5.   Some color images from the excavation of tombs 2–6 can be found in the digital library of archaeological projects and research of the Canadian Institute in Greece: Portal to the Past.

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