When thinking about ancient Greek death practices, what first comes to mind are the golden death mask of Agamemnon, the serene scenes on Classical funerary reliefs from the Kerameikos, and perhaps the white ground lekythoi – all prominently on display in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Of course, funerary culture in the Greek world constituted much more. This fall, we travelled the Greek mainland to explore the regional differences in funerary practices of ancient Greece, with grants from the Philologisch Studiefonds and the NIA. We plan to use our newly gained insights for a PhD- and postdoc proposals, respectively. In this post, we will tell you a bit about our travels, and share some of highlights, thoughts and photographs.
Our ‘Grand Tour’ began and ended with a short stay at the NIA, in between which we travelled through mainland Greece for four weeks. We started our journey in the northern Peloponnese, travelling along the west coast, going inland from Igoumenitsa to Ioannina, and then driving all the way up to Florina. From there, we explored Macedonia, Chalkidiki and Thrace, and via the coastal regions of eastern Greece and the island of Euboea we eventually found our way back to Athens. In total, we drove over 4500 km, visited more than 80 sites and museums, took 8815 photographs, and replaced one flat tyre.
Most of the sites we visited were chosen because of their funerary character: necropoleis, tombs, or museums with themed displays about mortuary behaviour and/or extensive collections of tombstones and grave goods (fig. 1). Other sites were added to the list because of their relevance for the ongoing work on the Hellenistic houses of New Halos, while others were simply too beautiful or famous to pass by. Among the latter category are Orraon (fig. 2), where stone-built houses are preserved up to a height of over three meters, Kylindri near Karystos, where over a dozen of huge monolithic columns were left behind after this Imperial marble quarry was abandoned (fig. 3), and of course Dodona and Delphi (figs. 4 and 5).
As far as the funerary material was concerned, we saw an enormous variation in burial customs across Greece, among regions, sites, but also among different individuals within one and the same community. We noted significant differentiation in the space of the dead (the locations of the cemeteries vis-à-vis the town), in tomb types used, in the types and decorations of burial markers, the content of epitaphs, and the grave goods provided to the dead. To give a few examples: in Thessaly we hiked to a burial site near the modern village of Vrynaina, where the necropolis of a Hellenistic fortified settlement was located on narrow plateaus below the steep hill on which the acropolis and town were located (fig. 6). In Arta, the Archaic-Hellenistic cemetery had developed along a so-called Gräberstrasse (fig. 7), similar to what can be seen in the Kerameikos, while near Hellenistic Abdera burial took place in tumuli, which were spread around the chora inland of the town. In Chaironeia we pondered the Theban war dead while admiring the enormous stone lion (over 5 m in height) that marked the site of their demise and final resting place (fig. 8). Nearby lay the tumulus covering the cremated remains of the Macedonians fallen in the same battle. At Kassopi we entered a Macedonian-type burial chamber that was located within the city walls (a rarity!, fig. 9); the tumulus-museum of Aigai displayed the jaw-dropping remnants of the funeral of Philip II, and the recently hyped tomb at Amphipolis we only saw from a distance.
Amidst all the fantastic experiences, there were also some disappointments. Several sites were fenced off or ill maintained, some museums were unexpectedly closed, some were desperately in need of renovations, and one museum was open but completely empty (leaving us flabbergasted as to the reason why a guard followed us closely while we scoured the building looking for the stuff that was advertised as being here on a big sign near the entrance). Particularly disappointing was our visit to the Underworld at the Nekromanteion of Acheron. According to Homer and Herodotus there was a place somewhere near the Acheron where people could enter the world of the dead. But alas, the building identified as this Nekromanteion turned out to be a farmhouse of the Hellenistic period, and the ‘crypt’ was a large vaulted cellar where the owners of the farmhouse stored their foodstuffs (fig. 10). Our hopes of descending into the dark recesses of the earth into the realm of Hades and Persephone were thus shattered.
All in all our Grand Tour was an amazing experience. By visiting so many of the archaeological sites and museums along the way, we gained a good understanding of the variety of burial practices in Greece. The more distant museums proved very useful to get an impression of local finds and excavations. Additionally, we were able to experience the Greek landscapes, and the cultural variety and delicious cuisine of modern Greece.
We would like to thank the Philologisch Studiefonds and the NIA for their financial support, our fellow-travellers for their enthusiasm and their hospitality, and we wholeheartedly recommend our colleagues to undertake a similar trip.
Tamara & Caroline