A team of archaeologists has unearthed five chamber tombs in the Nemea Valley, just a few hours walk from the ancient city of Mycenae. The tombs date from ca. 1350 1200 BC, roughly the same time that Mycenae was thriving. The people buried in the tombs were likely not from the city itself, but rather from Tsoungiza, an agricultural settlement that lies next to it. The cemetery has been named Ayia Sotira. But despite a wealth of human remains, there have been no discoveries of elite burials. Are the archaeologists yet to discover the prize tombs, or could this be evidence of ancient egalitarian society?
The existence of the tombs is no doubt related to the growth of Mycenae, said Professor Angus Smith, of Brock University in Canada. He is one of the directors of the excavation project. He believes that the Mycenaean people were attracted to the valley because of its agricultural fertility.
The team excavated the five tombs between 2006 and 2008. They consist of a dromos (tomb entryway) and chamber. Between the two of them there is a Stomion, a wall of stone that blocks entry to the tomb.
Unfortunately looters are also aware of the site. When the team arrived at Ayia Sotira, they found ‘probe holes’ that had been dug into the ground by looters searching for airways.
Perhaps the most important finds were the human remains. Between the five tombs the archaeologists found skeletal remains of 21 individuals in total. They are now being analyzed to try and get information about the diet that they consumed.
Doing detailed work is difficult as the remains are generally poorly preserved – the team was hoping to perform DNA analysis but scientists dont believe that will be possible.
Work so far suggests that the people lived a tough life to say the least. In ‘tomb six’ the team found what appears to be an extended family, with two men, one woman and two children aged 18 months and four years. One of the men had severe trauma on his left tibia. It didnt kill him, but the wound would have healed very painfully.
This healing was apparently not easy as it was associated with severe bone infection and inflammation of the membrane around the bone, said Professor Smith. The other burials in tombs (there were 10 in total) also had signs of stress on their lower limbs.
Evidence of Secondary Burial
The team found evidence of a gory burial practice that is not uncommon in the ancient world. Archaeologists call it ‘secondary burial’.
You bury somebody, then you wait for that person to decompose, then you go back into the tomb or grave and you collect the bones after all the flesh has decomposed, explained Professor Smith.
The team found bits of obsidian and flint debris in the tombs and believe that tools made of this material were used to cut the people up.
Its kind of gruesome, Smith admitted in his lecture. However, it did have a practical use. A person that had been cut to pieces uses up less space than a regular burial. Thats probably the most practical reason why it might have been done.
There may also have ritualistic reasons. In tomb four the team found a small pit that had the ‘secondary burials’ of two adult men. The man at the top was in his late 30s. Both of their skulls were displayed at a higher level than the rest of the skeleton, said Smith.
These men were carefully placed in this pit, he said. We shouldnt think they just swept the bones into the pit willy nilly.
The Burial Goods
Perhaps the biggest surprise the team had was with the burial goods. For a civilization known for its rich elite burials, the goods they found in the tombs were modest finds.
The goods the team found included alabaster pots, bowls, jugs, a female psi figurine, faience and glass beads. They also found, after water sieving the remains, stone microbeads that were no bigger than a millimetre in size. In tomb five they found 462 of them stowed away in a side-chamber.The beadsarelikely the remains of a necklace.
Theydid not find gold or silver artefacts. However, they did find fragments of a conical rhyton in tomb three. Its a vessel which has two holes in it said Professor Smith. There is a hole which you pour liquid into and a second hole, at the bottom, where it comes out. It can be used for libation rituals and is often associated with elite burials. This find raises an important question: where are the rulers?
Who’s in Charge Around Here?
When Heinrich Schliemann excavated Mycenae in the 19th century, he found no shortage of elite tombs. In one passage of an 1878 publication he describes a tomb on the Acropolis:
Discovery of three human bodies which had been partially burnt where they lay fifteen diadems of thin gold plate found on the bodies also crosses of golden laurel-leaves… Knives of Obsidian A silver vase with a bronze mouth plated with gold.
So where are the elites at this newly discovered cemetery?
We see a distinctly different character to those around Mycenae. The wealthy and very wealthy tombs are missing, said Professor Smith.
One idea is that there was an elite tomb and it was plundered in ancient (or recent) times. Another possibility is that there is a tomb of an elite person at Ayia Sotira that just hasnt been discovered yet.
There is a third, and rather tantalizing,idea that these people lived egalitarian lives.
Despite being close to a rich city, the people of this settlement, for whatever reason,had no elites.
It does seem to be a community of agriculturalists who dont seem to have a clear leader or clear elite mixed in amongst them, said Professor Smith. Were they governed by the palace at Mycenae which sort of oversaw them? Or were they removed enough that they had their own system of politics and government but one that didnt produce clear elites.
Egalitarian societies are not unheard of in ancient times. The Iroquoian people of the Great Lakes region, the peaceful Manchey Culture in Cardal, and the neolithic people of Europe all knew how to share the wealth.