What Happens When Tombs Die? The Historical Appropriation of the Cretan Bronze Age Cemeteries

Borja Legarra Herrero


Nobody can escape the past on Crete. The remainders of the past are part of the lives of modern Cretans in a way that is applicable to earlier historical periods (Bradley 2002, 112-13). It could at first be thought that the present awareness of the past may be a consequence of the long history of archaeological work on the island, or the modern emphasis in developing attractions for the tourists (Duke 2007), but the truth runs much deeper. Any conversation with people in a small village discovers a rich rationalization of the remains of the past that is mostly independent of modern interpretations of Minoan culture. This understanding cannot be entirely explained either by the proud look of the past that defines important aspects of modern Greek and Cretan identity (Hamilakis 2007), but it relies heavily on their everyday experience of the place where they live, and on the human necessity of making sense of their immediate world. Particularly, given the agricultural emphasis of the island, the earth, and what it contains is intimately known. It was not unusual (and it is still not unusual) for archaeologists to conduct Kafenio (local coffee shop) surveys, in which a friendly chat at the local coffee place can shed much information about the archaeology of the area. Local knowledge is detailed and exhaustive and therefore a rich source of information. While locals may not be aware of what the site may be, concentrations of ceramics on the ground, piles of stones traditionally known as Trochalos (Xanthoudides 1924, 54) or memories of find-spots of strange or valuable items are part of the local shared knowledge.

There are a couple of good reasons that allow us to project this picture onto the past. First, the intrinsic knowledge of the land where one lives may be assumed to be a trait of any population. Second, the island had one of the most archaeologically complex Bronze Age civilizations in Europe, lasting for more than a millennium (Table 14.1). This resulted in an exceptional number of Bronze Age constructions that on many occasions took the shape of quite monumental buildings, including ashlar blocks. Also, most natural prominent places, such as caves, springs, or the tops of mountains had a noteworthy Bronze Age use. The regionally articulated structure of the Cretan palatial system (Middle Bronze Age and Late Bronze Age periods) means that monumental buildings are found across the whole of the island’s landscape, including difficult-to-access areas and barren landscapes. A good example is the case of Zominthos (Figure 14.1), a large, carefully constructed building located 1,200 metres above the sea level, at an altitude well above the cultivation threshold (Sakellarakis and Panagiotopoulos 2006). There is not an area on Crete in which there is not a substantial Bronze Age site by its architecture or/and size. Furthermore, most of the sites contained rich material assemblages. While ceramics are normally found in small pieces and may be difficult to imagine in their original form for the untrained eye, many other items recurrent in these sites’ record are much easier to engage with by people with no archaeological knowledge. This is the case of metal items, particularly gold, but also seal-stones, figurines, etc. A fortuitous discovery of material in the area

Sites mentioned in the chapter. Map by Borja Legarra Herrero

Figure 14.1. Sites mentioned in the chapter. Map by Borja Legarra Herrero.

Table 14.1. Abridged chronology of Crete from the Early Bronze Age to the Roman period.



Main events

3100 bc 3000 bc 2900 bc 2800 bc

Early Bronze Age I

2700 bc 2600 bc 2500 bc 2400 bc 2300 bc

Early Bronze Age II

2200 bc 2100 bc

Early Bronze Age III

2000 bc

Middle Bronze Age I

1900 bc

First palaces on Crete

1800 bc

Middle Bronze Age II

1750 bc

Middle Bronze Age III

Second Palaces

1700 bc 1600 bc

Late Bronze Age I

1500 bc

Late Bronze Age II

Third Palaces

1400 bc 1300 bc 1200 bc

Late Bronze Age III

Destruction of Palaces

1100 bc


1000 bc 900 bc

Iron Age (Protogeometric)

800 bc

Iron Age (Early Geometric)

750 bc

Iron Age (Late Geometric)

700 bc 600 bc


500 bc 400 bc


320 bc 200 bc 100 bc


65 bc 0

ad 395


Roman Conquest of Crete

of Agios Myron attested in two documents from the late seventeenth century ad (Chaniotis 1989) presents a good illustration of how such an occurrence may have taken place before modern times.

There are few places in Europe that can match Crete in terms of the sheer amount of Bronze Age remains, their pervasive presence in the whole landscape of the island, and the widespread monumentality that would have caused them to remain visible features in the landscape for many centuries after their abandonment.

To match this outstanding Bronze Age record, there is an extensive knowledge of the archaeology of the island. More than 100 years of excavations by teams from several countries has led to the uncovering of a large and diverse archaeological corpus, allowing several reviews of Iron Age and Classical attitudes towards the Bronze Age remains (Alcock 2002; Lefevre Novaro 2005; Prent 2005). Unfortunately, there are problems that have undermined the potential of such studies. Minoan culture, as defined by Arthur Evans at the beginning of the twentieth century ad, has attracted most archaeological interest, to the extent that until the 1980s most of the historical evidence found on top of the Bronze Age remains was barely recorded or even published. It has only been recently that scholars have started to pay more attention to the historical levels and to study them to analyse Classical responses to the Bronze Age past (Prent 2003; Cucuzza 2013).

Despite these shortcomings, Crete remains a privileged laboratory for the study of approaches to the past in the past (Coldstream 1998; Alcock 2002; Prent 2003; Lefevre Novaro 2005; Prent 2005; Cucuzza 2013; Federico 2013). For example, it has been suggested that the necessity in Hellenic times to reassess local identities in a context of heated competition between settlements drove the interest of Cretans to revisit Bronze Age sites. Formalizing a connection with the Bronze Age ruins would have allowed communities to construct identities linked to an imagined past that could help them to claim control over the territories around the settlement (Alcock 2002; Federico 2013).

New paradigms in the study of material culture are offering fresh perspectives on the engagement of historic populations with Bronze Age remains (Olsen 2010; Knappett 2011; Hodder 2012). The Bronze Age ruins are no mere recipients of later human behaviour, but they brand a material agency that shapes the types of responses they may engage. This opens new avenues to understanding the relation between the Iron Age and Classical populations with their Bronze Age past. The monumentality, constant presence of sites and the material culture attached to the remains demanded a place for the sites in the world-views of Cretan populations during the first millennium bc and ad. Studying how Cretans tried to make sense of the outstanding Bronze Age sites from this theoretical point of view may provide a better insight into the way Cretan historical populations engaged with these monuments.

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