The Bioarchaeology of the Early Mycenaean period: An interdisciplinary study of human skeletal remains from Ayios Vasileios (Laconia) and Kirrha (Phokis)
Death is a social process, associated with a series of collective acts (a.k.a. mortuary practices), which do not passively reflect reality but rather involve re-definition of identities, personhood and social relationships. Therefore, by studying the full spectrum of ancient mortuary practice, we can reach an emic understanding of complex social processes in the past. As a bioarchaeologist, I specialise in the excavation and contextual analysis of human remains from the prehistoric Aegean, and I passionately believe in the value of a holistic bioarchaeological approach to all stages of mortuary research. My own interests lie more in the social dimensions of Aegean mortuary practices. To approach them, I work through a contextual multidisciplinary analysis of human remains that brings together traditional archaeology, mortuary theory, and biological anthropology.
During my CHS fellowship, I will work on the final study of human remains from the Early Mycenaean (c. 1700-1500 BC) cemeteries of Ayios Vasileios (Laconia) and Kirrha (Phokis) in Greece. The socio-political transformations of the Middle (MH) to Late Helladic (LH) transition and of the Early Mycenaean times (1700-1500BC, LHI-IIA) were paralleled by the introduction of key funerary developments that quickly evolved to a widespread, possibly standardised, funerary set in the palatial period. The distinctive change was the shift from the MH single inhumations to the LH collective burials, which materialised a complex funerary ritual characterised by variable secondary treatment of the body. To shed new light on this key shift in mortuary practice (why, how, when) is essential for better understanding the increased social complexity that led to the emergence of the Mycenaean civilisation. The recent excavations of the North cemetery of Ayios Vasileios (directed by Sofia Voutsaki, under the general directorship of A. Vasilogamvrou and the auspices of the Archaeological Society at Athens) and of the necropolis of Kirrha (directed by Raphael Orgeolet, French School at Athens) offer an unprecedented opportunity to address these changes in funerary treatment through a novel, state-of-the-art, bioarchaeological approach.
Both sites are of special significance for the understanding of social dynamics in this transitional period. Ayios Vasileios is a unique cemetery, associated with the formative phase of the site that later evolved into the palatial center of Mycenaean Laconia. Kirrha is rather different but equally interesting: the burial grounds extend over abandoned MH houses, illustrating the discourse between the past, present and future in a shifting social landscape. The excavations, in which I was involved from the start as lead bioarchaeologist, were designed on an interdisciplinary basis to ensure maximum recovery of all contextual evidence (stratigraphic, geoarchaeological, cultural and biological). Therefore, these sites provide unique funerary evidence through a variety of burial contexts (cists, pits, free-standing bone assemblages, and a few exceptional built tombs). The graves include complex funerary deposits, both primary and secondary, with interments varying in number in each case.
The scope of this project is dual, aiming to reconstruct both the osteobiographies of the deceased (i.e. sex, age, stature, activities, health, diet) and the mortuary acts of the living. The contextual comparison of both aspects will allow us to come closer to the meaning of funerary practices. A novel, cross-disciplinary methodology has already been employed to most of the data, which is analysed in collaboration with excellent colleagues (the main ones being Frosini Vika for Ayios Vasileios and Anna Lagia for Kirrha). The approach we follow combines the use of a solid theoretical framework and contextual archaeological data, with an up-to-date set of methods for osteological data collection and a novel combination of scientific and digital approaches to the taphonomic analysis of commingled remains. During the CHS fellowship, I will conclude the osteological study of all funerary contexts and move on to the final analysis and overall synthesis of our data. This includes GIS-based mapping of multiple data, statistical analyses, and theoretical interpretation, as well as dissemination of the project’s outputs through high-impact publications. The results of other, currently ongoing, collaborative projects on genetic and stable isotope data will be incorporated at the final stage, shedding further new light on kinship, mobility and diet.
Looking forward to exciting results and a most fruitful interaction with other CHS members, I am grateful for the support afforded me by the Center for Hellenic Studies in pursuing this project!
Ioanna Moutafi, current Wiener Laboratory for Archaeological Science Post-Doctoral Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and former Marie Sklodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, is a bioarchaeologist specializing in the excavation and contextual analysis of human remains from the prehistoric Aegean. Her research interests lie primarily in social bioarchaeology and funerary taphonomy, investigating the social dimensions of prehistoric mortuary practices. Working mostly on collective skeletal assemblages, she employs a multi-dimensional biosocial approach that brings together traditional archaeology, mortuary theory and current advances in biological anthropology, field practice, and funerary taphonomy.
During her many years of professional experience, she has worked as leading bioarchaeologist in several international archaeological projects around Greece, from various places and times. Key sites and publications cover the entire Bronze Age, including Early Bronze Age Keros (Cyclades), Middle Bronze Age Kirrha (Phokis), Late Bronze Age Ayios Vasileios (Laconia), Voudeni (Achaea), Prosilio (Boeotia), and Glyka Nera (Attica).