Bronze Age Burials

Bronze Age Burial Sites: Learning how the Mycenaeans lived by examining how they
Mary Ann Tawasha
Omni Magazine, March 1994
From the first archaeological dig in Crete by Arthur Evans at the ancient city of Knossos
in 1900 to last summer's excavation on a hillside behind the village of Mochlos on the
island of Mochlos, archaeologists have unearthed urns, utensils, and even complete
Cretan villages. By examining these shards and artifacts, they now know a lot about the
lives of people who lived in Crete during the Bronze Age, a period that spanned from
3000 to 1200 B.C. As a result of the latest international dig, some light has been shed on
the mystery of the burial rituals of the Mycenaeans laid to rest in Cretan hillsides.
Codirected by Jeffrey Soles, an archaeologist and head of the classical studies department
at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), and Costas Davaras, director
of Antiquities in Eastern Crete, the international team excavated seven chamber tombs in
a cemetery that dates from about 1370 to 1200 B.C.
According to Andrew Smith, trench master of the dig, they first had to remove small
stones that served as entrance markers to the tomb. Then they entered a small, shallow
corridor, about 10 to 15 feet long, which led into the hillside at a slight downward slant.
At the end of the corridor, they found the entrance to the chamber--haphazardly walled
up with rocks. After they removed the rocks by hand, one by one, they stood at the
opening of a hollow chamber cut from the hillside--the burial site.
Historians have speculated that Bronze Age graves were actually opened when other
family members died. Last summer's excavation provided evidence to support the
nuclear-family burial theory. Several of the tombs contained two members, a male and a
``When there were two burials, the first burial was laid out and the tomb closed. Later, it
was reopened and the first burial was displaced within the tomb to make room for the
second burial,'' Soles says. ``In one chamber, I found that the bones of the earlier burial
had been broken up and placed into a pyxis, a large round vase with a lid.'' Mycenaeans
were usually buried in a sarcophagus, a terra-cotta coffin. Sometimes the bones were
stored in a pithos, a clay storage jar, or a pyxis.
The largest tomb, number 13, was about five feet high. Inside, the excavators discovered
a sarcophagus that contained the skeletal remains of a burial and a large pyxis decorated
in a checkered pattern. A rhyta, a ritual vase used for pouring libations or offerings to the
gods, lay on top of the other vessels; it was the last artifact placed in the tomb.
Two ritual vases were shaped like pomegranates--a ``particularly unusual find,'' Soles
says. From the sixth century B.C. on, the pomegranate was significant because it was
often a gift for the dead. ``It was a symbol of rebirth,'' he says. The archaeologists also
discovered stemmed drinking goblets (kylikes), which indicate that the survivors shared a
ritual meal before burial. Other gifts to the departed included stirrup jars (closed vessels
with a spout and two handles in the shape of a stirrup), jugs, kraters (mixing bowls),
drinking cups, and jewelry. In one of the tombs, Soles says, they found a bronze bowl
that contained a gold signet ring, a bronze dress pin, and a necklace made of 50 tiny
beads in the shape of an ivy leaf with a large gold bead in the center. ``To find so many
artifacts and vessels intact was amazing,'' Smith says.
Judging from the intricate artwork on the pottery, Soles thinks the Mycenaeans who
inhabited this settlement on Crete were highly skilled people. ``They seemed to be
remarkably prosperous, although not wealthy,'' he remarks. ``They were probably
everyday people, local land owners who traded with the western part of Crete and the
Greek mainland.''
With each excavation on the islands scattered about the Aegean, we learn more and more
about the people we now know as the Mycenaeans--how these traders lived and how they
died. There are still as many as 70 tombs to excavate on Mochlos alone, Soles says. This
summer, he and Davaras plan to open another 15 to 20 tombs. ``We hope to be able to
distinguish the different statuses and roles of the whole population,'' he says. Ironically,
we get closer to the Mycenaeans' lives by examining how they dealt with death.