BMCR 2021.04.26

Death in Mycenaean Lakonia: a silent place

, Death in Mycenaean Lakonia: a silent place. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2019. Pp. 296. ISBN 9781789252422 £48.00.


Mycenaean archaeology outside of the Argolid is rapidly expanding. Chrysanthi Gallou’s new (2020) volume, Death in Mycenaean Laconia, is the first published monograph on a region once thought to be on the fringes of the Mycenaean world, but now understood to be firmly within it. The first section of the Introduction, “‘Κοίλη Λακεδαίμονα κητώεσσαν‘: the topographical and geological setting”, takes an interdisciplinary approach. The author describes the salient features of the landscape drawn from geological studies (e.g., the various types of rock of the Parnon and Taygetos mountain ranges) with reference to how the area is also likely to be experienced (the high winds of Cape Malea); this section also inherently frames the author’s own area of study. The second section, “Epidavros Limera: Introducing a case study”, addresses this area by bringing in previous historical accounts of the local geography and the etymology of the place name. The author gives an overview of the archaeology of this site, beginning with the earliest evidence of habitation, dated to the Final Neolithic, and ending with the Archaic period. What is not clear in this section, however, is how Epidavros Limera will be utilized as a case study, although in subsequent chapters this becomes more apparent. The Introduction would have been greatly assisted by maps and charts with some of the salient geographic features picked out, including changes in the ancient and modern coastline. The first, and indeed only, map comes in chapter 1. Equally importantly, Gallou does not discuss routes of overland travel, and sea travel is only mentioned with reference to how dangerous Cape Malea is to mariners; thus, the routes that Laconian Mycenaeans may have navigated to access sites outside the region are not discussed. Gallou’s approach of seeing this region in isolation is noticeable from the Introduction.

The first chapter, “Graves and burial contexts”, will doubtless prove to have lasting utility to the discipline because it presents such a complete index of tombs in the region.  Gallou presents a gazetteer that combines historical records with excavation and survey reports as well as her own fieldwork and explorations. The chapter is arranged by tomb type (tholoi, chamber tombs, built chamber tombs, simple graves, unspecified and possible Mycenaean graves, graves reported but not excavated) and then by region. The catalog entries present a brief overview of the site, followed by the pertinent details of each tomb, including the excavator of the monument; its publication; location; setting; orientation; dimensions; architectural description; description of burials and finds; chronology; additional comments; and bibliography. There are many photographs of the tombs, typically of the dromoi and/or stomia, but also of some of the chambers. As a stand-alone report on the archaeology of the tombs of this region, this chapter will doubtless be consulted for many decades to come. Nevertheless, researchers looking to read up on a particular cemetery will be forced to move around chapter 1 repeatedly in order to find all the various types of graves. The choice to arrange chapter 1 by tomb type and then by area, rather than the other way around, presents a de facto evolutionary development and hierarchical structure of Mycenaean tomb styles that carries over into subsequent chapters.

Chapter 2, “Burial architecture”, divides Mycenaean graves into simple forms (pit, cist, shaft grave, pit-shaft) and complex forms (tholos, chamber tomb, built chamber tomb), and then analyzes these two groups by location, orientation, construction methods, and chronology. Here again, maps locating these graves, or visuals showing the dates that these graves were active, would have been helpful. When discussing simple graves, Gallou’s adoption of the concept of intracommunal and extracommunal burial (as put forth by Christesen 2018[1] for the historical period), in place of the terms intramural/extramural, is a useful confrontation of the problematic nature of the prehistoric evidence; a hodge-podge of survey data, robbed tomb remains, undated material, and emergency excavations mean that applying intramural or extramural to characterize the juxtaposition of Mycenaean mortuary and settlement evidence may be little more than guesswork. By contrast, the concept of intra- and extracommunal approaches the settlement and mortuary domains from a perspective that allows landscape archaeology to be relevant; her lead should be followed by other Aegean prehistorians. In discussing complex tomb types, Gallou grapples with the question of the development of the chamber tomb, whether it was a local development or if it had been imported wholesale from outside the mainland, and here she draws on the Epidavros Limera cemetery evidence to argue that chamber tombs “were the result of independent evolution rather than of the derivation of a single source of inspiration” (p. 96).

The approach taken in chapter 3, “Burial customs and rites”, is becoming familiar in studies of Mycenaean funerary ritual.[2] Here Gallou presents a temporal outline of each phase of burial, with “entering the tomb”, “funerary offerings in primary burials”, and “second funeral rites” sections. While the phenomenological approach that Gallou adopts is becoming widely used, it is noticeable that Gallou sticks to mostly referencing primary excavation reports rather than referring to thematic papers that problematize many of the social activities which she seeks to contextualize. For example, when discussing grave offerings that appear to be intentionally destroyed, Gallou consistently refers to these objects as “‘killed’” (p. 128, p. 144) and “ritually ‘killed’” (p. 143), with the quotation marks suggesting that she feels uneasy with this terminology. Yet she does not engage with published scholarship on this practice. Moreover, she does not associate these objects with secondary funerary rites, which is a missed opportunity, because Gallou’s discussion of disiecta membra, bodies without skulls, and the retention of skulls, is extensive. Similarly, Gallou consistently uses the term warrior burial rather than the less overtly-Homeric phrase burial with weapons that has been consistently championed in the literature for some decades. Indeed, there is little attempt in the volume to pick apart social identity through burial practice.

Chapter 4, “Pottery”, is a catalog of pottery, mostly unpublished, from the chamber tombs at Epidavros Limera. One strength of this volume is Gallou’s willingness to address and rectify mislabeled earlier finds in museums or misidentifications in various reports. For example, “for some——yet unknown—reason, whoever catalogued the pottery from Christou’s excavation confused the toponym ‘Palaiokastro’ at Epidavros Limera with that of Palaiokastro Gortynias and as a result, the file records of the Archaeological Museum of Sparta include false information of the provenance of a number of vases” (p. 148), which Gallou then lists by number. Pottery is arranged by date and then type. Chapters 1 and 4, both catalogs, serve to bookend the middle two chapters.

The way that the epilogue is titled, “Epilogue—Breaking the tomb’s silence”, vastly undersells what this section offers. Typically, epilogues are used to push temporal boundaries (linking the archaeological evidence to later periods and/or historical memory), or to reference the wider contemporary world, in order to narrate a more encompassing perspective on the evidence that has been heretofore meticulously laid out. Gallou’s epilogue does not do this. Instead, the epilogue combines the mortuary data presented in the four chapters with all of the known published settlement data and analysis in order to offer a synthetic historical overview of the region from MH III through Submycenaean-Early Protogeometric, with each chronological horizon (13 in total) systematically discussed. This section presents vast quantities of new data to which Gallou adds her own synthesis about the rise and fall of local sites. One would have thought that Epidavros Limera as the case study would be the focus of this section, but instead no special attention is paid to this site. As such, most of the pottery presented in chapter 4 goes undiscussed. As a whole, the epilogue effectively outlines a comprehensive political geography of Laconia for the whole Late Bronze Age, which to my mind exceeds the limits of the epilogue form. This epilogue should be a full chapter, despite the fact that it is shorter than the others.[3]

Gallou’s approach in the epilogue is problematic in two ways: firstly, as in chapter 3, Gallou mostly cites primary excavation reports that offer—by definition—interpretations that are both initial and limited, whereas the questions Gallou is seeking to answer in this section are much deeper, such as why there is no palace at Ayios Stephanos. Her method for addressing these questions is to suture together settlement datasets with the mortuary evidence she has previously presented, as if the one directly and completely informs and indexes the other. This leads to the second problem with this section; that is, there is now burgeoning scholarship on the political geography of Mycenaean Laconia, with which Gallou for the most part does not engage.[4] Other scholars are already looking to draw comparisons between Laconia and the other Mycenaean palatial geographies in order to highlight similarities or to emphasize an autochthonous form of social complexity.[5] The outcome of these debates has an effect outside of our understanding of Laconia—these same questions are being asked of areas such as Thessaly, Boeotia, and Achaia, where new research and excavations are allowing us to test older models.

Throughout the text, there are some minor proofreading errors regarding in-text citations and in the bibliography, such as names being misspelled, and names omitted from author lists (e.g. Danforth and Tsiaras 1982). For the most part, these mistakes are minor, although in others, it is not clear to which source Gallou is referring. Equally problematic are references completely missing from the bibliography, such as Kardamaki 2017[6] and Cavanagh 2010-2011.[7]Confusing too is the choice to cite articles in Πρακτικά της Εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρεία (ΠΑΕ) as if they are book chapters rather than journal articles. ΠΑΕ references are listed by the year of their publication without mentioning the actual volume that the article is in (ΠΑΕ 2013 was published in 2015, so this volume is cited in the bibliography as 2015, with no mention of it being the 2013 volume).  More problematic is that two ΠΑΕ volumes were published in 2015 (2012 and 2013), so in the instance of the references to Vasilogamvrou 2015a and Vasilogamvrou 2015b, it is incumbent on the reader to ascertain that these publications are to be found in two different ΠΑΕ volumes. By way of contrast, Gallou does not cite Αρχαιολογική Εφημερίς (AE) volumes this way. Anyone needing to Interlibrary Loan ΠΑΕ articles will likely encounter a headache.

Overall, the lack of an overarching thematic narrative in this volume is evident from the fact that the four chapters could have just as easily been arranged in reverse order (Pottery, Burial customs and rites, Burial architecture, Graves and burial contexts), presenting the activities of burial in a loose chronological sequence. While this volume succeeds in presenting a thorough literature review on the cemeteries of Mycenaean Laconia, and publishing for the first time much of the pottery from the tombs at Epidavros Limera, this volume looks back at past scholarship more than it looks forward toward new ideas.


[1] Christesen, Paul. 2018. “The Typology and Topography of Spartan Burials from the Protogeometric to the Hellenistic Period: Rethinking Spartan Exceptionalism and the Ostensible Cessation of Adult Intramural Burials in the Greek World”. Annual of the British School at Athens 113: 307-363.

[2] See, for example: Boyd, Michael J. 2014. “The materiality of performance in Mycenaean funerary practices”. World Archaeology46(2): 192-205.

[3] Perhaps a typo, but suggestive of the author’s ambivalence towards how to frame this section, the Epilogue is referred to as chapter 5 in the Introduction (p. 1).

[4] For example, Adamantia Vasilogamvrou’s (2016) talk, “Power centralization in LH IIIA Laconia: The Palace at Ayios Vasileios, near Sparta”, given at the British School at Athens, as well as the 2019 Netherlands Institute of Athens conference, “Middle and Late Helladic Laconia: Competing Principalities?” at which Gallou co-presented a paper.

[5] Cf. Sofia Voutsaki’s (2019) presentation, “The political geography of Mycenaean Laconia”, at the Netherlands Institute of Athens conference.

[6] This citation is presumably for Kardamaki, Eleftheria. 2017. “The Late Helladic IIB to IIIA2 Pottery Sequence from the Mycenaean Palace at Ayios Vasileios, Laconia”. Archaeologia austriaca 101: 73-142.

[7] Cavanagh, B. (2011). “The Greek Mainland in the Prehistoric Period.” Archaeological Reports, 57: 19-26. doi:10.1017/S0570608411000056. Thank you to V. Petrakis for finding this bibliographic reference.