BMCR 2021.02.26

The Late Minoan III necropolis of Armenoi. Volume 1, introduction and background

, , , The Late Minoan III necropolis of Armenoi. Volume 1, introduction and background. Prehistory monographs. Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press, 2018. Pp. xxvi, 284. ISBN 9781931534987 $80.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The Late Minoan III Necropolis of Armenoi, edited by Yannis Tzedakis, Holley Martlew and Robert Arnott, is the first volume of a series of forthcoming publications concerning the necropolis of Armenoi on Crete. The volume is published by INSTAP Academic Press and consists of an introduction and ten chapters, to which a number of researchers have contributed (authors and titles are listed at the end of the review). Its main purpose is to introduce the site to the reader and outline the background of the excavations conducted at it.

The necropolis of Armenoi is situated 10 km south of Rethymnon. The excavation of the site begun in 1969 and is ongoing. To date two hundred and thirty-two tombs have been excavated with the minimum number of individuals buried estimated to be a thousand. The site consists of chamber tombs and a tholos tomb and it was used from the LM IIIA:1 to the LM IIIB:2, judging by the pottery uncovered in the tombs. The cemetery is unique in many aspects, namely that it is an extensive one and that it has not been looted or destroyed in any way, with the exception of four tombs plundered at the end of the Minoan period. The tombs were rich in finds, consisting of high-quality decorated pottery from workshops of Armenoi, Kydonia, Knossos, Palaikastro and Mycenae, a stirrup jar with a Linear B inscription, painted larnakes, bronze tools and weapons, sealstones and an imported Mycenaean boar’s tusk helmet. The elaborate architectural features present in a number of tombs, such as pillars, benches and niches, as well as the variety and value of the finds furnishing the burials attest to the high status of the community that buried its dead in the necropolis.

The book offers a detailed description of the advantageous position of the site, which indicates that the choice was a deliberate one. The necropolis of Armenoi is situated at one of the few natural north-south crossings of the island and at a natural crossroads. Its location was geologically determined, consisting of two formations of limestone and it was indeed due to the specific geology that the tombs did not suffer much damage from earthquakes. The burial ground was extended in two levels, the lower one, where the earliest and smaller tombs were cut, and the upper one, where the largest and richest tombs were built. All tombs were constructed using the process called stoping and share the same orientation, with their entrances facing east. Their dromoi were formed either as ramps or shallow staircases and the entrances were closed mostly by slabs, rather than small stones, as was more common.

Gize attempts to offer insight into the construction of the tombs, both in terms of the method used to plan and cut them, as well as the possible symbolism of their orientation. His proposition that the horizontal plans of the tombs were worked out with the use of the shadow cast by a vertical pole, is indeed very intriguing. Moreover, the possible connection between the orientation of the sun and that of the tombs is touched upon. Indeed, the orientation of prehistoric tombs according to the position of the sun is a subject that is brought up from time to time among researchers. In terms of the necropolis of Armenoi, the connection between the tombs and the position of the sun and the moon was first addressed in 1992 by Papathanassiou et al.[1] Gize does not dismiss this possibility, although he seems to favour a more practical function to the layout of the tombs. His observations, however, indicate that the sun illuminates the entrances of the chamber of the tombs at particular times of the day, once in the morning and once at sunset; at the latter time shadows would have been cast over the entrances. According to the author, this fact might have also played some role in the orientation of the tombs, with the purpose being to symbolically recreate on a daily basis the circle of life —from birth to death—through the movement of the sun.

In addition to the excavation of the tombs, field walking, geological and geophysical surveys and trial excavation were conducted in order to expand our understanding of the necropolis and to trace the settlement. Some of the issues that the survey work wanted to clarify were whether there was a boundary around the necropolis, real or perceived, whether there were entrances to the burial ground, and how the cemetery was approached from the settlement. The surface survey was conducted in the area within a 4 km radius from the necropolis and it located the settlement on a hill to the southwest of the burial ground at a distance of 1–2 km. Its location was determined by the strategical position offered by the hills around the settlement, which allowed it to oversee the valley, as well as the presence of water sources and fertile soil. The existence of an iron deposit 5 km west of the Armenoi necropolis, in the area called Ano Valsamonero, might have also played a role in the choice of the settlement’s location. Finally, the visual contact of the settlement and cemetery with the peak sanctuary of Vrysinas could have also determined their location.

The book also includes catalogues of Minoan, Roman and Byzantine pottery sherds collected at the field survey, the examination of which corroborates the picture already formed for the ceramic distribution of these periods in Crete. The material of Roman and Early Byzantine periods, for example, is representative of the pottery used from the 1st to the 8th centuries A.D. in Crete and the eastern Mediterranean, and highlights the trade connections of the area of Armenoi with other parts of Crete, Greece, North Africa and the Levant.

The rich finds uncovered in the tombs bear testimony to the prosperity of the settlement of Armenoi. Indeed, some of the tombs could be characterised as highly prestigious, suggesting that the cemetery might have been used by an administrative center with the status of a palace. It seems that this center developed after the fall of the palace of Knossos and the loss of its authority over western Crete. Particularly interesting is the chapter by Godart, who examines the topography of western Crete according to the toponyms mentioned in the Linear B tablets from Knossos and proposes the identification of Armenoi as da-*22-to, recorded in series such as the Da and Dg series. The town da-*22-to appears to have held great importance as possessing a significant number of livestock, as a center of artisan activity, and a cull centre for the veneration of Potnia. He further places the site into the wider context of LM III western Crete, which comprised important centres accommodating the needs of the palace of Knossos.

The publication of the tombs and the material uncovered in them will highlight the status of the community that used it and consequently will contribute to reconstructing and understanding the character of the LM IIIA–IIIB society in Minoan Crete and particularly in its western part. The sophistication of the tombs and the material culture discovered at the necropolis attests to the existence during that period of centers outside Knossos and underlines the level of complexity such settlements had achieved. More importantly, it enriches our knowledge on the political and social structure of western Minoan Crete during the period before and after the decline of Knossos and the way the fall of the main political center and the Mycenaean peace that followed seem to have favoured the re-emergence of old centers.[2]

Authors and titles

Chapter 1 – Background and History of the Excavation by Y. Tzedakis and V. Kolivaki
Chapter 2 – Topographical Setting by A. P. Gize
Chapter 3 – Site Investigations of the Necropolis and Its Environs: The Search for the Town by E. Chappell and S. Allender
Chapter 4 – Geophysical Survey 2010: Necropolis and Town by P. Masters
Chapter 5 – Minoan Diagnostic Pottery from Field and Geophysical Surveys: 1992, 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2007 by H. Martlew, A. P. Gize and V. Kolivaki
Chapter 6 – Roman and Early Byzantine Diagnostic Pottery from Field Surveys: 2001, 2002 and 2007 by A. Ariotti
Chapter 7 – Geological Setting by A.P. Gize
Chapter 8 – Proposed Method of Tomb Construction
Chapter 9 – Ano Valsamonero Iron Deposit: A Potential Metal Resource for the Late Minoan III Community by C. Sherwood-Dickinson, G. Droop and A. P. Gize
Chapter 10 – Armenoi, Western Crete, and the Linear B Tablets from Knossos by L. Godart


[1] Papathanassiou, M., M. Hoskin and H. Papadopoulou. 1992. “Orientations of tombs in the Late-Minoan cemetery at Armenoi, Crete”. Journal for the History of Astronomy 17, pp. 44-59.

[2] Preston, L. 2008. “Late Minoan II to IIIB Crete”. In: Shelmerdine, C. W. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age. Cambridge: University Press, pp. 310-326.