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Burial Practices in Neolithic Greece and Anatolia



The present study on burial practices in the Aegean region, Anatolia and Cyprus covers about five thousands of years, i.e. it spans from 8000 to 3000 B.C. and is tightly connected to their evolution in the Near East and the Balkans. As early as the 9th mill. B.C., a proto-Neolithic culture appeared in the Near East which was developed during the next millennium. During the 7th mill. B.C., many communities settled from South East Europe to the end of the central Asian desert and from Caucasus Mountains to South Palestine. Data from the next two millennia show that Neolithic cultures expanded to Central Europe and that metallurgy and painted pottery appeared in the Near East, all witnessing individuality among early communities.

Burial customs reflect a very important aspect of man’s activities and social behaviour through time, since death has always been crucial regarding human group potential, especially in Prehistory. Those small communities lied upon personal work and the death of any of their members troubled the pace of everyday activities. Since the real causes of death were not understood by prehistoric people, the latter reacted in ways which -although varying from one region to another- had some points in common. Burial practices were (and still are) the result of that reaction to death; and their study permits us to intrude in human mind and follow the development of its maturity, which was eventually the cause of a belief in some kind of transcend to another state through death. In other words, mental evolution possibly created the first elements which evolved to a primitive religion.

During the Paleolithic and the Mesolithic and despite of the limited archaeological funerary data, especially those related to the early phases, man reacted similarly from England and France to the Crimean and the Mt Carmel: he inhumed his dead inside the caves where he lived. It seems that he considered death as a kind of temporary sleep and that the individual would be in need of food just upon awakening. Henceforth the corpse was not completely inhumed but placed in shallow shafts around the hearth, covered with some stones, head resting on a larger stone. Pieces of meat, silex tools (axes, scrapers), toilet articles (ochre) and jewels completed the list. In Mallaha, the hand of a skeleton was placed on that of an animal identified as a canis. In the exceptional case of Shanidar Cave /Irak, the dead body was covered by flowers. However, it is uncertain whether some cases of Late Paleolithic human skulls found together were really intentional deposits, since their conservation might have been due to physical/chemical causes or to good climatic conditions.

On the other hand, burnt bones of at least seventy five Neolithic individuals (females in majority) have been found in Kebara Cave /Palestine. It seemed that they had been incinerated after inhumation or exposition and after decomposition of their flesh. That shows that though inhumation predominated, other ways of dispensing a dead body existed as well and that Neolithic incinerations had very old ancestors.

Given that only part of the data has been included in final publications up to now, the present study has been based for the most on preliminary reports and notes. So data give a modest picture of the evolution of burial customs. An archaeologist can well measure and classify man’s relics; but it is very difficult for him -rather impossible- to classify human behaviour, predict man’s actions in the future or imagine his reactions in the past. Besides, he cannot formulate any global interpretational theory with limited evidence in what concerns the philosophical aspect of the phenomena. Consequently, there is a great uncertainty about the spiritual needs of man, his thought, his magic, his religion and his burial practices. It seems though that primitive man, especially Neanderthalian man, did not reject the dead and gave serious thought on the situation of death.

Contrary to rich mortuary data from Paleolithic and Mesolithic Europe, Near East and North Africa, Greece and Anatolia have been poor in producing relative evidence. In Greece, the remains of a Homo Erectus (Archanthropus) dating from about 700.000 years B.C. found in Petralona Cave in Chalkidiki, together with traces of fire in the same cave are witnesses of a Paleolithic burial. The skull was hanging at 1,5 m. above ground level, attached to a stalactite and under a rock in the form of a natural niche. The skeleton was contracted and placed on its right side.

Mesolithic burials are known from Franchthi Cave in Argolis: a man and a woman in contracted position were found in shallow shafts dug into the ground of the cave. One of them was covered by small stones, his head having a South orientation, face to the East.

Site prospection in Maroula site, Kythnos, produced a kind of Mesolithic “cemetery”: four ochre burials have been found, one of which was complete including a contracted skeleton in a shaft, head to the South, face to the West, bearing a large stone on the chest. The incomplete burials included a complete skeleton and two others which belonged (according to the excavator) to secondary burials.

It is obvious that no conclusions can be made on burial customs in Mesolithic Greece, as it was also the case for the Paleolithic in the same area. On the contrary, Neolithic gives much more evidence on the issue.

In Late Paleolithic Anatolia, data are analogous and contracted ochre burials were found as well. Fragmentary Middle Paleolithic skeletons were found in the caves of Karain and Magiaracik, while a Mesolithic rock sheld in Kumbucagi near Beldibi produced small skull fragments of a fossilized Homo Sapiens.

In Mesolithic Beldibi were unearthed fragments of a human skull bearing traces of combustion, together with animal bones and silex tools. The case of combustion was an isolated one and if it were a burial (which is well uncertain) it would have been an exception in the generalized Epipaleolithic practice of inhumation.

Cyprus did not produce any Paleolithic or Mesolithic burial.

The present study is based on absolute chronology based on C14 half life proposed by Libby (5568 +/- 30), but it refers also to the relative chronology instituted by stratigraphy whenever possible. Dating has been based mainly on the studies of Mellaart, Tringham and Theocharis but on others as well. Some modifications have been made in regard to the differentiation between Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic because during the Chalcolithic (at least during its early phase) metals were used as minerals or as simple objects (often as ornaments) without having any impact on the life of the communities. On the other hand, the Early Chalcolithic in Anatolia has lost its meaning since metal objects have been used as early as the 8th mill. in certain regions of the Near East. Therefore in the present study Chalcolithic has been integrated to Late Neolithic.

It must be noticed that certain Anatolian sites dated to the Late Chalcolithic, such as Alisar Huyuk and Kusura, presented burial rites which differed completely from the known Neolithic or even Chalcolithic ones, and resembled more to those of the Early Bronze Age. These rites are mentioned without being discussed or compared.

As one can see, Anatolia and the Near East had a cultural evolution which preceded that of Greece and happened much earlier than in the Northern Balkans. I have tried to study the burial customs of sites belonging to the same cultural level (in spite of any chronological difference among them) with the aim of tracing the evolution of human reaction to death, of course always taking into account any eventual influences among cultures. The study ends in the Final Chalcolithic, since mortuary practices did not really change before the Bronze Age. Chalcolithic sites do not seem to have different customs from Late Neolithic ones; therefore they have been incorporated to the Neolithic.

Cyprus, discussed separately, has its own chronology which presents many difficulties, due to the chronological gap between the Aceramic (period I) and the Ceramic (period II). It seems to be culturally closer to Anatolia, therefore it has been studied parallel to the latter.

Preface | Introduction | Discussion and Conclusions | Images