BMCR 2011.12.39

Prehistoric Crete: Regional and Diachronic Studies on Mortuary Systems

, Prehistoric Crete: Regional and Diachronic Studies on Mortuary Systems. Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press, 2011. xi, 214. ISBN 9781931534611. $36.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

This slim, handsomely produced volume contains six papers and an introduction. Four papers were originally presented at the 108 th Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in 2007 at a colloquium organized by the editor of the volume; two others (by Betancourt and Eaby) were added to “expand the scope of the volume both geographically and chronologically” (10).1 As such, it contains the contributions of a varied cohort of established (Betancourt, Cadogan) and upcoming (Eaby, Legarra Herrero) scholars. The explicit aim of the present volume is “to promote dialogue between scholars specializing in different time periods and regions” (10) and the reader is told that the participants of the original session had afterwards “a lively discussion about different aspects of the death ( sic) on Crete” (this is not the only infelicitous editing error in the text). Unfortunately, this lively discussion does not transpire in this volume.

The raison d’être for an edited volume like this must surely be the dialogue the individual papers establish with one another, either explicitly or implicitly. In juxtaposition these dialogues should reveal new insights or surprising connections, with the result that the end product is something more than the sum of its constituent parts. The current volume, however, remains not more than the six individual articles: they do not engage with each other, there is no indication that the individual authors have taken one another’s perspectives into account, and even cross references to other papers in the volume are nonexistent. Also missing is a conclusion at the end of the volume.

The editor’s role seems limited to soliciting the papers, placing them in (chrono)logical order, and contributing an introduction: obvious inconsistencies in style are allowed to remain (Cadogan places his acknowledgements as a footnote after the first sentence; Legarra Herrero at the end of his paper), the length of the papers ranges from 15 pages (chapter 5) to 46 pages (chapter 6), and while most papers are meticulously referenced, including as many as ten pages of references (Perna’s paper), Cadogan’s paper is “presented very much as it was given, with a minimum of references” (103). More importantly, more involved editing could have prevented frequent misspellings, word omissions (“the introduction of was perhaps determined” on p. 153), and the occasional unfortunate turn of phrase in some contributions (“[cremation] was inserted into the traditional burial customs” on p. 151).

Despite these criticisms, the individual contributions have much to offer. Three contributions are articles presenting new evidence or viewing evidence from a new angle (chapters 2, 4, and 5); the other three (chapters 3, 6, and 7) are based on more or less recent dissertation work and are characterized by thorough and lengthy reassessments of the evidence and previous scholars’ opinions, with new conclusions emerging.

After the programmatic and theoretical introduction by Joanne Murphy (chapter 1), chapter 2 (also by Murphy) addresses the manipulation of the landscape in conjunction with burial ritual “to make social statements that are intended to appear natural and unquestionable” (25) at Mochlos and Lebena. This postmodern approach allows some seemingly straightforward and simple observations to acquire additional meaning: at Mochlos, the largest and richest tombs are also located in the best spots, i.e., in areas most protected from erosion (as well as from visitors). This might simply be the result of the power of the elites who were able to claim the best spots, but the result is a subtle reinforcement of the permanence of the rich families: their tombs are not subject to erosion of the slope. At Lebena, the hegemonic social narrative was that of equality, and although at interment the deceased were given grave goods differentiating and underlining their rank, their consequent treatment in secondary burial erased all references to status and emphasized the social ideology of an egalitarian community. Only the ideology of this second stage was visible in the landscape and expressed by pairs of tombs of similar size and style next to each other, which served kinship groups consisting of up to five nuclear families. The resulting message was thus that differences were transient, similarities enduring. Some cumbersome sentences (a ten-line long sentence appears on p. 25) and limited integration of the theoretical framework with the archaeological data on Mochlos and Lebena make reading less pleasurable than it could be.

In chapter 3 Borja Legarra Herrero turns towards the tholos cemeteries at Koumasa and Platanos, which are often taken together as representative for Prepalatial cemeteries and as the basis for models of social, political, and economic organization on 3rd and 2nd millennium BC Crete. His aim is to reassess and reinterpret these cemeteries and by doing so expose the weaknesses embedded in these traditional models. The paper suffers slightly from an overly lengthy review of earlier (mislabeled as “current” on p. 54) and recent (“modern”) approaches. The author emphasizes variability and shows that Koumasa and Platanos were far from similar: at EM II Koumasa the emphasis is on “marking the status and position of certain individuals with grave goods” (73), at MM I Platanos the focus is on the participation of the community and therefore on the display of distinction between different groups (74). The cemeteries are thus, in post-processual fashion, interpreted as social arenas for the negotiation of relationships rather than as straightforward reflections of their societies.

A similar perspective informs the brief chapters 4, by Philip Betancourt, and 5, by Gerald Cadogan, which present new results from excavation and study of a single tomb. Betancourt interprets Tomb 4 at Pseira, a looted rock- shelter (the smallest and one of the oldest in the cemetery) with a court in front of it, in the light of cult practices and ancestor worship as reactions to social and political upheavals. This paper is a fine and clearly written example of the integration of excavation data and current theoretical approaches. Pottery attests to the tomb’s continuous or periodic use for more than a millennium, from FN through MM II. In the latter period the courtyard was partially walled in, an exposed rock was left (or placed) on the terrace, and ceramic and stone vessels were buried upright in the soil of the terrace, possibly for their contents. Absence of any traces of cooking or burning and a relatively small number of cups suggests that ritual cooking and toasting with large numbers of cups were not activities taking place on the terrace. Pouring vessels, on the other hand, were relatively numerous. Betancourt interprets the evidence as suggestive of ceremonial activity in ancestor commemoration, with the implication that each family used its own tomb. The “new wave of veneration of early burials” in MM II is linked to “changes in the affirmation of traditional practices in regard to belief-systems associated with life and death” (98) occurring at this time of crisis, when peak sanctuaries declined and the old palaces were destroyed, possibly due to the extension of Knossian political rule over all of Crete. The humble Tomb 4 could then be seen as a materialization of resistance against the changes taking place.

Cadogan re-examines the tomb complex at Myrtos-Pyrgos and presents new results of its continued excavation and study. He concludes that throughout its long use the tomb functioned as a veritable “power-house of the dead,” a monumental, highly visible statement by the elites and an attempt to assert and legitimize their status towards both their own and neighboring communities. Initially, in the Pyrgos II phases (between EM II and MM IIB),2 the tomb complex held several ossuaries with the remains of men, women, children, and fetuses, but in LM IA, when archaeologically visible burials are generally absent from Crete, ten males were buried below a floor which held over 1050 pottery vessels, mostly brand new and consisting of cups and pouring vessels. This suggests a change in engendering the exercise of power between Protopalatial and Neopalatial Crete. The deposition of the ten males was manipulated: one man received an extra long bone, and the skull of a quite young man was replaced by that of a mature individual. Cadogan suggests DNA analysis, to determine kinship ties, as the next avenue of research.

Katia Perna reviews LM IIIC burial evidence on all of Crete in chapter 6. Although the title of her paper suggests that she will discuss this from a socioeconomic perspective (a processualist agenda), many of her conclusions are in actuality, in line with the post-processual angle of the previous contributions, centered on ideologies of power, interpreting the fusing of traditional and new ideas as a result of competition among the new communities emerging during this period of political, social, and economic change (e.g. pp. 137-9, 141, 145-7, 148). The merger between the sweeping perspective of collapse-induced regional change and its subsequent responses by individual communities all deduced from the archaeological data is promising, but might benefit from a focus on a smaller data set; conclusions remain scarce and often tentative between the large amount of data summarized (example: at Chalasmenos some burials stand out due to their different pottery assemblages, which are not suitable for a funeral banquet and which according to Perna seems to “indicate a different ideological belief system” (135) – but the reader is never told what sort of different ideology would cause the change from entombing funerary banquet sets to depositing a few closed vessels and valuables).

Chapter 7 closes the volume, with Eaby’s contribution on Early Iron Age burials (dated here from LM IIIC to Early Orientalizing, and thus partially overlapping with the previous paper). Eaby, too, takes a regional perspective and focuses on common tomb types. Her contribution is the most informed by processual approaches. She demonstrates that an early development of city states is associated with high variability in burial practices, while homogeneity occurs in areas with a simple socio-political organization. The six distinct mortuary regions (with three additional border zones) detected by Eaby are virtually identical to Perna’s; this suggests that the natural landscape formed barriers between the different areas. Eaby also suggests that a continuity in material culture is responsible for the persistence of these regional patterns, but in this case the reader is left with some questions: on p. 194, Eaby concludes that especially in far eastern Crete, the primary tomb type used (caves and rock shelters) “frequently reflects a continuation of the previous LM III funerary tradition in the area,” while Perna lists chamber tombs, tholoi, and pseudo-tholoi for the same area (pp. 135-6). This is one place where an explicit conversation between the two contributions would have been welcome. This also begs the question if the same regional variety already existed in the LM IIIA-B periods, which are not represented in this volume.

In sum, the volume suffers from the flaws inherent in its genre but exacerbated by overly lax editing. It is a seemingly haphazard collection of different papers, loosely connected by the theme of burial archaeology in prehistoric Crete, using different approaches, different emphases, and focusing on different areas and time periods. Too many chronological and thematic gaps remain to make it a representative ‘snapshot’ of current thinking about Cretan mortuary customs. Nevertheless, the chapters themselves constitute valuable contributions to the scholarship on burial in prehistoric Crete, and several of them are stimulating in their approach or conclusions as well as making for a pleasant read.


1. The expansion of scope by Betancourt’s contribution is however minimal, and the LM II-IIIB periods are entirely absent from the volume, as are detailed studies from areas in western and west-central Crete.

2. The chronological framework is not always made clear: references to “Pyrgos II” are not linked to the Cretan-wide system of EM-MM dates.