It was a common belief among ancient Greeks that life after death existed and that the dead needed their accessories to enjoy in their status after they are dead. According to Morris, space and time mark burial customs in Greece. Greek culture and customs were largely affected by its geography (Martin 1). Economic conditions determined the wealth of burial findings. Each time period provides rich burial sites of wealthy and powerful of that particular time period. The Bronze Age was characterized by Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. The Dark Age revealed much smaller, yet still present upper class among ancient Greeks. The Archaic and Classical Periods continued the worship of the dead. Central to all of the periods was that honor was of central importance in burial (Morris 49). Valor on the battlefield and the ability to produce offspring were more valued than anything else in the Greek society, since they provided continuity to the ancient Greek bloodlines and society.
Greek territory is located at the Aegean sea, and spread across many islands (Martin 1). Mainland is covered by mountains (Martin 1). Only 20 – 30 percent of Greek mainland and a few islands were arable in the time of ancient Greece (Martin 2). Sea was their main transport route (Martin 2). Greeks traded with merchants from the Near East, Egypt and other eastern Mediterranean parts (Martin 2).
Despite the shared culture, Greeks never constituted one state. Ancient Greeks lived in different communities, ranging from oligarchies to monarchies and tyrannies, with some such as Athens reaching democracy (Martin). However, they all shared “a cultural identity because they spoke dialects of the same language” (Martin 4). They worshipped the same gods and gathered at celebrations of their gods (Martin 4).
Two prominent cultures in the Bronze Age were the Mycenaean on the mainland and Minoan on Crete. Around 2,200 B.C., the Minoan culture developed (Martin 24). Palaces sprang up in the Minoan culture. Females were highly valued as represented on the palace frescoes and figurines of “bosomy goddesses”, but burial customs reveal that males held highest positions in running the society (Martin 26). Martial prowess was highly valued, as the wealth of weaponry found in graves of Minoan males indicated (Martin 26). It is safe to assume than Minoan palaces were run by male kings or princes, and that the society was already highly specialized (Martin 26).
The first Greek speaking culture whose burial grounds have been uncovered come from the Mycenaean culture of the second half of the second millennium B.C. (Martin 16). The Mycenaean culture left rich and unique burial grounds. They were constructed as stone-lined shafts (Martin 27). Corpses were buried “with golden jewelry, including heavy necklaces festooned with pendants, gold and silver vessels, bronze weapons decorated with scenes of wild animals inlaid in precious metals, and delicately painted pottery” (Martin 26). The shafts date back to 1,600 B.C. (Martin 26). The artifacts of the shaft graves indicate that Mycenaean culture was dominated by warriors and organized in independent settlements ruled by powerful commanders who lived in palaces (Martin 27). There was another type of burial chambers, tholos tombs (Martin 28). They are “spectacular underground domed chambers built in beehive shapes from closely fitted stones” (Martin 28). These stones mark a new period in Mycenaean society, beginning in the fifteenth century B.C., characterized by contacts throughout the eastern Mediterranean (Martin 28).
As in the Minoan society, here too were warriors highly valued (Martin 29). All wealthy males in the Mycenaean culture were buried with their fighting equipment (Martin 29). A tomb from the fourteenth century B.C. in Dendra in northeastern Peloponnese harbored a complete suit of Mycenaean bronze armor composed of “a complete bronze cuirass (chest guard) of two pieces for front and back, an adjustable skirt of bronze plates, bronze greaves (shin guards), shoulder plates, and a collar…[and] a boar'stusk helmet with metal cheekpieces” (Martin 29). His grave also contained “a leather shield, bronze and clay vessels, and a bronze comb with gold teeth” (Martin 29). This tomb is indicative of the state of the art in technology and the place in society that technology had in warfare: “the lightweight, two-wheeled chariot pulled by horses” dominated the battlefields (Martin 29). The vehicles were represented on “a Mycenaean grave marker from about 1500 B.C.” (Martin 29). Chariots served as a sign of social status, as cars nowadays (Martin 29). War and military prowess were highly admired.
The pinnacle of the Mycenaean culture occurred after 1400 B.C., when a very large domed tomb at Mycenae, called the Treasury of Atreus, was constructed (Martin 33). It was furnished with an “elaborately decorated facade and soaring roof” (Martin 33). From 1200 to 1000 B.C. the largest Greek civilizations of the time were destroyed, population dropped significantly and returned mostly to farming (Martin 31). This era is called the Dark Ages, which ended around 900 B.C. (Martin 38).
Hierarchical forms of society survived in the Dark Age. Comparing to the Mycenaean society, Greek societies in the Dark Age were less hierarchical as many of them turned to farming (Martin 39). Hierarchical social system survived in more economically advanced areas, and it might have revived already in the late eleventh century B.C. (Martin 39). There is a burial ground from the late tenth century, called Lefkandi'on the island of Euboea (Martin 39). A couple was buried there, and they are believed to have died around 950 B.C. (Martin 39). Elements of Near Eastern culture were present (Martin 39). The female corpse was decorated with elaborate gold ornaments symbolizing her economic status (Martin 39). By 900 B.C., more burial findings discovered wealthy Greeks were present in the Greek society, as valuable objects were buried with them (Martin 39). Before that, mostly clay pots were found with the corpses, as most were poor (Martin 40).
Iron marked a transition to the Archaic Age by 900 B.C, which lasted until 480 B.C. Burial findings at Athens contain male remains surrounded by metal weapons, instead of bronze (Martin 40). Iron in turn increased production as it lasted longer and was cheaper, since it was domestically produced. As a result, agriculture became very important, as reflected in burial findings. A burial finding at Athens from around 850 B.C. contained a female corpse and her possessions such as gold rings and earrings, a necklace of glass beads from Egypt or Syria, and a chest of baked clay. The storage chest was painted in geometric shapes, after which the art style of that time received its name during the Dark Age (Martin 41). Another interesting finding on the chest was five beehive-like urns which were sculpted on its top (Martin 41). They were miniature models of granaries, indicating that granaries were of great importance during that time period (Martin 41). Based on this finding, archeologists assumed that agriculture picked up by 850 B.C. (Martin 41). Population too increased, as judged from the increasing number of graves (Morris 23).
Religion played an important role in burial ceremonies. Greek gods demanded proper burial for family members (Martin 125). By the fifth century, offerings at tombs of relatives were found for common citizens and not just the elites (Martin 128). Hero cults were important to ancient Greeks. Important deceased individuals were worshipped as their remains were believed to possess power (Martin 128). Such was the case of hero Theseus during the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., whose sighting was recorded, although he was already dead (Martin 128 – 129). His bones were brought to Athens and worshipped (Martin 129).
Lamentation was important already in the Mycenaean society. Lamentation was the central part of burial ceremonies (Stevanovic 38). They go as far as 1,600 B.C. (Stevanovic 38). Mourners were found on painted sarcophagi from the end of the Bronze Age in Tanagra in Boetia (Stevanovic 38). It continued throughout Classical Greece as well (Stevanovic 38). Homer too described lamentation of men, in this particular case Achilles mourning the death of Patroklos:
A dark cloud of grief fell upon Achilles as he listened. He filled both hands with dust from off the ground, and poured it over his head, disfiguring his comely face, and letting the refuse settle over his shirt so fair and new. He flung himself down all huge and hugely at full length, and tore his hair with his hands (Iliad XVIII, 22-27).
Lamentation was important to both genders, as represented by literary works such as the Illiad, which was written sometime after 700 B.C. (Morris 23). However, as democracy spread among Greeks, and women were restrained to the private sphere, so to were they not allowed to lament in public anymore. The Athenian legislation of Solon from the 6th century B.C. prohibited large funerals and lamentation in public for anyone who was not the closest kin (Stevanovic 45). Similarly, grave goods too were no longer buried after 700 B.C. Only vases were often placed in surface deposits (Morris 22). Grave markers reached a peek by mid sixth century (Morris 22).
After 700 B.C., cremation and grave markers became the norm for adults. “The body was burned on a pyre within a pit grave” (Morris 21). Children, on the other hand, were buried in vases (Morris). Adult graves were covered by mounds, whose size kept on increasing after 650 B.C. (Morris 21). The more influential the person was, the larger was the mound and the pyre (Morris 46). By 500 B.C., children were inhumed in clay tubs made from roof tiles (Morris 22). Denial of burial was highly ostracizing, and was only done to those who clashed with laws of gods or men, as portrayed in Antigone. Burial, on the other hand, symbolized an everlasting cycle of life for the community and was treated as a rite of passage (Morris 47, 51). Sacrifices were done on pyre instead of being buried with the remains (Morris 47). Still, in places such as Sparta honor remained the principal criterion for burials. Only heroes on battlefields or women who died in childbirth were allowed elaborate funerals (Morris 50). Nothing changed for Classical Athens either (Morris 50). Tombs also served as evidence of patronymics (Morris 50).
Few changes occurred in Classical Greece. The Classical Period lasted during the fourth and fifth century B.C. The hero as a phenomenon was still worshipped, and hero cults remained present (Antonaccio 391). Tomb cults too remained present. Ancestral worship turned sometimes into hero cults (Antonaccio 397). However, in case of tomb cults, visits were done once or twice, unlike in hero cults, where the remains were continually worshipped (Antonaccio 402). Moreover, ancestral worship became limited to only three generations (Antonaccio 401). Graves were used, but by different families (Antonaccio 402). Both, hero and tomb cults were present.
Burial customs were connected and compared to the political events and social order. In Antigone, dating to around 441 B.C., a dilemma between the family’s duty to bury the dead and the need to preserve order in a male – dominated society was presented. Her uncle Creon, the new ruler of Thebes who replaced her father Oedipus, forbade Antigone to bury one of her brothers, Polyneices, whom he considered a traitor (Sophocles 20 – 30). This brother attacked another brother who refused to share the kingship, Eteocles. Both died and the uncle became the king. Antigone buried both of them and thud disobeyed the king. King’s wife and son committed suicide next to Antigone and the king realized he punished Antigone unjustly (Sophocles 1240, 1282, 1340). He acted undemocratically and thus also against gods, who Antigone obeyed (Hall). Antigone followed the “sacred laws that Heaven holds in honour” (Sophocles 77). Thus, religious life was used as the pure, uncorrupt code of behavior, and it was contrasted to the corrupt political life. It can be deduced from Antigone that religion was placed higher than social power in ancient Greek culture in case of heroes.
Heroes always received a special position in Greek society. They protected the society, and were the wealthiest and most prominent citizens. Females dying in childbirth were too of special importance. Continuity and survival were very important to ancient Greeks. However, death did not imply an end. They worshipped their dead and believed that they could protect them in battle. Death was just a stage of life.
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