Wednesday, September 5, 2018


John K. Papadopoulos, Evelyn Lord Smithson, The Early Iron Age: The Cemeteries. The Athenian Agora, 36. Princeton: ASCSA Publications, 2017. Pp. 1120; 8 p. of plates. ISBN 9780876612361. $150.00.

Reviewed by Maximilian F. Rönnberg​, University of Tübingen​ (

Version at BMCR home site

This volume publishes the tombs from the end of the Bronze Age through the transition from the Middle Geometric to the Late Geometric period from the area of the later Agora of Athens. It developed from Evelyn Lord Smithson's work on the Early Iron Age deposits of the Agora, resumed by John Papadopoulos after her death in 1992. The book was thus long in the making, first announced as being on its way more than twenty years ago. Papadopoulos explains this delay (pp. x–xi), and the outcome was definitely worth waiting for.

The volume features a short preface (pp. vii–xiv), 44 pages of bibliography (pp. xxix–lxxii), eight chapters with many illustrations, an appendix, various concordances and indexes (pp. 991–1037), and eight color plates.

In chapter 1 (pp. 1–34), Papadopoulos introduces the structure of the book, gives a short overview of the location of the tombs, and then deals with chronological issues. He uses the term 'Submycenaean' despite his doubts about the Submycenaean as a chronological period (p. 22). This is fortunate, since it makes the book much easier to use and most other scholars indeed think that 'Submycenaean' has chronological meaning.1 Even if Papadopoulos is generally right to argue for a "good deal of chronological fluidity between the various stylistic phases" (p. 33), it is unfortunate that he does not use Ruppenstein's well-founded internal periodization of the Submycenaean phase.2 Furthermore, although Papadopoulos does "not find sufficient evidence in the Agora graves to define a Middle Protogeometric phase that has stylistic meaning," as a matter of convenience he retains the term MPG for what he does not consider "either early or late Protogeometric" (p. 25). Most convincing is his argument for a fluid transition between LPG and EG (pp. 25–26).

Chapter 2 (pp. 35–502) gives a comprehensive catalogue of 83 tombs and their contents, divided on topographical grounds into four sections: the northern slope of the Areiopagos (along with a few tombs further to the east); the Kolonos Agoraios; the southern bank of the Eridanos; and its northern bank. Within these sub-chapters, the burials are arranged in chronological order and are given new numbers (for the deposit numbers used in older publications, the reader must consult the concordance on p. 991). Even though only a few hitherto completely unpublished burials are included, this chapter is the core and the greatest achievement of the book, presenting much more data than was previously available in preliminary reports and on the Agora Excavation's online database. Tombs already more fully presented are completely republished, adding many pages to the book but nicely assembling all the information in a single volume; besides, minor details are added even for burials previously presented in detail (for example, on the material of the beads from the tomb of the 'Rich Athenian Lady', p. 172). The catalogue is accompanied by photographs and drawings of almost every object, which is especially helpful in view of the lack of drawings in the earlier Kerameikos volumes and the standard books by Desborough and Coldstream. Anne Hooton's drawings are rightly lauded as "in and of themselves works of art" (p. xi). The publication for the first time of many old photographs and sketches of excavated contexts is equally noteworthy.

In chapter 3 (pp. 503–560), Maria A. Liston presents the human skeletal remains of 53 bodies from 45 graves, 36 inhumations and 17 cremations. This is very valuable. Liston stresses the large number of burials of infants and children of every age category and the predominance of female adults, so different from, for example, the Kerameikos – a result of prime importance when reconsidering Morris' idea of formal burial and its historico-cultural implications (pp. 515–520). 3

In chapter 4 (pp. 561–574), Deborah Ruscillo deals with the faunal remains from 12 burials, documenting the sacrifice of various animals in funerary rites. Although the data available now, many decades after the excavation, is incomplete to a high degree, its cautious interpretation and an overview of instances from other sites are most helpful.

Papadopoulos offers a lengthy treatment of burial customs and funerary rites in chapter 5 (pp. 575–688), dealing with tomb types and contents, age and sex identification, the gradual change from inhumation to cremation, organic offerings, and multiple burials. This is comprehensive regarding the Agora burials, although comparisons with other sites in Athens and Attica would sometimes have been more appropriate than references to burials at Torone or on Crete.4 A close reading of Ruppenstein's publication on Submycenaean tombs from the Kerameikos adds interesting points,5 and a consideration of Cavanagh's dissertation on Attic burial customs might offer support for many results reached.6 All in all, however, Papadopoulos' detailed analysis of burial customs provides many surprising insights (multiple burials, cremation of young children, the identification of the 'Young Lady' as probably male). In his discussion of tomb contents, he rightly warns against assuming "any significant degree of standardization in funerary rituals" (p. 651).7 The Agora graves thus seriously compromise earlier notions of an Athenian 'cultural unity' reflected in burial rites.8

In chapter 6 (pp. 689–898), the wheelmade and painted pottery is presented by Papadopoulos and the handmade pottery by Sara Strack. The vases are arranged according to shape, often illustrated a second time, allowing direct comparisons between vessels from multiple tombs, and provided with many more comparanda than the catalogue of tombs could accommodate. Furthermore, ancient (Mycenaean and historic) and modern terminology is discussed, and the distribution of the various forms sketched, producing what will surely be a major work of reference. This is also true of chapter 7 (pp. 899–972), in which Papadopoulos publishes the non-ceramic finds, divided into items of personal ornament and tools and weapons.

In chapter 8 (pp. 973–984), Papadopoulos wishes "to bring together the various strands of the evidence presented throughout this volume in order to highlight the social and historical significance of the material"; his aim is "to point to what is special about Early Iron Age Athens: continuity across the Bronze Age/Iron Age divide" (p. 974). After a reference to resilience theory (pp. 973–974), followed by fairly general remarks on the inappropriateness of the term 'Dark Age', the scholarly divide between the Bronze and Iron Ages, and "continuity, fluidity, and resilience" in the transition from bronze to iron (pp. 974–978), already published elsewhere,9 Papadopoulos states that the long-supposed continuity in Athens has so far not been demonstrated conclusively through archaeology, yet maintains that "continuity of the burial grounds […] provides the critical evidence, together with the fact that the Mycenaean fortifications on the Acropolis continued to be not only viable, but the primary defense of the city into the early 5th century B.C." (p. 980). He concludes that "there was no radical change in the location of the Athenian settlement between the Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age, and this continuity may further undermine the long-held assumption that the polis is entirely a creation of the Early Iron Age" (p. 983), leaving the reader uncertain about what precisely this is supposed to mean.10

In a short appendix (pp. 985–989), Eirini Dimitriadou provides an overview of finds from Athens ranging from the late 12th through the end of the 8th century BCE, with a very helpful map. However, reference to her PhD dissertation remains essential.11

Overall, Papadopoulos and his collaborators have done a wonderful job in presenting as many aspects of the material as possible.12 Nevertheless, some general interpretative problems may be noted.

The first concerns Papadopoulos' conviction that "the Early Iron Age graves presented in this volume are part of several large cemeteries" (p. 12) of which "only a fraction" has been cleared (p. 575). This conclusion is based on his belief that the non-funerary deposits in the same area, mostly wells, originate exclusively from pottery workshops and not from habitation.13 This model has been justly criticized many times, as only about a fifth of the wells seem to have featured potters' debris, sometimes not in significant quantities.14 Papadopoulos even states that all the EIA wheelmade and painted pottery of Attica was made here (pp. 8, 690). The more generally accepted view that the area was scattered with small settlements, each with its own graveyard(s), is dismissed without any argument (pp. 42, 981), even though Papadopoulos stresses that the cemeteries are "organized by kin groups" (p. 983), that the primary cremations east of the oval house likely follow a family tradition (p. 609), and that interments of small children (so numerous in the area) are especially frequent in settlement contexts (p. 659). When Papadopoulos writes "As we have seen, the evidence presented in this volume suggests that Athens was not a series of disparate hamlets" (p. 981), most scholars will not follow him.15 This viewpoint unfortunately has far-reaching consequences. It determines the organization of the tombs in chapter 2, divided into large areas partly comprising widely separated groups of tombs, although finds indicate missing tombs that would fill some gaps only in two areas (pp. 176, 276–280). The numbering of tombs within these large areas according to their chronology produces widely differing numbers for tombs that are topographically close together, and thus presents an obstacle for those interested in the grouping of graves.16

Secondly, Papadopoulos' sharp focus on the notion of continuity forces him to try perhaps too hard to close gaps in the evidence for the continuous use of various areas. For example, on the northern slope of the Areiopagos, the gap between LHIIIA:2 and Submycenaean is closed by a single LHIIIC tomb on the Hill of the Nymphs, so far away that it does not appear on any plan (p. 37), while it is argued that all LHIIIB tombs were destroyed by later activity. On the Kolonos Agoraios, the early dating of graves 30 and (maybe) 31 in LHIIIC instead of Submycenaean (argued for by providing analogies mostly to other Submycenaean and Protogeometric and not LHIIIC tombs) is hardly compelling, so that Papadopoulos' argument for complete continuity is doubtful here, too. Paradoxically, this focus on continuity of place may deepen rather than erase the divide between the Bronze and the Iron Age; a model of overall continuity on a structural level in the use of various, mostly small cemeteries with frequently changing locations may have tied the eras together more convincingly.

The volume is very carefully produced, with almost no typos and with excellent illustrations.17 It thus is regrettable that the cover and the spine are certain to wear badly because of the large weight of the volume, breaking already in the first reading. The book will need to be rebound often, for it will surely be the point of departure for most questions related to Athenian Early Iron Age burials for a long time to come.


1.   See for example F. Ruppenstein, The Transitional Phase from Submycenaean to Protogeometric: Definition and Comparative Chronology, in: S. Deger-Jalkotzy – A. E. Bächle (ed.), LH III C Chronology and Synchronisms III: LH III C Late and the Transition to the Early Iron Age: Proceedings of the International Workshop Held at the Austrian Academy of Sciences at Vienna, February 23rd and 24th, 2007 (Vienna 2009) 327–343 as well as many other papers and the final discussion published in the same volume.
2.   F. Ruppenstein, Die submykenische Nekropole: Neufunde und Neubewertung, Kerameikos 18 (Munich 2007). Ruppenstein's precise datings of tombs are mostly ignored, with preference given to older scholarship and more general dates.
3.   I. Morris, Burial and Ancient Society: The Rise of the Greek City-State (Cambridge 1987).
4.   For example, when on p. 645 the use of only amphoras as urns is contrasted with finds from Torone and Crete, but not with Attic material. For an Attic example, see Α. Πέτρου, Ευρήματα των πρόσφατων αρχαιολογικών ερευνών στα όρια του δήμου Μαρκοπούλου (Αποχέτευση), in: Χ. Ν. Μπαμπούνης (ed.), Πρακτικά ΙΑ' Επιστημονικής Συνάντησης ΝΑ. Αττικής, Σπάτα, 11–14 Νοεμβρίου 2004 (Spata 2006) 452–460 (456 fig. 4. 5).
5.   For example, when on p. 592 only a single contracted burial in the Kerameikos, SM 83, is cited without noting that this is part of a group of four graves. Here, a reference to the recently excavated cemetery at Οδός Θ. Ρέντι would have raised interesting questions (see Ε. Τσάλκου, Κουκάκι – Οδός Θ. Ρέντη 9–11, ADelt B 65, 2010, 55–62).
6.   W. Cavanagh, Attic Burial Customs, c. 2000–700 B.C. (PhD dissertation London 1977).
7.   This point could have been reinforced by more frequent reference to the many burials from other areas compiled recently by Dimitriadou: Ε. Μ. Δημητριάδου, Πρώιμη Αθήνα (1100–480 π.Χ.). Παρατηρήσεις στην οικιστική εξέλιξη και στα νεκροταφεία (PhD dissertation Athens 2012).
8.   It is just this idea of 'cultural unity' as shown by burial rites that is often meant to imply close interconnections between the various small settlements in the area of the Classical city of Athens, see for example I. S. Lemos, Athens and Lefkandi: A Tale of Two Sites, in: S. Deger-Jalkotzy and I. S. Lemos (ed.), Ancient Greece: From the Mycenaean Palaces to the Age of Homer (Edinburgh 2006) 505–530 at 524–525. Papadopoulos' conclusion that there was no significant degree in standardization thus may speak against his view of Athens as a closely interconnected town in the Early Iron Age.
9.   J. K. Papadopoulos, Greece in the Early Iron Age: Mobility, Commodities, Polities, and Literacy, in: A. B. Knapp and P. van Dommelen (ed.), The Cambridge Prehistory of the Bronze and Iron Age Mediterranean (New York 2015) 178–195.
10.   Papadopoulos seems to understand the 'polis' as an urbanistic and not a socio-political phenomenon here, but tries to refute scholarship arguing for the emergence of the 'polis' as a state in the 8th century BCE. But "the formation of urban communities neither requires nor produces 'the state'" (R. Osborne, Urban Sprawl: What is Urbanization and Why Does it Matter?, in: R. Osborne – B. W. Cunliffe (ed.), Mediterranean Urbanization 800–600 BC, Proceedings of the British Academy 126 (Oxford 2005) 1–15 at p. 2) and the term is misleading here.
11.   See note 7.
12.   Unfortunately, studies of the textile and floral remains could not be included (p. x).
13.   J. K. Papadopoulos, Ceramicus Redivivus: The Early Iron Age Potters' Field in the Area of the Classical Athenian Agora, Hesperia Suppl. 31 (Princeton 2003).
14.   See, for example, M. C. Monaco, Dix ans après: nouvelles données et considérations à propos du Céramique d'Athènes, in: A. Esposito and G. M. Sanidas (ed.), ›Quartiers‹ artisanaux en Grèce ancienne. Une perspective méditerranéenne (Villeneuve d'Ascq 2012) 155–174.
15.   See A. M. D'Onofrio, Gli Ateniesi dell'Asty: l'abitato della prima età del ferro attraverso il record archeologico, ScAnt 14, 2007/2008, 437–460, esp. 439–440. 452 for but one example.
16.   For this and the topographical relationship between graves and non-funerary deposits, M. Scafuro, L'area tra il Kolonos Agoraios e l'Areopago dall'XI al VI sec. a.C. Contesti e aree funzionali, SATAA 8 (Athens 2015) remains handy.
17.   Note that Grave 21 is missing in fig. 2.4. Scales in the plans would have been helpful.

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