Performing Funerals in Mycenaean Greece (1600-1100 BCE)

Ancient Greek Funeral Procession, via "A Seat at the Table"

Ancient Greek Funeral Procession, via “A Seat at the Table”

I’ve been spending the last few days learning about grave goods found with the dead during the Early Anglo-Saxon period. Grave goods are an interesting artifact- as it isn’t something necessary and can be detrimental to the community as anything placed with the dead is taken out of circulation. If you take out the emotional part of death, then you are dealing with a sanitation issue of disposing of a corpse to prevent decay and pollution within the settlement. The whole act of the funeral itself isn’t required as part of a burial. But death is an emotional event- you cannot remove nor forget this important aspect. By looking at funerals we can better determine what represented a ‘good death’ and an ‘appropriate’ send-off to the deceased. It can also tell us how society mended the social structure following loss.

The problem is that archaeologists don’t have all the evidence- we only have the final deposit of the funeral and need to rely on other means to understand why these certain artifacts were selected, why the funeral ended in this manner, and what this process meant to the living.

A new study by Boyd (2014) examines a number of tombs from in Mycenaean Greece (1600–1100 BCE). Like most archaeological funerary deposits, we only have evidence from a single moment of the disposition of the body and placement of grave goods. We don’t have direct evidence for the funeral procession or anything that occurred following burial. However, Boyd (2014) argues that by carefully examining the grave goods and burial context, we can learn more about the funeral procession and how this act was a type of performance.

Photo of the burial under examination, via Boyd 2014

Photo of the burial under examination, via Boyd 2014

His first examination is of a burial at Routsi tholos 2 in the south-western Peloponnese. The burial includes the remains of an adult who was laid out on their back with their legs extended. There is no evidence of the grave being disturbed, so the layout of the body and artifacts likely is similar to the final layout that the funeral procession created. The artifacts found with the body were primarily found on the right side, and include ten pots at the head and feet, metal swords, knife, spearhead and mirror. On the body there were beads and sealstones. On the left side was a single metal object.

Boyd (2014) argues that it is likely that each object played a role in the funeral of the deceased. The beads and sealstones found within the bones were likely adornments placed on the deceased. The weapons placed at the right side may have been an offering or belonged to the individual in life, regardless they made up an important part of their identity at death. Participants in the funeral likely carried these weapons to the grave. Finally, the pots found at the head and feet indicate that either the mourners were given food and drink, or that they were provided for the deceased. All of these items would have taken time to prepare and collect, indicating the importance of giving the dead a proper sendoff. Each was an active prop in the performance of the funeral.

Based on the artifacts, Boyd (2014) proposes a funerary timeline of activity. First, the deceased is cleaned, dressed and adorned with jewelry by their close family. Objects that may have belonged to the dead or collected from the living as gifts, are gathered together. Second, the deceased and the objects collected are taken to the site of the burial. This was likely more of a community event, or at least the procession to the grave would have been seen by many. As others joined the procession, they may have added gifts or offerings, in addition to emotional support to the family. Third, the tomb was prepared for the newly deceased by moving the remains and offerings from previously dead family members. The bones and artifacts of other burials were not simply moved as a practical act- they were engaged with in a reverent manner and the newly deceased was incorporated into these ancestors. The corpse of the deceased, finally, was placed on the floor and the artifacts laid around the body to create a tableau. Whether there was further drinking or eating or action is unknown.

We cannot know for certain the specific motives that drove these people to bury in such a manner, or why this particular individual was given these specific grave goods. It is important though to think of burials not as a final deposit, but as one act in a broad continuum of action from death to the renewal of the family and community structure. If we think about loss of loved ones in our own period, we know that it doesn’t begin or end with burial. There are funerals, wakes, receptions, traditions and mourning that can continue over a long period of time. As archaeologists, we only have the evidence of this one burial deposit, but by thinking creatively about the objects and their deposition, we can begin to understand the long chain of events that led to the burial.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgBoyd, Michael (2014). The materiality of performance in Mycenaean funerary practices World Archaeology

3 responses to “Performing Funerals in Mycenaean Greece (1600-1100 BCE)

  1. “The beads and sealstones found within the bones were likely adornments placed on the deceased. ” This is possible, of course, but they could equally have been the objects worn by the person while still in life.

    • Very true! There are so many possibilities other than someone adorned the body: they may have been gifts, they may have been worn at death, they may have been amuletic, they many have been a final act of the funeral… so many options!

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