Aegeus Society For Aegean Prehistory


26 September 2018

Funerary Landscapes in Mesohelladic and Early Mycenaean Central Greece: an Update

Laetitia Phialon

This short paper based on my lecture at Aegeus (January 27, 2017) explores the variability and change of the funerary landscapes in Central Greece during the first six centuries of the 2nd millennium BC. It updates the main conclusions of my study on the Emergence of the Mycenaean civilization in Central Greece (2011), which dealt with MH-LH IIIA1 graves uncovered in 64 sites in Boeotia, Phocis and Phthiotis, as well as in Attica and Euboea (Fig. 1). Firstly, I suggest reinvestigating the correlation between habitation areas and burial plots at sites such as Eleusis, Orchomenos, Kirrha, Thebes and Krisa, in light of the most recent publications. Secondly, burial and social practices will be revisited through the scope of mortuary examples from Kirrha and Mitrou.

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Fig. 1. Distribution of sites with MH-LH IIIA1 graves (after Phialon 2011, maps 2 to 8).

It is so far observed that cist and pit graves, as well as pithos burials, have been frequently discovered within MH settlement areas. These graves were located within the houses (under or on their floor) or adjacent to them. However, the number of MH III and LH I-IIA graves is certainly higher than my initial estimation (Phialon 2011, ch. I.2.4 and II.2.2). In this respect, the burial plots on the acropolis of Eleusis re-studied by M. Cosmopoulos (2014) provide an excellent example, especially on the South Slope, in Sector III, where a concentration of nine graves possibly range in date from MH III to LH II(A) (Fig. 2).

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Fig. 2. Eleusis. MH-LH IIIA1 burial areas on the acropolis.

It is noteworthy that the buildings of Sector III on the South Slope of the Eleusis acropolis were mostly occupied in the MH and LH I-II periods. Only Building H, which was possibly occupied in LH IIB (Cosmopoulos 2014: 41), must be regarded as the most recent of this sector. The discovery of LH III pottery in Building H does not provide safe evidence for the use of the building in this phase, since this material can be interpreted as residual. Nevertheless, important LH IIB-IIIA1 and LH III building remains were discovered on the East slope of the acropolis, notably under the Peisistrateian Telesterion. This fact supports the idea of a shift of the inhabited area within the settlement in LH II. On the East slope, however, habitations and graves ranging in date from the MH to the LH IIB/IIIA1 period coexisted (Cosmopoulos 2014: 131 sqq). By contrast, at Marathon-Plasi, a shift of the habitations in LH IIIA-B is most likely due to the installation of graves in the MH III-LH I (Polychronakou-Sgouritsa et al. 2016: 312).

It has been emphasized that the relationship between graves and habitations radically changed during the MH III-LH IIA phases (Maran 1995), “with the general abandonment of the settlements and the converting of previously inhabited areas into cemeteries” (Sarri 2016: 134). The settlements of Orchomenos and Kirrha are relevant examples of burial plots found in former habitation areas. The change in habitation-mortuary pattern is well explained in two articles recently published (see the volume edited by Darkouri-Hild and Boyd 2016):

In Orchomenos, 50 graves – cist, simple pits and pithos burials – were revealed among architectural remains at the beginning of the 20th century, as reminded by K. Sarri (2016: 118). In trench P, most of the MH graves – save graves 66 and 55 that clearly stood at a deeper level – were probably installed once the house of the yellow occupation level was abandoned.

In Kirrha, about 20 graves were revealed in areas recently explored by the French-Greek excavations (i.e. in the NE sector and the W sector to the church). In the NE Sector, “infants and children were buried in MH houses during their active period of use or immediately thereafter” (Lagia et al. 2016: 182). In the Western sector, the second and larger group of graves – four of them contained LH I-II pottery – were uncovered in the uppermost stratum, in an area that was probably no longer active/inhabited after the MH period (Lagia et al. 2016: 185). Therefore, in LH I-II, the habitation-mortuary pattern deeply changed in the Western sector.

Nevertheless, Orchomenos and Kirrha were both well inhabited in LH III (on built sectors at Orchomenos: Bulle 1907; and Kirrha: Dor et al. 1960; on the Mycenaean pottery from Orchomenos, see Mountjoy 1983). Regarding the settlement of Kirrha, a total of 118 graves at least, of MH and early LH date, were previously recorded in my monograph; 58 of these graves were excavated by the EfA from 1936 to 1938, whereas 60 graves were uncovered by the Greek Archaeological Service in 14 plots (out of a total of 17 plots with MH remains, see Phialon 2011: 46, 73). While it is not possible to confirm that a building was accurately occupied in LH IIB, buildings in the sectors A, B, C and E are attributed by the French excavators to the LH III period.

In this respect, it is essential to provide comment on the relationship between MH burials and LH III buildings in Central Greece. The MH burial plots excavated in settlements were mostly recovered by later Mycenaean buildings. The MH plots, when not inhabited in LH (I-)II, were reoccupied in LH III. For instance, in Thebes, an important LH IIIB building known as the Hoplothek was constructed over earlier graves that were part of a large MH cemetery located on the East side of the Kadmeia (especially on the Pavlogiannopoulou plot), where some earlier LH walls cannot be precisely dated. This cemetery, which included 67 graves, was the most important among the 31 MH burial plots recorded on the Kadmeia (Andrikou 2014; see also Aravantinos and Psaraki 2010; in the same area: ADelt 60, N. and Th. Thomaïdi plot). Other plots on the Kadmeia revealed MH graves and LH IIIB building levels too (Phialon 2011: 88-89, table 8; on two plots recently reported in the ADelt 56-59 to 62, D. Kafe plot, Ai and D. Marinou plot, and on a third plot with MH graves and building, Pelekanou plot) (Fig. 3).

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Fig. 3. Thebes. Building plots with graves (T) in the Hoplothek area and on the South-West side of the Kadmeia (including plots published from 2011 onwards: 3 MH graves in Pelekanou plot, 14 MH and LH I-II graves in Ai. and D. Marinou, 11 MH graves in N. and Th. Thomaidi plot, 6 MH graves in D. Kafe plot).

How wide was the conversion of the inhabited areas into burial plots in Central Greece, in the MH III-LH IIA, i.e., in the Shaft Grave Period? Only a few MH settlements in Central Greece were probably definitely abandoned, for instance, in Phthiotis (Kalapodi-Kastro, Achinos-Echinous, Lianokladi-Palaiomylos). Moreover, one would note a possible hiatus in the occupation of certain sites such as the settlement of Krisa in Phocis, which was well occupied in the MH and LH III periods (Phialon forthcoming). LH IIB pottery from this settlement has already been identified (Mountjoy 1999: 748-750, fig. 288, no. 3, 7, 11, 13), but no certain example of LH IIA pottery. If we re-date Graves 10 and 11 to MH III/LH I or to LH I, according to the pottery that they contained (Jannoray and van Effenterre 1937: 312-313, and 1938: pl. XXII.7-8, inv. 6105, 6100), Building B, whose floor reportedly covered these graves (Jannoray and van Effenterre 1937: 305), should be dated to LH I at the earliest and not to MH II, as it was initially reported (Fig. 4). It is not known whether Building B was still occupied in LH IIA, but it was covered by two higher LH building levels.

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Fig. 4. Krisa. MH-LH I occupation level (Phialon forthcoming).

Assuming that LH I graves were installed in parts of the settlements that were no longer reoccupied, at least not before the LH III phase, one may wonder about the situation of habitation areas in LH II. In Central Greece, only a small number of substantial buildings were occupied undoubtedly in LH II; respective examples are discovered in Eutresis in Boeotia, Mitrou in Phthiotis, Aidipsos Koumbi in Euboea, Eleusis and Ayios Kosmas in Attica (Phialon 2011: 183-187, tableau 56, with previous references infra pp. 169-178). Except for the case of Ayios Kosmas, these settlements were well inhabited in the MH period. When LH II architectural remains are identified in settlements, these are mostly walls that do not define coherent spaces or rooms. Therefore, there is no evidence that people massively moved from one settlement to another at the end of LH I or in LH II, nor that the inhabitants of villages and towns regularly occupied other areas within the same settlements in LH II. Is there any evidence of a population decrease in LH II? Possibly.

Nevertheless, two other hypotheses could be here proposed in an effort to explain the restricted number of LH II buildings in Central Greece:

  1. Most of the LH II buildings were utterly destroyed by subsequent constructions, so that no substantial architectural remains dating to this period were found in destruction layers.
  2. The LH II buildings were reorganized and incorporated into the subsequent settlement in such a perfect way that it was impossible to identify the LH II building phases within the later LH IIIA2-IIIB buildings.

In Central Greece, the number of substantial buildings dated to LH IIIA1 is also small (e.g., certain dwellings in Krisa and Eleusis, a building in Glypha near the Gulf of Chalkis, and the settlement at Aidipsos Koumbi in Euboea); hence, the same hypotheses may be suggested for the LH IIIA1 phase. This raises another question: if LH II and LH IIIA1 buildings were simply not preserved, what happened to their equipment? One would expect that the LH II and LH IIIA1 material culture in habitation areas did not completely disappear. It might have existed in a fragmentary state in LH IIIA2-IIIB layers, or, for instance, in pits. Only a full and in-depth study of the settlement contexts and finds may shed light on such issues. In this respect, it should be reminded that the discovery of a large amount of LH II and LH IIIA1 pottery in the wells on the South Slope of the Acropolis in Athens allows scholars to assume that this slope or the top of the Acropolis was well inhabited during these phases (Mountjoy 1995: 27).

The relation between the habitation and mortuary landscapes in Central Greece varied strongly in LH II and LH IIIA1. The most recent graves that were found in settlement areas date to LH IIIA1, as is the case at Kirrha. For instance, one of the graves uncovered in the eastern part of the A. Papadrosou plot contained fragments of a LH IIIA1 krater (ADelt 56-59, 2001-2004, B2: 418). However, from LH IIA onwards, the dead were gradually and more frequently buried far from the settlements. At Thebes, the cemeteries of chamber tombs were located on the hills around the Kadmeia, where the earliest tomb was possibly used as early as in LH I (Ayia Anna t. 2, see Keramopoullos 1910: 231, fig. 22-23; Symeonoglou 1985: 53, table 2.4, 249, table 3; for map, see Aravantinos and Fappas 2009: 90, fig. 1; on a recent publication of pottery and figurines, see Tzavella-Evjen 2014). In contrast to Thebes, some cemeteries of chamber tombs in Central Greece cannot be associated with contemporary settlements (e.g., the cemeteries of Chalkis-Vromousa, Trypa in Euboea).

Comparative studies on distributions of cist graves and chamber tombs in Central Greece have shown that major transformations in funerary landscapes occurred in LH I-IIA and LH IIB-IIIA1, especially in ancient East Lokris (Kramer-Hajos 2008), in the area between Thebes and Chalkis and within Attica (see Phialon 2011: 227-237, 249-259, maps 19 and 23). An additional site, near Lamia, could be added to the distribution of chamber tombs (see ADelt 64, 2009, B1, 513-517). Thus, the relationship between the burial plots and habitation areas is ambiguous. There are only very few new built zones and dwellings, when new cemeteries appeared in LH I-II and expanded in LH II-IIIA1. In other words, the emergence and expansion of chamber tombs may be regarded as a phenomenon relatively independent from changing settlement patterns in Central Greece.

Despite the various types of graves/tombs represented in Thebes, there is no tholos tomb located in this site, in contrast to Orchomenos, where the large tholos tomb is assigned to the palatial period. In Central Greece, tholos tombs occurred rarely (but the recently excavated Amphissa tholos tomb, 13th to 11th century BC, in addition to the examples of Thorikos and Marathon in Attica). This is not the case in the Peloponnese where tholos tombs were largely distributed. This raises the question as to whether the local elites in Thorikos and Marathon may have intended through the use of tholos tombs in LH II and LH IIIA1 to express a stronger link with the elites in the Peloponnese and their burial customs.

A further interesting point is the distribution of BCTs in Central Greece – Mitrou can be added to this review – compared to the distribution of tholos and chamber tombs in LH II and IIIA1 (Phialon 2011: 246-259, maps 22, 23). In these phases, BCTs and chamber tombs were not in use at the same sites. On the contrary, BCTs and tholos tombs can be located in the same sites (e.g., Thorikos) or in the same area (e.g., Marathon) (Fig. 5). BCTs were mostly used for successive burials outside settlements, in contrast to the cist and pits graves, involving deep changes in the mortuary practices for communities using BCTs.

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Fig. 5. Distribution of sites with chamber tombs, tholos tombs and BCTs in LH IIB-III A1, (including published results from 2011 onwards: a chamber tomb at Lamia, a BCT a Mitrou).

However, changes in burial practices are also observed in the use of LH I-II cist and pit graves. Kirrha is a prominent site for a better understanding of mortuary practices, since burials were thoroughly studied by bioarchaeologists in the new excavated plots (Lagia et al. 2016). The authors point out the high mortuary variability at Kirrha, as well as the multiple use of cist and pit graves for secondary burials. The existence of these burials implies a strong and meaningful manipulation of the skeletons. The bones were not pushed aside leaving place to a new internment, but they were relocated in another grave. It is most likely that other potential multiple burials excavated earlier in this settlement – not analysed by bioarchaeologists – were also secondary burials and not primary ones as I assumed in my 2011 study.

Funerary landscapes, burial and social practices in Central Greece may also be revisited in light of new results obtained at Mitrou in Phthiotis (Maran and A. Van de Moortel 2014; Van de Moortel 2016; reports in ADelt 60 to 63). According to J. Maran and A. Van de Moortel (2014: 538), in the late LH I phase, “intramural cist grave burials at Mitrou came to an end and at least two permanent plots […], were created over part of the former Middle Helladic settlement north of Building D […]”. However, the most impressive grave, a BCT (Tomb 73) used in LH I, LH IIB and LH IIIA1 was discovered inside Building D, which was occupied from LH I to LH IIIA1/2(early). It seems unlikely that this Building was inhabited when the deceased were buried in the monumental Tomb 73. Further publications will provide information about the function of the buildings, the surface area of the LH II settlement and inhabited areas, including LH II remains of walls uncovered in the NW part of the site (LG789).

Tomb 73 and the large cist grave 51, which belong to a group of MH II/MH III to LH I looted graves, are regarded as the elite graves at Mitrou (Maran and Van de Moortel 2014: 538), and more precisely as successive burials of elite warriors in Tomb 73, since grave goods of two different chronological phases include boar’s tusks helmets and arrowheads (Van de Moortel 2016: 104, 106). However, there is no mention of swords or daggers found in association with this BCT. These weapons might have disappeared due to plundering.

The aforementioned grave goods at Mitrou are seen as evidence of “a new ideology of power at the beginning of the LH I phase” (Van de Moortel 2016: 91; on warlike elite, see also comment in Kramer-Hajos 2016: 48). Thus, the burial of a warrior in Thebes (Tambiskou plot, see Kasimi-Soutou 1980) does no longer appear as an isolated phenomenon in Central Greece in the Shaft Grave period. Another possible ‘warrior’ grave may have been discovered at Eleusis. The fifty-one fragments of boar’s tusk, square in shape and smaller than those of the famous Mycenaean helmets, found in this grave were attributed to a possible jewelry (Mylonas 1932: 55, fig. 33, 144-145, fig. 119; Cosmopoulos 2014: 138-139, Grave E.III.6, MH III/LH I). However, in my opinion, only a systematic study of the boar’s tusk could definitely rules out the hypothesis that these pieces belonged to a helmet. A bronze dagger, but no sword, was also found in the grave. A bioarchaeological analysis of the skeletal remains could offer further information about the identity of the deceased and bring new evidence about this ‘warlike’ burial.

On the contrary, in Kirrha, daggers and swords were uncovered in four graves dated to MH IIIB or LH I (Gr. 59 in Sector A, Grave 5 in Sector E, Graves 16 and 18 in Sector D, see Dor et al. 1960: 116, 140-141). The fullest equipment is that of Grave 5, which consists of a complete sword found in thirteen fragments, a dagger and a knife. Scattered bones of a single burial have been identified in this grave. The other graves contained two, five and four skeletons respectively, but not as many weapons as dead individuals (one dagger in Grave 59, one small sword in Grave 16, two daggers in Grave 16). Accordingly, I would not hesitate to consider Grave 5 to be a warrior’s burial, but it is a question whether the deceased of the other graves must be seen as such or rather as member of a local warlike elite at Kirrha. Again, bioarchaeological analysis could provide new elements to the debate.

Returning to Thebes, I would now assume that the warrior grave on the Kadmeia (Tambiskou plot) and the chamber tomb 2 at Ay. Anna (see above for the references) have possibly been used in the same chronological phase at the beginning of the LH period, i.e., in LH I, that is within a period of about 50-70 years. Chamber T. 2, which was certainly still used in LH II, produced four flintstone arrowheads, together with stone beads and pottery, but no other weapons, unlike the warrior grave on the Kadmeia that contained a sword, a spearhead, a knife, arrowheads and remains of a boar’s tusk helmet. One may wonder whether the deceased buried in Chamber T. 2 were women or men, whether they belonged to the same elite spheres to the warrior burial of the Kadmeia or had a different social status.

To conclude, these examples show that graves containing weapons are actually of different types during the early Mycenaean period. They correspond to individual or collective burials and contained various grave goods. This variability may be interpreted as evidence of a growing social complexity in Central Greece. It should be stressed that our understanding of the socio-cultural landscapes in the Early Mycenaean period is largely based on that of funerary landscapes. Further studies on assemblages of grave goods as well as systematic bioarchaeological analyses are crucial for a better understanding of the funerary practices and the social organization in Central Greece.


References (selection)

1) Monographs, volumes and articles up-dated (from 2011 onwards)

Andrikou, E. 2014. “Μυκηναϊκά ανακτορικά εργαστήρια στη Θήβα”, in V. Aravantinos and E. Kountouri, eds. 2014. 100 Χρόνια Αρχαιολογικού Έργου στη Θήβα, Athens, 117-137.

Cosmopoulos, M.B. 2014. The Sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis. The Bronze Age, Athens.

Dakouri-Hild, A., and M.J. Boyd, eds. 2016. Staging Death. Funerary Performance, Architecture and Landscape in the Aegean, Berlin/Boston.

Kramer-Hajos, M. 2016. Mycenaean Greece and the Aegean World. Palace and Province in the Late Bronze Age, Cambridge.

Lagia, A., I. Moutafi, R. Orgeolet, D. Skorda, and J. Zurbach. 2016. “Revisiting the Tomb: Mortuary Practices in Habitation Areas in the Transition to the Late Bronze Age at Kirrha, Phocis”, in Dakouri-Hild and Boyd 2016, 181-205.

Maran, J., and A. Van de Moortel. 2014. “A Horse-Bridle Piece with Carpatho-Danubian Connections from Late Helladic I Mitrou and the Emergence of a Warlike Elite in Greece During the Shaft Grave Period”, AJA 118, 529-548.

Phialon, L. “L’habitat de Krisa (Chrysso-Haghios Georgios) à l’âge du Bronze: un réexamen de la topographie du site et de la céramique”, BCH, forthcoming.

Polychronakou-Sgouritsa, N., Y. Papadatos, A. Balitsari, and E. Prevedorou. 2016. “Marathon in the Middle and Late Bronze Age: New Evidence from an Old Excavation. Preliminary Results from the Excavation of the University of Athens at Plasi”, in J. Driessen, ed. RA-PI-NE-U. Studies on the Mycenaean World offered to Robert Laffineur for his 70th Birthday, Aegis 10, Presses universitaires de Louvain, 305-315.

Sarri, K. 2016. “Intra, Extra, Inferus and Supra Mural Burials of the Middle Helladic Period: Spatial Diversity in Practice”, in Darkouri-Hild and Boyd 2016, 117-138.

Tzavella-Evjen, H., Mycenaean Pottery and Figurines. Keramopoullos Excavations from the Cemeteries of ThebesΒιβλιοθήκη της Εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας 294, Athens 2014.

Van de Moortel, A. 2016. “Politics of Death at Mitrou: Two Prepalatial Elite Tombs in a Landscape of Power”, in Darkouri-Hild and Boyd 2016, 89-113.


2) Archaeological reports up-dated (from 2011 onwards)


Aravantinos, V. ADelt 56-59, B2, 2001-2004, 130-136 (P. Pelekanou plot; Ai. and D. Marinou); ADelt 60, 2005, B1, 396-397 (N. and Th. Thomaïdi plot); ADelt 62, 2007, B1, 568-570 (D. Kafe plot).


Skorda, D. ADelt 55, 2000, B1, 458-460 (M. Pappa plot); ADelt 56-59, 2001-2004, B2, 417-419 (A. Papadrosou plot); ADelt 61, 2006, B1, 557-558 (G. and I. Maniou plot); ADelt 62, 2007, B1, 648 (K. Mole plot).


[E. Kountouri]


Zahou, E., and A. Van de Moortel. ADelt 60, 2005, B1, 450-454; ADelt 61, 2006, B1, 547-552; ADelt 63, 2008, B1, 615-622.


Karantzali, E. ADelt 64, 2009, B1, 513-517.

Marathon (study in addition to this up-date):

Pantelidou Gkofa, M. et al., “Μελέτη προϊστορικῶν Τύμβων Βρανᾶ Μαραθῶνος”, Prakt 2015 [2016], 25-70.


3) Monographs, volumes and articles previously published (until 2010)

Aravantinos, V., and Y. Fappas. 2009. “Τα μυκηναϊκά νεκροταφεία των Θηβών: προκαταρκτικό σχέδιο μελέτης”, in Ch. Loukos, N. Xifaras, K. Pateraki, eds. Ubi dubium ibi libertas. Τιμητικός Τόμος για τον Καθηγητή Νικόλα Φαράκλα, Rethymno, 88-121.

Aravantinos, V., and K. Psaraki. 2010. “The Middle Helladic Cemeteries of Thebes. General Review and Remarks in the Light of New Investigations and Finds”, in A. Philippa-Touchais, G. Touchais, S. Voutsaki, and J. Wright, eds. Mesohelladika. The Greek Mainland in the Bronze Age, Athens, 377-395.

Bulle, H. 1907. Orchomenos. Die älteren Ansiedlungsschichten, München.

Dor, L., J. Jannoray, and H. and M. van Effenterre. 1960. Kirrha. Étude de préhistoire phocidienne, Paris.

Jannoray, J., and H. van Effenterre. 1937. “Fouilles de Krisa (Phocide)”, BCH LXI, 299-326.

Kasimi-Soutou, M. 1980. “Μεσοελλαδιός τάφος πολεμιστή από τη Θήβα”, ADelt 35, A, 88-101.

Keramopoullos, A.D. 1911. “Μυκηναϊκοὶ τάφοι ἐν Αἰγίνῃ και ἐν Θήβαις”, AEph, 177-252.

Kramer-Hajos, M. 2008. Beyond the Palace: Mycenaean East Lokris, BAR International Series 1781, Oxford.

Maran, J. 1995. “Structural Changes in the Pattern of Settlement during the Shaft Grave Period on the Greek Mainland, in R. Laffineur and W.-D. Niemeier (eds.), POLITEIA. Society and State in the Aegean Bronze Age, Aegaeum 12, 67-72.

Mountjoy, P.A. 1983. Orchomenos V. Mycenaean pottery from Orchomenos, Eutresis and other Boeotian sites, München.

Mountjoy, P.A. 1995. Mycenaean Athens, Jonsered.

Mountjoy, P.A. 1999. Regional Mycenaean decorated pottery, Rahden/Westf.

Mylonas, G.E. 1932. Προϊστορική Ελευσίς, Athens.

Phialon, L. 2011. L’émergence de la civilisation mycénienne en Grèce centrale, Aegaeum 32, Liège.

Symeonoglou, S. 1985. The topography of Thebes from the Bronze Age to the modern times, Princeton.


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