Mycenaean tombs discovered might be evidence of classless society

A team of archaeologists have unearthed five chamber tombs at Ayia Sotira, a cemetery in the Nemea Valley in Greece, just a few hours walk from the ancient city of Mycenae. The tombs date from 1350 – 1200 BC, the era in which Mycenae thrived as a major centre of Greek civilization.

They contain the remains of 21 individuals who probably came from Tsoungiza, an agricultural settlement close to the ancient city. Despite the significant human remains, however, the team have found no evidence of elite burials, prompting speculation that Tsoungiza may have been an egalitarian society without leaders.

The team excavated the five tombs between 2006 and 2008, containing the skeletal remains of 21 individuals, including what appears to be an extended family made up of two men, one woman and two young children. Detailed analysis of the remains will be difficult to carry out as they are generally poorly preserved. The team have been advised by scientists that DNA analysis will not be possible, but it is hoped that analysis will reveal further information about the diet of the individuals.

The team also discovered pieces of obsidian and flint debris in the tombs, and believe that these tools would have been used to cut up bodies as part of ‘secondary burial’ procedures - a funerary practice that was not uncommon in the ancient world. Professor Angus Smith, of Brock University in Canada, is one of the directors of the excavation project. He explained:

“You bury somebody, then you wait for that person to decompose, then you go back into the tomb or grave and you collect the bones after all the flesh has decomposed”.

Professor Smith suggested that there were practical reasons to bury bodies in this way, in that the bodies would take up less space. But there may also have been ritualistic reasons. In Tomb 4 the team found a small pit that contained the secondary burials of two adult men. Both of their skulls were “displayed at a higher level than the rest of the skeleton,” said Professor Smith, suggesting that the men were “carefully placed in this pit”.

The team were surprised to find a lack of burial goods in the tombs. The Mycenaean civilization is known for its rich elite burials, but the goods found at Ayia Sotira were modest. They included alabaster pots, bowls, jugs, faïence and glass beads, and a female Psi figurine (one of three styles typical of Mycenae). After water-sieving the remains, they also found stone micro beads that were no bigger than a millimetre in size. One tomb contained 462 of these beads stowed in a side-chamber, and are thought to be the remains of a necklace.

There were no findings of the gold or silver artefacts expected in an elite burial, although they did find fragments of a conical rhyton – a two-hole vessel that can be used for libation rituals and is often associated with elite burials.

Professor Smith described the tomb complex as having a “distinctly different character to those around Mycenae. The wealthy and very wealthy tombs are missing”.

One explanation could be that the elite tombs were looted, either in ancient times or more recently. When the team arrived at Ayia Sotira, they found 'probe holes' that had been dug into the ground by looters searching for airways.

Another possibility is that the elite tombs at Ayia Sotira just haven’t been discovered yet.

A third possibility is that these people lived in a classless society – that despite being close to a rich city, the people of this settlement, for whatever reason, had no elites.

“It does seem to be a community of agriculturalists who don’t seem to have a clear leader or clear elite mixed in amongst them,” said Professor Smith. “Were they governed by the palace at Mycenae which sort of oversaw them? Or were they removed enough that they had their own system of politics and government but one that didn’t produce clear elites?”

Egalitarian societies are not unheard of in ancient times. The Iroquoian people of the Great Lakes region, and the peaceful Manchey of Cardal, Peru, are amongst some of civilization’s early socialist societies.

Michael Moore’s ancient socialist ancestors

Discovering an ancient utopia in Peru

Heinrich Schliemann’s Glittering Discoveries in Mycenae

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