April 01, 2010

Archaeology magazine feature on Eleutherna

Dynasty of Priestesses is a nice Archaeology feature on a set of "Dark" age inhumations of females at the site of Eleutherna in Crete. There is plenty of audiovisual material on the site, so go ahead and visit it. An excerpt:
For a quarter century, Greek excavation director Nicholas Stampolidis and his dedicated team have been unearthing the untold stories of the people buried some 2,800 years ago in the necropolis of Orthi Petra at Eleutherna on Crete. Until now, the site has perhaps been best known for the tomb its excavators dubbed "A1K1," an assemblage of 141 cremated individuals, all but two of whom were aristocratic men who likely fell in battle in foreign lands. Excavated between 1992 and 1996, this elaborate rock-cut tomb was brimming with fantastic burial goods that date from the ninth to the seventh century B.C., including bronze vessels, gold and silver jewelry, and military regalia, as literally befits the burial of Homeric war heroes. Now, two unprecedented discoveries since 2007--three lavish jar burials that contained the remains of a dozen related female individuals and a monumental funerary building where a high priestess and her protégés, also all related, were laid to rest--are adding to our knowledge of Eleutherna's women, and forcing the scholarly community to reevaluate their importance and role in the so-called "Dark Ages" of Greece (see "Top 10 Discoveries of 2009").

There is also a nice long interview with anthropologist Anagnostis Agelarakis in which he makes an interesting conjecture about the different burial practice (inhumation vs. cremation) for women and men:
Let me explain my views as to why a cremation is, in essence, something that may be done out of necessity. The warriors may have died an honorable death in battle, miles and miles away from home. It would take days, possibly several weeks, even months for the rest of the comrades to come back from the war front. And what would happen to the dead during that time? So, they needed to be mourned and cremated there, in close proximity to the battlefield, as a comrade, a brother, a loved friend. Then their ashes had to be returned home safely. It's a lonely way to go for males, but also a very proper and functional way, I say. You return the dead home, you repatriate them. This is an important component, I believe, of the significance of this ancient Greek burial custom.

On the other hand, it is also not only possible but rather proper that a male warrior who passed on in his native land because of, let's say, a wound or old age would also be cremated, to pay respect and to honor his legacy and to help him join the others at the other side the same way they went. But females, they have a warmer, more familiar way. They have another kind of mighty and enduring network. They want to be together. Their physical bodies are buried together, so they're also together for sure in the afterlife. The funerary customs we observe at Orthi Petra and elsewhere aren't just a distinction of cultural norms arranged according to gender diversity. Their specific implementation also has roots in obligatory conditions directed or imposed by the circumstances of death.


Marnie said...

for once, we are all speechless.

extraordinary. magnificent.

but somehow, not surprising.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The really remarkable aspect of the find, in my view, is that the priestesses are related.

While there is a long precedent for hereditary monarchy, heredity priests and priestesses have a less universal precedent. (Are they any modern or historic era examples?)

It would be interesting to know, although probably impossible to determine, if the priestesses were in the manner of a tribute to the church (one female descendant of the royal family in each generation of something like that) or whether there would have been consorts or ritual encounters between the priestesses who kept their own children in the temple.

Anonymous said...


Look no further than the Vestal Virgins of Rome. Generation after generation, women from relatively few Patrician and Plebeian Aristocrat families, usually related to each other through marriage, populated the Virgines Vestales:

Lucias, Julias, Domitias, Junias, Valerias and so on.

Also, the office of Pontifex Maximus as well as membership in the Collegium Pontificum, usually went to relatives of the same few PAtrician and Plebeian Aristocrat families though admittedly there was no strict heredity established to my best knowledge.

Greek though I may be, I have studied more Ancient Roman History than Ancient Greek history, an oddity of sorts, heh.