New methods for tomb excavation
Mycenaean Chamber Tomb. Image: David Connolly
by Katy Meyers
Excavation is not always a straightforward process of removing soil but needs to be done carefully to note all inclusions and each stratigraphic level. Working in a systematic way that pays attention to how the soil has been altered, we can infer new details about the process of burial.
Mycenaean chamber tombs
A new study by Karkanas et al. (2012), takes a geoarchaeology approach towards excavation in order to create more nuanced interpretations of the use and reuse of Mycenaean chamber tombs. They argue that this approach will ”provide details about the process of backfilling and reopening of the tombs and to identify the location, number, and slope of these re-openings”. By reconstructing the complex processes occurring in conjunction with mortuary sites they can better understand the social meanings behind it.
From 1400 to 1060 BCE, chamber tombs are found across the Aegean region and consist of three major elements: a chamber, a chamber entrance and the entrance corridor. They are traditionally found on hillsides, with the corridor sloping downwards to the chamber. The tombs usually contain more than one burial, and have a number of grave and funerary goods, however, there are still questions about the funerary processes that may be potentially revealing.
It is known that chamber tombs were reopened for memorial services and burial of further individuals, but it is unknown how this process correlates with what is found within the tombs.
Micro stratigraphic excavation
Micro excavation of tomb entrances. Image: Karkanas
Karkanas applied both macro-and micro-stratigraphy in order to create better interpretations regarding the opening and reopening of chamber tombs and applied this methodology to 6 Mycenaean tombs, five of which were located in the Ayia Sotira cemetery, and one at Barnavos to create a model of site formation processes to interpret episodes of mortuary activity.
As the soil will be of similar composition due to episodes of refilling and opening, they excavated sections to different levels and left a single portion of the floor untouched along the edge and middle to preserve the stratigraphy. They sampled a variety of lenses within the strata to determine whether these represented individual episodes of refilling.
While they weren’t able to correlate specific episodes of burial with grave goods or layers of soil, they were able to document the process of reopening and backfilling.
This new method is a first step in developing a more nuanced approach towards excavation that can be potentially revealing at a number of mortuary sites.