BMCR 2007.10.52

Tholos Tomb Gamma, A Prepalatial Tholos Tomb at Phourni, Archanes. With a contribution by Sevi Triantaphyllou

, , Tholos tomb gamma : a prepalatial Tholos tomb at Phourni, Archanes. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Philadelphia, PA: INSTAP Academic Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xvi, 87 pages, 70 unnumbered pages of plates) : illustrations, maps.. ISBN 9781623030759. $60.00.

Despite recent work in several settlements, the prepalatial period in Crete is mainly known from collective tombs that received a large number of successive burials over a period of many centuries. Moreover, the majority of them have been robbed or known only from short reports of rescue excavations. In this respect, the systematic excavations by Yannis and Efi Sakellarakis of Phourni cemetery at Archanes, which extends from the prepalatial period (EM II) to the end of the Bronze Age and yielded a wealth of funerary goods and a multitude of burial buildings, ossuaries and tholos graves, most of them unlooted and undisturbed till their excavation, provides a unique opportunity to study the culture and society of Minoan Crete through the mortuary evidence. The detailed preliminary reports of the excavation and a two volume synthetic publication by the excavators provide the main source of information about the cemetery.1

Papadatos’ book Tholos Tomb Gamma: A Prepalatial Tholos Tomb at Phourni, Archanes, forms part of a series which examines isolated burial buildings (e.g. Tholos Epsilon, Burial Building 19, Building 4) or aspects of the material culture of Archanes cemetery (e.g. seals, pottery, clay coffins). Papadatos’ book, based on his PhD thesis (University of Sheffield), constitutes the final publication of a burial assemblage which is important because of its early date and rich and controversial context. The careful and well-documented excavation by Sakellarakis in 1972 provided Papadatos with plentiful and useful material to reconstruct the excavation and stratigraphy of the tholos.

The book is a very thorough, detailed and careful publication of the excavation context, with many illustrations of the plan and stratigraphic section of the tholos, the location of burials and distribution of the individual finds, in a way which is exceptional in publications of prepalatial cemeteries. This is very important since the number of fully published burial assemblages from prepalatial Minoan Crete is limited. The publication includes five main chapters and deals mainly with the presentation and discussion of the excavation and stratigraphy of Tholos Gamma (Ch. 2 and 5) and the presentation of the pottery (Ch. 3) and other finds (Ch. 4). Chapter 6 discusses prepalatial mortuary practices with reference to Tholos Gamma. An appendix on the human remains by Sevi Triantaphyllou follows. The book presents the data and opens the discussion for their interpretation within a more synthetic context but does not address wider questions of prepalatial culture and society, since it is largely confined to the facts of the particular burial assemblage, the reconstruction of the stratigraphy, dating of the finds and interpretation of the mortuary practices.

Tholos Gamma and Tholos Epsilon were the first tombs erected at Archanes cemetery (EM II period). They probably served the needs of an initially small community, similar to the communities of south central Crete, where regional burial customs are characterized by tholos cemeteries. In the later prepalatial periods of EM III and MM IA the Archanes cemetery grew considerably and the first tholos graves were accompanied by a large number of rectangular house tombs, a type prevalent in northern Crete, as well as by more elaborate elite tombs (i.e. Tholos Beta), which appear at the end of the prepalatial period. Tholos Gamma spans, according to Papadatos, the period from EM IIA to εμ ιιίμμ ια, with a possible gap in EM IIB. Its relatively complete state of preservation sheds new light on the question of the roof, which for a long period was dominant in studies of these tombs. As Papadatos notes (Ch. 2), this relatively small tomb of 3.5 m diameter had a fully corbelled stone roof.

One of the most important results of the book is the reconstruction and date of the stratigraphy of the tomb, which differs from the initial suggestion by the excavator, who recognized one single burial stratum containing the clay coffins, and interpreted the artifacts below the burial containers as funerary offerings related to the burials made above. Antonis Zois was the first to draw attention to the fact that these funerary objects found below the clay coffins, together with small fragments of human bones, constituted a separate lower burial level of mainly EM II date.2 Papadatos comes independently (Zois is not cited) to the same conclusion and recognizes two burial strata (Ch. 2 and 5).

The upper burial stratum (Stratum II) contained burial remains of 44 recognized individuals inside 11 larnakes, one pithos and in spaces between them. Most of the burial containers had multiple burials and practically no funerary objects accompanying them. The few funerary objects were associated with burials found outside the clay coffins. The pottery of the stratum consists of only two vases and a few other finds, which assign ‘an EM III or, at the latest a MM IA date’ to the stratum, all found outside the clay coffins. Papadatos prefers the EM III date, yet an ΕΜ ΙΙ-ΜΜΙΑ date for the assemblage seems more safe, taking also into account the poor stratigraphical definition of the EM III period.3 The absence of funerary objects from the burial larnakes creates also a problem for their exact dating and their chronological association with finds from the space between them. Papadatos suggests that some burials, initially placed inside the larnakes, were removed from them during secondary treatment, which consisted of heaping bone material and funerary offerings outside the larnakes. We should notice though, that the lack or small amount of funerary offerings in the upper burial level of Tholos Gamma is not accidental, it occurs also in the upper level of Tholos Epsilon of Archanes, as well as in other burial assemblages, and could indicate a possible change or differentiation in the mortuary practices of the MM IA period.

The lower burial level (stratum ΙΙΙ), which originally contained burials made directly on the floor, is characterized by the fragmentary character of the finds and bones (no identifiable burial was found) and by the wealth of pottery and other funerary offerings, many of which have parallels or affinities with Cycladic objects of EC II date (e.g. Cycladic figurines, a marble bowl, bone pins and pendants). Stratum III is dated by Papadatos to the EM IIA period, although he notices three possible EM I sherds and an ivory stamp cylinder of ΕΜ ΙΙ-ΜΜ ΙΑ date, which, however, do not in his opinion challenge the EM IIA dating of the stratum. Papadatos relates the disturbance observed in large part of the lower burial level to cleaning operations and deposition of the cleared funerary material at the nearby Area of the Rocks, which was not used for burials and where similar EM IIA pottery and an abundance of Cycladic finds were found. Rightfully, he comes to the conclusion that the cleaning operations do not represent looting of the tomb, but the leveling of the floor of the tomb, in order to make new burials (probably the placing of the burial containers of the ΕΜ ΙΙ-ΜΜ ΙΑ date).

Chapters 3 and 4 present the finds of Tholos Gamma and discuss principally the typology, dating and parallels of the finds. Chapter 3 deals with the pottery and contains a description of the wares, presentation of the stratigraphic sequence, and parallels for the sherds, followed by a detailed catalog of the pottery. Chapter 4 presents “other finds”, e.g. burial containers, figurines, copper, silver and lead artifacts, pendants, jewelry, seals, bone and ivory artifacts, stone and chipped stone artifacts. The presentation is detailed and documented in an excellent way, with many drawings of the finds and documentation of their exact location in the tomb. The discussion focuses on the artifacts themselves, e.g. typology and date, and less on interpretative issues of material culture that arise from their use.

From a series of interpretive topics that arise from the burial assemblage, Papadatos devotes a chapter to prepalatial mortuary practices, with reference to Tholos Gamma and the new evidence coming from its study (Ch. 6). He regards the burial as a two-stage process, involving the primary burial of the corpse and the secondary treatment of the bones. The evidence for primary burial in the lower burial level is limited, and indicates the position of the dead on a thin layer of small stones, accompanied by a large number of funerary goods. In the upper level a significant change occurs with the introduction of clay coffins, which, as Papadatos argues successfully, were used for primary burials and not as ossuaries for relocated bones. Papadatos notes the contrast to the richness of the lower burial level, but he does not relate this to social practices or possible changes occurring in this period.

The secondary treatment of the corpse included the clearing of the tomb and careless disposition of the burial remains (bones and artifacts) in special areas. Tholos Gamma provided new evidence for cleaning activities and Papadatos establishes a relation between a cleaning operation in the lower EM IIA level of Tholos Gamma and the disposition of its material in the nearby Area of the Rocks. Cleaning operations occurred also in the upper burial level, as the clay coffins were cleared of their previous burial remains to receive new burials. Papadatos associates the lack of funerary goods with such clearing operations. Special treatment was applied only to skulls and a few selected bones, sometimes accompanied by funerary offerings. Evidence for such special treatment of the skull exists in the lower burial stratum and the Area of the Rocks, where some skulls were found carefully deposited in the rock fissure. Similar evidence exists in the later phase of use of Tholos Gamma, with some clay coffins used as ossuaries for the skulls and selected bones from the burials that were originally made inside them. The chapter is synthetic and takes into account all existing evidence from other prepalatial burial assemblages in Crete.

A very useful appendix on the human skeletal remains from the upper stratum, by Sevi Triantaphyllou, completes the presentation of the tholos. In spite of the limitations of the sample, which is small and consists mainly of cranial fragments, Triantaphyllou makes an attempt at sexing, ageing and recording of the pathological conditions of the ΕΜ ΙΙ-ΜΜ Ι population of Tholos Gamma. She estimates that the minimum number of individuals disposed in the tholos chamber and dromos is 30. Both sexes are represented but, awkwardly, females outnumber the males. To the small population sample and later disturbances is attributed also the fact that the subadult age categories (under 18 years old) are underrepresented, while infants and juveniles are missing from the assemblage. High mortality rates are noticed in the later age groups over 30, while the paleopathological study recorded two cases of osteoarthritis, metabolic disorders and dental disease, which, according to Triantaphyllou, offer possible evidence for different access to food categories by both sexes. The analysis is systematic and based on modern standards of recording and interpreting skeletal remains and practically initiates the paleodemographic study of prepalatial Crete.

In conclusion, this book is well written and presented. One would expect Papadatos to expand his arguments on other interpretative matters that arise from the burial assemblage and refer to social organization, placement of Tholos Gamma within Archanes cemetery and the wider region, use of material culture and changes through time. The reader would expect also a position on the controversial character of the finds with Cycladic affinities. This is a choice of the author to stick to the facts and present the excavation and the finds and, apart from the excellent discussion of the Mortuary Practices in chapter 6, not deal with other interpretative issues. My opinion is that the present publication would have benefited by widening its scope. Nonetheless it is an extremely useful work for every student of prepalatial Minoan Crete and an excellent documentation of a prepalatial tholos tomb assemblage.


1. Y. and E. Sakellarakis, Archanes : Minoan Crete in a new light, Athens 1997.

2. A. Zois, The early Bronze Age. Issue 4: North Central Crete. Knossos, Pyrgos, Archanes, Kyparissi, Apodexis, Athens 1998, pp. 113-6 (in Greek).

3. L.V. Watrous, ‘Review of Aegean Prehistory III: Crete from Earliest Prehistory through the Protopalatial Period”, in T. Cullen (ed) Aegean Prehistory. A Review, American Journal of Archaeology Supplement I, Boston 2001, pp. 180-1.