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Cemeteries and burials in the Cycladic culture

Already during the Stone age people started to bury their dead. The oldest known graves are dated to an age of 40,000 years. The first known cemeteries are about 12,000 years old. On the Cyclades as far as I know no Stone age graves have been found. Even the well-advanced Stone age cultures of the Balkan don’t seem to have buried their dead in cemeteries. In contrast, numerous graves and cemeteries are known from the Early Bronze age, and in fact most of our information about this period comes from the investigation of graves: Considerably more cemeteries have been found than settlements.

Type of burial and grave type

The graves of the Cycladic culture were mostly made of stone slabs (stone box graves or cist graves). In the first phase each grave was used only for one burial, later often for several. The bones of the former burial were cleared away, only the skull was left in its place. The dead was buried lying on the (mostly right) side in a bent position, the hands in front of the face, the head sometimes resting on a flat stone. It is assumed that this posture reminds that of a child in the womb and that death was understood as a return to the womb of Mother Earth.

Grave goods

In many graves, but not in all, grave goods have been found, which represent our most important source of information about the life and culture of the Cycladic people. It seems that the personal valuables of the deceased were given into the grave, be it for the use in a life after death, be it to prevent the return as a “ghost”.

The most common grave goods were obsidian blades. In many graves clay or stone vessels have been found, which might have contained offerings. The vessels were sometimes very carefully crafted and decorated; often they were specially made for this purpose, such as the unusable, not hollowed out marble lamp “models”. Occasionally metal tools or a whole handicraft equipment were found, rarely weapons.

cycladic grave goods
different grave goods from the Cycladic epoch

Some graves contained pieces of jewellery such as cloak pins, bracelets, rings or diadems that were carefully made of metal (bronze or silver), or pretty pendants or bead necklaces of shells, metal or semi-precious stones. Other characteristic grave goods were pigment containers either made of bone tubes or small stone or clay vessels, as well as tiny pestles and pallets used to prepare the pigments. The mostly red and blue colour was probably used for a ritual painting of the dead, presumably similar to what can be seen on some idols, which sometimes show traces of paint on the face as well as in dotted ribbons on the chest.

cycladic decorated bone tubes containing pigments
Elaborately decorated bone tubes contained pigments that were presumably used in funeral rites.

The best-known but rarest grave goods were the famous marble idols.

next: Idols and religion

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