Classics Death and Burial in the Bronze Age Aegean
Joanne M. A. Murphy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0390


Death and burials have featured prominently in discussions of Bronze Age Greek society since the inception of the field. The reason behind this is twofold: (1) Early archaeologists prioritized the excavation of tombs and palaces over other types of sites; and (2) Tombs frequently contain a thesaurus of well-preserved array of artifacts such as pottery, but also luxury items, such as gold, semi-precious stones, and bronzes, which contribute to our reconstruction of many aspects of ancient life. Early publications of the tombs tended to focus on a catalog of artifacts and assumed that there was a direct correlation between the tombs and the community. In the last forty years the way in which the tombs and their contents have been studied has shifted to a more dynamic relationship between the tombs, their contents, and the related society. There are several different common tomb types used throughout the Bronze Age (BA) in Greece. Burials in pits (simple sub-rectangular hole) and cists (simple dug holes but some have walls) are found sporadically throughout the BA; intramural burials (burials inside houses) tend to be limited to Early (EBA) and Middle Bronze Age (MBA) on the mainland; tumuli (a somewhat semi-spherical shaped mound of earth that was built over burials or that burials were placed in) also date to late Early Helladic (EH) and Middle Helladic (MH) on the mainland; with the exception of the MH II example on Aegina, shaft graves (large rectangular pits with the sides of the pit lined with built walls) have only been found on the mainland and date predominantly to MH III/Late Helladic (LH) I—II; house tombs (built rectangular tombs) have only been found on Crete in the EBA and MBA; tholos tombs (built tombs with circular plan and sometime with added rectangular rooms; larger in the Late Bronze Age) date to EBA and MBA on Crete and the Late Bronze Age (LBA) on Crete, the mainland, and the islands; chamber tombs (cave like tombs dug into the side of hills) date to EH II on Euboea and LBA I–III on Crete, the mainland, and the islands. Most of our data from tombs comes from Crete and the Peloponnese although recent studies have focused on tombs in the Dodecanese and central and northern Greece. Skeletal remains from the tombs have been understudied, but recent endeavors are rectifying this pattern and are adding to our understanding of the gender division in the tombs and differential access to food resources.

General Overviews of the Greek Bronze Age

Several volumes that give overviews of the Greek Bronze Age are useful for contextualizing the tombs in the larger social and archaeological contexts and outlining the chronology of the period. Cline 2010, Shelmerdine 2008, and Cullen 2001 present the work of multiple authors and provide summary overviews of the Bronze Age. Cline 2010 and Shelmerdine 2008 are divided thematically and are more accessible to the non-specialists. In contrast, Cullen 2001 provides more in-depth summaries of the period. Some synthetic volumes, such as French and Wardle 1988, highlight the issues and questions of the Greek Bronze Age that sets the groundwork for more recent problematized approaches to the field. Rutter’s website (Rutter 2021) is an excellent summary of the Greek Bronze Age and is easily accessible online. Preziosi and Hitchcock 1999 gives a solid overview of main archaeological sites and themes that is ideal for an undergraduate audience. All these works also provide clear summaries of the complex issue of the chronological divisions of the Greek Bronze Age, how the time periods connect and differ for the mainland, the islands, and Crete, and how the Greek chronology relates to the Near East and Egypt. While the time period for the whole region is referred to as the Bronze Age, more specific terms are used for the mainland, the Cycladic islands, and Crete; these are referred to as Helladic, Cycladic, and Minoan respectively. Thus, objects from the Early Bronze Age on Crete are referred to as Early Minoan (EM), while synchronous objects from the mainland would be called Early Helladic (EH). The tripartite division of the Bronze Age is based on the relative chronology of pottery; on Crete, however, the development of the palaces is also used to subdivide the timeline—prepalatial (before the palaces), protopalatial (first palaces), neopalatial (new palaces), and postpalatial (after the palaces). One the mainland the term Mycenean is used to refer to the period of LH III.

  • Cline, Eric H. 2010. The Oxford handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (ca. 3000–1000 BC). Oxford Handbooks Series. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This volume subdivides the work of sixty-four scholars into four sections on history of research and terminology, chronology and geography, thematic topics, and specific sites and regions. Extremely helpful to specialists and non-specialists.

  • Cullen, Tracey, ed. 2001. Aegean prehistory: A review. American Journal of Archaeology Supplement I. Boston: Archaeological Institute of America.

    This volume contains updated versions of seven review articles that were originally published in the American Journal of Archaeology. Each paper addressed a different period of prehistory and explores different research themes that are prominent in the field. Cullen’s introduction to the volume contextualizes these reviews in the broader historical perceptive and explains the origins of the major debates explored in the papers.

  • French, Elizabeth B., and Kenneth A. Wardle, eds. 1988. Problems in Greek prehistory: Papers presented at the Centenary Conference of the British School of Archaeology at Athens, Manchester, April 1986. Bristol, UK: Bristol Classical Press.

    One of the earliest volumes to problematize Greek prehistory. Provides a good summary of the bibliography and issues in the field at the time.

  • Preziosi, Donald, and Louise Hitchcock. 1999. Aegean art and architecture. Oxford History of Art. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A compact summary overview of the art and architecture of the Bronze Age. Very accessible and useful for undergraduates.

  • Rutter, Jeremy. 2021. Aegean Prehistoric Archaeology. Sponsored by Dartmouth College.

    An excellent compendium on all aspects of Aegean prehistory. Arranged chronologically and thematically. Excellent for students at all stages.

  • Shelmerdine, Cynthia W. 2008. The Cambridge companion to the Aegean Bronze Age. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521814447

    A very readable edited volume by eighteen scholars divided into fifteen chapters. The volume is structured chronologically with each chapter subdivided thematically.

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