BMCR 2008.06.16

Kerameikos. Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen, Bd. XVIII. Die submykenische Nekropole: Neufunde und Neubewertung

, , Kerameikos : Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen.. München: Hirmer Verlag, 2007. volumes in volumes : illustrations ; 28-34 cm. ISBN 9783110022056. €110.00.

This volume, the latest in the venerable Kerameikos series by the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, presenting excavations in the Potters’ Quarter and cemetery of Athens, publishes the burials of the so-called Submycenaean period that have come to light since the 1960s in the area of the Pompeion and the western flank of the Dipylon Gate. The new tombs, presented in detail in this volume by Florian Ruppenstein, are numbered 115-148 and include simple pit graves cut into the earth or bedrock (Tombs 115-117, 119-120, 135, 139, 147), stone cist graves (Tombs 121-125, 128-131, 134, 136, 140-144, 148), one pit grave lined with stones (Tomb 133), several urn cremations in an amphora and one in a large oinochoe (Tombs 118, 126-127, 138, 145-146, including the remains of a cremation labeled 145*), and two inhumations in wooden coffins (Tombs 132, 137). Unlike earlier Kerameikos volumes dealing with the Early Iron Age cemeteries, primarily those by Karl Kübler, this volume is much easier to use because of its layout and illustrations. The format of earlier Kerameikos cemetery volumes was such that some students of the Early Iron Age, most famously the late Evelyn Lord Smithson, were compelled to purchase two copies of each volume, keeping one as is, and cutting up the text and illustrations of the other in order to arrange the material in a more user-friendly manner. This is not necessary for Kerameikos XVIII.

Ruppenstein devotes over 300 pages to just over 30 tombs, the majority of which are not lavishly appointed with grave goods. This may seem, at first sight, excessive, but the reason for its weight is that the volume quickly settles into a lengthy overview of all Attic Submycenaean pottery in captivity. The book is a virtual paean to Submycenaean, and it follows squarely in the intellectual footsteps of Carl-Gustav Styrenius and Penelope Mountjoy in its insistence in over-classifying a style of pottery that may, in the end, be represented only by funerary material or, at very best, a very short period of time.

The volume begins with an introduction, Chapter I. A brief half-page Zielsetzung, which succinctly describes the aims of the volume (p. 1), is followed by some general comments on how best to use the present volume in the light of the earlier Kerameikos Early Iron Age cemetery volumes (pp. 1-3). There is then a short historical overview of the excavations (pp. 3-4), and an account of previous scholarship on Submycenaean tombs (pp. 4-8), beginning with Sam Wide and Bernhard Schweitzer, continuing through Vincent Desborough and Günter Krause, and on to the Cambridge trio of Anthony Snodgrass, Ian Morris, and James Whitley. The overview is circumscribed, but it hits most of the high notes, and buried in footnote 66 (p. 8) is a delightful account of various Anglo value-judgments on Submycenaean. Hence, Whitley opines: “Its chief characteristic is that it is bad —it has a narrower range of shapes and decorative motifs, and it is much more poorly made than other LH III C styles.”1 Snodgrass notes: “On this showing there can be only one verdict on the Submycenaean pottery: It is narrow in range and utterly derivative.”2 And Osborne states: “The decoration on these pots is eclectic, but unambitious in range and poorly executed.”3

Chapter II presents a catalogue of the so-called Submycenaean and transitional Submycenaean/Protogeometric tombs (pp. 9-36) and the more fragmentary stray finds associated with the cemetery (pp. 36-39).

The hefty Chapter III ( Die Funde) begins with the pottery (pp. 41-200), and this is followed by an overview of the metal objects (pp. 200-232), both bronze and iron, including weapons and tools, jewelry and dress ornaments (including the occasional item of gold), glass and faience beads, buttons and whorls, as well as beads or whorls of stone (steatite, carnelian, rock crystal) and amber, objects of bone (two bone fillets labeled Armschmuckleisten),4 a fragmentary but unidentified object of ivory, and finally two terracotta wheels.

Despite the detailed treatment of the small finds other than pottery, the pride of place belongs to the much-maligned Submycenaean pottery, and it is precisely here that we have both the meat of the study and its shortcomings. Ruppenstein’s is a meticulous stylistic analysis of the pottery. In addition to reviewing all the earlier known Submycenaean tombs in the Kerameikos, he casts his net wide to include all published Submycenaean pottery from cemeteries and isolated tombs in Attica and the adjacent island of Salamis. The list of sites is long, and it incorporates the recent material from the excavations for the Athens Metro as well as long-known tomb groups now in Heidelberg and elsewhere. Ruppenstein distinguishes his putative Submycenaean phase from an earlier Late Helladic III C style, which in Attica, he notes, is best represented by the pottery from the chamber tombs at Perati. Most of the Submycenaean pottery in Attica follows this earlier Attic Mycenaean tradition, though Ruppenstein dutifully notes possible influences from elsewhere, including potential Achaian prototypes for the stirrup jars and some of the lekythoi and, later on, strong Cypriot influences on a variety of shapes. After careful analysis, Ruppenstein distinguishes four chronological phases, labeled I-IV: Phases I-III constitute Submycenaean proper, whereas Phase IV is transitional Submycenaean to Protogeometric (this is also the phase in which cremation becomes more prevalent, at least in the Pompeion cemetery).

Ruppenstein’s relative sequence is virtually identical to that of Styrenius’s 1967 study, in which the Kerameikos Submycenaean graves known to Styrenius were subdivided into the perennial Early, Middle, and Late (aka I, II, III) — though Styrenius further divided Late Submycenaean into A and B — and there is, of course, a transitional Submycenaean/Protogeometric phase.5 Conceptually, Ruppenstein has not moved far in Submycenaean studies since 1967, and Styrenius’s earlier study at least had the advantage that it looked for Submycenaean outside Attica. It is in this that Ruppenstein’s study has a certain retro feel to it. The basic problem, however, is that Submycenaean in Attica, if not elsewhere, is completely dominated by tomb contexts. I will return to this below, but it is worth noting here that there are no chamber tombs like those of Perati in the German excavations of the Kerameikos, which might help establish a meaningful relative sequence from Late Helladic III C into Submycenaean in Athens/Attica (though a number of earlier Mycenaean chamber tombs have come to light in the recent excavations in the area of the Athenian Agora).

The penultimate Chapter IV is entitled Die Nekropole (pp. 239-268). It begins with chronology (239-240), including the few cases where tombs were stratigraphically interrelated. There is a discussion of the relationship between Perati Period 3 and the first phase of the Kerameikos cemetery (pp. 240-242), and this is followed by assigning all the Kerameikos tombs, and a few from the Agora and those found elsewhere in Athens, that are assigned to Submycenaean and earliest Protogeometric graves into neatly compartmentalized Zeitstufen (pp. 242-245). Ruppenstein also considers the topographical development and organization of the cemetery (pp. 245-247), the grave types (pp. 248-253), and the disposition and orientation of the graves (253-257). He also analyzes, albeit briefly, the tomb contents (pp. 257-265), before a summary consideration of the entire cemetery (pp. 265-268). A Harris matrix outlining the reconstructed chronological sequence, and some diagrammatic plans of the cemetery illustrating the distribution of tomb types, tomb contents, etc., building on the earlier work of Krause,6 would have been useful.

Chapter V provides an overall summary and conclusions of the study, and this is followed by Chapter VI, on The Human Skeletal Remains (pp. 273-281), which is penned by Anna Lagia and which is the only part of the volume written in English. The analysis is based on the close anthropological study of five inhumations and five cremations. There is also a brief summary and conclusions in Greek (pp. 283-285), a complete register of the Kerameikos Submycenaean tombs, together with some of those from other parts of Athens (pp. 289-292), a bibliography (pp. 293-301), an index (pp. 302-303), and sources for the illustrations (pp. 304-305).

As we have come to expect from Kerameikos publications, the quality of the photographs is excellent, both of the tombs in situ (pls. 1-16) and of the objects (pl. 17-47), as well as one plate (48) showing some of the more interesting pathologies among the human remains. There is also a large foldout plan showing the tombs underneath the later Pompeion, wedged in between the Dipylon and Sacred Gates. This is the first Kerameikos cemetery volume to present systematically drawings of the pottery and other small finds (figs. 4-18) and this is most welcomed. The first three figures present sketch drawings of some of the tombs, though measured drawings of the majority of graves were not deemed necessary, which is to be regretted, particularly since some of the burials were excavated in the 1990s.

As for the final conclusions, in addition to reviewing the relative chronology that he has so carefully constructed, Ruppenstein takes a closer look at handmade pottery and possible influences with material from west-central Greece (Phokis and Lokris), Macedonia, and even Kephallenia. This, together with jewelry in the Kerameikos tombs with strong links to similar material from the region of western Macedonia – Epirus – southern Albania – FYROM, is discussed against the backdrop of the movements of people in the troubled times following the collapse of the Mycenaean way of life. Ruppenstein also speculates that the appearance of so many early cemeteries in Athens suggests that Athens was, in the Submycenaean period, a town, centered on the Acropolis, but this is not systematically argued. Beyond this, Ruppenstein takes a stab at pinning relative chronology to calendar years. He does not enter the minefield in which the evidence for our absolute chronology is based, yet through dead-reckoning (I’m not sure what else to call it), Ruppenstein concludes that Submycenaean should cover most of the 11th century B.C. Even if each of the four phases doesn’t quite cover a human generation, Ruppenstein finds it difficult to assign this cemetery to a date range of anything significantly shorter than 100 years. Thus, Submycenaean is furnished, as if magically on the basis of absolutely no hard evidence or cogent synchronisms, with a solid century of existence and a real place in history.

Before we enshrine Submycenaean as a real and distinct historical-chronological phase, however, it is useful to remember, if not heed, Jeremy Rutter’s famous 1978 plea for the abandonment of the term Submycenaean.7 Rutter suggested that LH IIIC Late (Furumark’s LH IIIC1c) and Submycenaean (Furumark’s LH IIIC2) were contemporary, arguing that Submycenaean was the tomb pottery of LH IIIC settlement material. Rutter thus threw a spanner into the over-strict division of tombs, but his argument had cogency on account of the fact that virtually all the Submycenaean material originally collected by Furumark,8 including that from Athens, was found in tombs. Rutter’s idea was picked up by Smithson, working on the well deposits from the Athenian Agora and Acropolis North Slope. Although the three Submycenaean wells in Smithson’s study provided ample evidence of this style of pottery in a non-funerary context, Smithson considered that the deposits yielded enough information to suggest that LH IIIC Late and Submycenaean were contemporary. More accurately, she could not distinguish stylistically between the two.9 Smithson also hinted that this type of pottery (whether it is termed Submycenaean, Final, or Very Late Mycenaean) overlapped chronologically with the earliest Protogeometric. I have stated elsewhere that for “any student of Attic black- or red-figure pottery the notion of coexistent styles would pose no major intellectual or moral difficulty. Athenian black-figure pottery….was produced for several decades while some of the so-called pioneers were painting in the new red-figure…and the black-figure technique continued well into later periods for the production of Panathenaic prize amphorai…Yet in the overly strict linear development of style which has been a feature of ceramic studies in Aegean prehistory, such a notion would amount to iconoclasm”.10

Ruppenstein’s study has done nothing to alter the fact that Attic Submycenaean is found only in tombs (apart from the as yet unpublished well deposits in the Athenian Agora). Stylistic arguments based on tomb pottery alone should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt, particularly since very few tombs yield any number of pots. Indeed, the same arguments that led Ruppenstein and Styrenius to assign an individual pot as Submycenaean led Mountjoy to call the same pot LH IIIC.11 The lack of non-funerary contexts was of concern to Ruppenstein for in Gnomon 78, 2006, he even questioned the importance of the Agora wells originally studied by Smithson.12 The logic here is difficult to follow: for Ruppenstein, a tomb with two pots is a good context, a well or pit with several hundred or several thousand fragments is not. The late Nicolas Coldstream considered the Agora wells significant groups 13 and Ruppenstein would do well to follow his lead.

Since Rutter’s 1978 study, only two settlements have claimed stratified Submycenaean levels with distinctive pottery: Tiryns and Asine;14 as Bartlomiej Lis has recently stated: “Ironically, the publishers of both corpora avoided the controversial term, calling their material Early Iron Age I “Frühe Eisenzeit I” and Final Mycenaean respectively”, and Lis has presented good arguments to question, if not undermine, the validity of both.15 So far as the new evidence from Kalapodi, Mitrou, and Kynos is concerned, Lis notes that the three sites provide an apparently uninterrupted sequence during the transition from the Late Bronze Age into the Early Iron Age, and he goes on to state: “A pottery assemblage that could unambiguously represent a distinct Submycenaean phase in these settlements is, so far, not distinguishable…”16 We await results from the recent excavations at Lefkandi. But the fact remains that an assemblage or deposit diagnostic enough that was stratified below Early Protogeometric and/or above Late Helladic IIIC Late that can be called Submycenaean has not yet been found.

So, how do we reconcile a Submycenaean stylistic phase that seems to have chronological relevance in terms of tomb material but which to date lacks any evidence for a discrete deposit in a settlement context that is clearly stratified? One answer may be that there is a real Submycenaean period, chronologically distinct from both LH III C Late and Early Protogeometric, but that it was a very short-lived one.17 Another alternative might be that, rather than insist on neatly defined chronological phases or Zeitstufen, we regard stylistic analysis as a tool prone to subjective arbitrariness. We would do well to question the common assumption of the linear development of style. Although similarities and differences among discerned stylistic groups may be noted, it remains difficult to be certain whether such differences do, in fact, belong to successive chronological phases, or are part of a parallel development, or synchronic variation. Whichever way, it is highly unlikely that Submycenaean can be assigned anything even approaching the hundred years that Ruppenstein maintains. The problem may well lie in the way we currently view stylistic development and the manner in which we assign terms to our own periodization.


1. J. Whitley, The Archaeology of Greece, Cambridge 2001, 79.

2. A.M. Snodgrass, The Dark Age of Greece: An Archaeological Survey of the Eleventh to the Eighth Centuries B.C., Edinburgh 1971, 34.

3. R. Osborne, Greece in the Making, 1200-479 B.C., London 1996, 24.

4. Ruppenstein is unaware of any published parallels, though he mentions something similar from Kalapodi, in the Lamia Museum, which is unpublished. Two similar bone ornamental strips were found in Agora Tomb 63 (I 5:2), inv. BI 924 and 925.

5. C.-G. Styrenius, Submycenaean Studies: Examination of Finds from Mainland Greece with a Chapter on Attic Protogeometric Graves, Lund 1967.

6. G. Krause, Untersuchungen zu den ältesten Nekropole am Eridanos in Athen (Hamburger Beiträge zur Archäologie, Beiheft 3:1-ιἰ, Hamburg 1975.

7. J.B. Rutter, A plea for the abandonment of the term Submycenaean, Temple University Aegean Symposium 3, 1978, 58-65. I am grateful to Jerry Rutter for fruitful recent discussion on Submycenaean.

8. A. Furumark, The Mycenaean Pottery, II: Chronology, Stockholm 1941.

9. E.L. Smithson, “The Prehistoric Klepsydra: Some Notes”, in Studies in Athenian Architecture, Sculpture and Topography Presented to Homer A. Thompson ( Hesperia Supplement 20), Princeton, 1982, 141-154.

10. J.K. Papadopoulos, “To kill a cemetery: The Athenian Kerameikos and the Early Iron Age in the Aegean”, Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 6, 1993, 180.

11. P.A. Mountjoy, (with V. Hankey), LHIIIC Late versus Submycenaean: The Kerameikos Pompeion cemetery revisited, Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 103, 1988, 1-37; see also F. Ruppenstein, “Late Helladic III C Late versus Submycenaean: A Methodological Problem”, in S. Deger-Jalkotzy and M. Zavadil, eds., LH III C Chronology and Synchronisms. Proceedings of the International Workshop held at the Austrian Academy of Sciences at Vienna, May 7th and 8th, 2001, Vienna 2003, 183-192.

12. For the importance of the Agora well deposits, see J.K. Papadopoulos, Ceramicus Redivivus: The Early Iron Age Potters’ Field in the Area of the Classical Athenian Agora ( Hesperia Supplement 31), Princeton 2003.

13. J.N. Coldstream, Late Geometric Pottery: A Survey of Ten Local Styles and Their Chronology, London 1968, 8-90.

14. For Tiryns see A. Papadimitriu, Bericht zur früheisenzeitlichen Keramik aus der Unterburg von Tiryns. Ausgrabungen in Tiryns 1982/83 Archäologisches Anzeiger 1988, 227-243; for Asine see B. Santillo Frizell, Asine II. Results of the Excavations East of the Acropolis 1970-1974, Fasc. 3: The Late and Final Mycenaean Periods Stockholm 1986. The evidence presented for Mycenae by Mountjoy 1988 (see footnote 11) is stylistic, not stratigraphic.

15. B. Lis, The sequence of Late Bronze/Early Iron Age pottery from Central Greek settlements: A fresh look at old and new evidence, in S. Deger-Jalkotzy, ed., LH III C Chronology and Synchronisms forthcoming. I am grateful to both Bart322;omiej Lis and Aleydis van de Moortel for sending me pre-publication copies of their papers on Mitrou. 22;omiej Lis and Aleydis van de Moortel for sending me pre-publication copies of their papers on Mitrou.

16. Ibid.

17. See discussion in J.K. Papadopoulos, The Early Iron Age Cemetery at Torone, Los Angeles, 2005, 409-414.