The Gournia cemeteries

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There are two cemeteries at Gournia. The smaller one is located to the north of the Bronze Age town and consisted of four house tombs and a number of rock shelters. The larger, but more modest, cemetery is located on the north end of Sphougaras hill which lies to the east of the town. This cemetery stretches 70 metres north south and up the side of the hill for a distance of 50 metres. The terrain lends itself to the construction of rock shelters for the deceased. Harriet Boyd examined the site in 1904 while in the Gournia area to excavate the town, but the cemetery was actually excavated by fellow American Richard Seager in 1910.

Sphoungaras cemetery was in use throughout the Bronze Age from the EM II period when the first settlement at Gournia was founded right up to the destruction of Gournia at the end of LM I. Rock shelters seem to have been the earliest form of burial. The largest rock shelter at Gournia, Shelter I on Sphoungaras, was first used as far back as the neolithic period when it was inhabited by the living. Later in EM II and EM III burials directly into the ground became common and the number of burials suggests a growth in the local population. Over 50 vases were found, mainly of Vasiliki ware. In the last prepalatial period, MM IA, pithos burials began and soon became the dominant form of burial, continuing into the Neopalatial period. A few burials in larnakes were also uncovered.

The North Cemetery

The north cemetery is located on the narrow north end of the hill on which the town of Gournia was built. Where the hill slopes more gently to the east and west, house tombs were built. Further north the slopes are much steeper and it is here that the rock shelter tombs were located. The cemetery was excavated by Harriet Boyd-Hawes between 1901 and 1904 as part of her excavations of the town of Gournia and she is responsible for coining the term "house tomb" to describe a structure which to all intents and purposes looks like a house but which is full of bones. In addition to the two tombs uncovered by Hawes at the beginning of the century, two further house tombs were uncovered in excavations carried out in 1973-4.

The first burials in the north cemetery date to the beginning of EM II. Two rock shelters (V and VI) were used as well as house tomb III, of which little remains today. While the north cemetery may have been larger of the two in early EM II, no interments have been dated there to EM IIB or EM III so it seems that early on Sphoungaras took over as the main cemetery for the settlement. The other house tombs in the north cemetery (I, II, IV, VII and VIII) were constructed towards the end of the prepalatial period. This little cemetery was situated very close to the town, separated from it only by a road. Amongst the house tombs an open air shrine was created.

Tomb I

Tombs I and II are the best preserved of the house tombs and are to be found together on the east slide of the hill. Tomb I is a small structure with two rooms, dug into the bedrock, which rises at the west end of the structure. The walls are built with stones held in place by earth mortar. The west wall, which was constructed against the rock of the slope is the best preserved.

The walls were built with an inner lining and an outer facing, which is rare in Bronze Age Crete. It is thought that above the stone courses the house tomb was built of mud bricks. In the southern room of tomb I a bench ran along the south wall. As there is no obvious doorway into either room it is possible that the rooms were entered from above.

According to Hawes, apart from the bones found here, fragments of sarcophagi were also uncovered in the south room. When the room was cleaned in 1971 fragments of MM I pottery were also found. In 1972 a pit in the north room was excavated for the first time and produced eight skulls together with two pyxides, two fruitstands, stone vases and two stone seals as well as beads and small ivory plaques. It seems that the tomb was built at he beginning of MM IA. However, in 1972 EM II finds from the pit raised the question of whether the house tomb should have an earlier date. However, it seems that the excavators have concluded that the EM II material in the pit had probably been brought from another tomb.

Tomb II

Tomb II is located next to Tomb I and to its north. It consists of two rooms and there is a doorway into the tomb on the west side. Unlike Tomb I, Tomb II was not cut into the bedrock so the bottom course of the walls follow the natural slope of the hill. Again the building was most likely constructed of mud bricks built onto a base of stone walls. The entrance to the tomb would have been approached from the east, along the "corridor" between tombs I and II.At the southeast corner of Tomb II two boulders form a low platform Jeffrey Soles argues that this structure should be identified as altar on the grounds that it is similar to other rock-built altars like the one at Apesokari. Further evidence that this is an altar came in 1971 when a kernos was found just to the south of the altar and was clearly part of the structure. The kernos has a polished flat surface with a ring of 22 small shallow indentations and was most likely an offering table, placed in front of the raised altar.

Hawes found a number of stone vases and three pairs of bronze tweezers in the tomb. The pottery which she discovered has been dated from her description to MM I. None of her finds can now be located. The 1971 excavation brought to light more pottery from MM IA and MM IB, giving a more secure dating for the tomb at the beginning of MM I. Some burials or secondary skull deposits seem to have been made in pithoi and larnakes. Both tombs seem to have gone out of use at the end of the prepalatial period.

Tomb III

Tomb III was first excavated as recently as 1972. The tomb is an oblong building with four rooms built into the side of the hill above Tomb I. Only the western side of the tomb is preserved. Consequently the excavators are not sure whether the four rooms were closed or if they were all open on the east side. The north wall of the tomb, which is just over three metres long, is the best preserved and gives the best indication of the possible size of the tomb.

If the east side of the tomb was closed off, it is possible that the entrance to the tomb opened onto a corridor which gave access to each of the rooms. Alternatively access may have been from above from the hillside which the west side of the tomb is built into. The most southerly of the four rooms is an unusual, almost triangular shape because the rock juts out here and instead of an east-west wall, the wall runs southwest to northeast. This means the room would have been much smaller than the other three.

Although sixteen skulls were found in the tomb it is likely that far more were stored here but have been lost due to erosion of tomb. Soles believes that the eight skulls found in the pit in Tomb I came from Tomb III. Pottery from Tomb III dates to EM IIA, just like the pottery in the pit in Tomb I, even though Tomb I was built 600 years later than Tomb III. Soles speculates that Tomb III may have been destroyed at that point and the eight skulls and their grave goods were reburied in Tomb I.

Building IV

Building IV was also excavated in 1972. It consists of only one room, of which most of the south side is missing. Although the wall is just under four metres long, it is surprisingly wide, reaching 1.50 metres at its widest. No remains were found in the building so it cannot be confirmed that it was in fact a tomb. Moreover the unusually wide walls would have supported a second storey if the main structure was built using mud bricks. However, there is no other example of a one room, two-storey building in Bronze Age Crete. The excavators believe it to have been constructed in MM I.

Rock shelters V and VI

North of the house tombs, Harriet Boyd-Hawes found two rock shelters which originally had most likely belonged to a larger group situated in the area. The shelters were naturally created by overhanging rock. Shelter V is less than a metre wide and about one metre deep while Shelter VI is almost one and a half metres wide and almost two metres deep. Inside the shelters Hawes found only scattered bones and skulls. The pottery uncovered dates the shelters to EM IIA and were in use at the same time as Tomb III.

Tombs VII and VIII

These two tombs were discovered by Harriet Boyd-Hawes on the first day of excavations at Gournia. They were destroyed in the 1960s when a storage building was erected at the north end of the archaeological site. According to the excavation notebooks left by Boyd-Hawes, Tomb VII was quite large, about four metres by six metres and there were no obvious doorways into the building so access would almost certainly have been from above. The house tomb was divided into two rooms of equal size. Hawes gives no description of Tomb VIII other than to say that it was similar to Tomb VII.

Tomb VII contained scattered bones as well as three bronze daggers, part of a larnax, part of a four-handled casella and remains of tripod cooking vessels. Tomb VIII contained bones and pieces of two larnakes. Hawes dated the tombs to MM I.

Photographs will be added in the Spring.

SOURCE: Jeffrey Soles: The Prepalatial cemeteries at Mochlos and Gournia (Hesperia Supplement XXIV)