De Gruyter (2016) 399pp £67.99 (ISBN 9783110475784)
The title of this book is misleading, or at least it is to those who do not catch the resonance of ‘Aegean’, which seems to be evoking here the sub-discipline in British and other universities studying prehistoric Aegean societies. The Early Iron Age, meaning the four centuries before the traditional start-date for a literate Greek world of 776 BC, is as late as the contributors to this volume go. The remaining papers concern the Bronze age, especially on Crete and the mainland. Nine contributors study either a particular archaeological site or (in two cases) a region.
After two introductory papers the fifteen chapters (unnumbered for some reason) are grouped into five themes with titles like ‘Performative Places: Movement and Theatricality’ (the first) and ‘From Deathscapes to Beliefscapes’. As these suggest, there is plenty here for aficionados of archaeological jargon, and enough of this last to make many contributions fairly heavy-going even for the lay-person who in principle is interested in the subject and helped by the useful plans and illustrations. That is not a criticism. The book is aimed at a different reader—the academic consumer of research papers of the pure kind which the contributors based in UK universities might want to include for assessment in the next Research Excellence Framework (the government-sponsored periodic evaluation of university research, last carried out in 2014).
For the reader who perseveres there is interest here. Someone familiar with funerary practices in modern Greece (to name but one country), where the bones of the deceased are usually exhumed after three years and reburied in collective ossuaries to mark the final release of the soul from fully decomposed flesh, might well be struck by the plentiful evidence for so-called second burials in the Greek bronze age. Often this too involved re-interment in an ossuary or charnel house, although there are puzzling exceptions, as at a Lakonian site of Middle Helladic times, Kouphovouno (pp. 207-25). Here the dead were frequently left undisturbed. Yet some were exhumed and reburied, as if the ‘motivating beliefs’ could be diverse even in a single settlement, for reasons at which one can only guess (in a modern context one might think of of different ethnic groups living together in one place).
Angélique Labrude (pp. 302-14) discusses the practice of placing burials among the ruins of rulers’ dwellings, including ones which, as she puts it, underwent ritual ‘killing’. One of her examples includes the most famous building from Greece’s Early Iron Age, the monumental hairpin (nearly 165 feet long) found at modern Lefkandi on the island of Euboea, dating to around 1000 BC.
The purpose of this structure is still hotly debated, but she joins other researchers who believe that it began life as a ruler’s residence. Later its clay floor was disturbed to sink two pits for the burial of the owner, a local warlord, and a female assumed to be his consort. After the funeral the building, as Labrude thinks, was intentionally pulled down around them, before an artificial mound was heaped over the site. One might add that this is a procedure without parallel in Homer, even if some of the details of the actual burials excite those in search of epic echoes in Greece’s archaeology.
These two examples are meant to suggest the interest for a general reader who chances on this book, even if purchasers are more likely to be professional specialists.