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Excavations at Sissi

Jan Driessen

3. The Excavation of the Cemetery (Zone 1)1

Ilse Schoep

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1. The House Tombs at Sissi

  • 1 Took part in the excavations: F. Carpentier (2007), A. Gilon (2008), S. Dédérix (2008), T. Devos ( (...)
  • 2 Soles 1992. The finds from Petras are as yet unpublished.
  • 3 Evans 1921: 72-74.
  • 4 Cited in Soles 1992: VI.
  • 5 Branigan 1970; Idem 1993; Soles 1992; Schoep 1999.

1This chapter constitutes a preliminary account of the excavation of the cemetery of the settlement (zone 1), situated on the north slope of the hill, close to the sea. Surface reconnaissance indicates that the entire northern slope is covered by small rectangular structures that were probably used for burial. Sissi, just like other coastal settlements in North-east Crete, has yielded evidence for the use of house-tombs, a term used to describe the small rectangular burial structures that were also found in other parts of Crete at Palaikastro, Mochlos, Gournia, Gournes, Malia and more recently at Petras2. The term house-tomb goes back to Arthur Evans who described the tombs from Mochlos as ‘miniature stone houses3. Pendlebury refers to the tombs at Palaikastro as imitating ‘traditional houses of the living of a bygone era4. They are considered to be typical of North-east Crete5. Just like house-tombs in other coastal settlements, those at Sissi face the sea, those on the lower slopes being laid out on an East-west axis (figs. 3.1 & 3.2).



  • 6 On this issue, see Branigan 1998.

2Between the domestic structures on the summit of the hill and the cemetery, there is a zone that currently appears to be devoid of burial structures and which may have functioned as an empty space or transitional zone. The cemetery would not have been visible from the settlement, implying an absence of intervisibility between the world of the living and the dead6. Excavations of three small ‘rock-shelters’ along the north side of the hill indicate that they had not been used for burials. The easternmost ‘rock-shelter’ seems to have been a focus for the deposition of very large quantities of pottery, mainly tableware, of the Middle Minoan, Late Minoan I and Late Minoan III periods. This deposit of pottery was retained to the North by an East-west wall of large stones. The nature of the deposit is not clear yet, but the typological restriction of the pottery and the lack of debris that one might associate with domestic structures (mudbrick, plaster etc.) suggests that the deposit was not simply the clearance of a domestic destruction layer, but may be plausibly connected with activities involving food and drink consumption taking place in the cemetery area.

  • 7 Se the discussion on the remains in the sea at Kharkoma by J. Driessen, above, chapter 1.

3Excavations in 2007 and 2008 have thus far yielded about 12 compartments of varying sizes, belonging to at least five burial structures (figs. 3.1 & 3.2). The surviving structures on the lowest terrace of the hill (1.4-1.8) are not well preserved because of erosion, principally marine, which has removed all traces of the walls that closed off these spaces to north and north-east. During the Bronze Age, the absolute sea-level was probably lower than it is today7. Therefore it remains unclear whether the lowest surviving structures represent the edge of the ancient cemetery or whether other burial structures, now lost, also existed at a lower level.

  • 8 Se Soles 1992.
  • 9 See Soles 1992: 19-20, 51-57, 88-91.

4In general, house-tombs reveal considerable variation in plan, size, number of compartments and in the way the tombs were accessed8. Until their excavation and architectural study has been fully completed, it is difficult to reconstruct the exact plan of the house-tombs. Whereas some compartments have obvious doorways, others have no visible means of entry apart from perhaps above. This raises the issue of whether the house-tombs were roofed or not. So far, no direct physical evidence has been found to prove that these structures were roofed. However, indirect evidence is provided by the observation that there is no sign inside the tombs of water-logged surfaces or post-mortem disturbances by animals (rats, weasels, birds of prey) interfering with the human remains. In addition, weathering would presumably have left its traces on the objects deposited. The likelihood is that the structures had a roof in perishable materials, such as wooden beams, reed and clay. As to the height of the walls, it must be assumed that the structures stood high enough to allow for the deposition of a body or even several bodies. The north wall of tomb VI at Mochlos is still 1.93 m high and the maximum height of the east wall of Mochlos XVI is 2.20 m9. However, there is no need to assume that the walls at Sissi stood as high. Some believe that only the lower part of the walls was constructed in stone, with the higher courses in mudbrick but at Sissi, no clear evidence for the use of mudbrick was recovered. It is hoped that future planned microscopic analysis of soil stratigraphy will provide a more definitive answer.

5House-tombs in Crete are known to have remained in use over a long period of time. At present the oldest tomb in the cemetery at Sissi may be dated to EM IIA (ca. 2800 BC) and the latest to MM IIB (ca. 1700 BC). This chronological range compares well with evidence from other cemeteries on Crete, where it is not unusual for post-MM IIB burials to become rare. This is the case at Mochlos, Gournia, Palaikastro, Malia etc. There is no straightforward explanation as to why after MM IIB burials become less visible.

2. Description of Burial Compartments

2.1. Burial spaces 1.2-1.3 (fig. 3.3)

  • 10 For a detailed assessment of the human remains, see the report by I. Crevecoeur and A. Schmitt in (...)

6Compartments 1.2-1.3 are situated on the lower terrace of the northern slope and they originally formed part of a single burial structure. This is clear from the fact that the dividing wall between spaces 1.2 and 1.3 was constructed at the same time as the south and east walls of the burial structure. The remains of at least four individuals were found in this burial structure10.


7Burial space 1.2 (ca. 1.7 x 2.8 m) contained two concentrations of human bones, one close to the east wall and one close to its west wall (absolute level of 7.20 m and 7.38 m). Both concentrations belong to primary burials that were disturbed after decomposition of the corpses. It cannot be excluded that this disturbance was connected to the later pithos burial in the south part of the compartment. The bones were found a few centimetres above the pebble floor that was laid out to level the bedrock in 1.2 and these burials may thus not date to the first phase of use of this tomb. At present there is no evidence for any burials dating to the initial use of the tomb and by the time the first skeletons were deposited, a layer of about 0.06 m had built up on top of the floor. The absence of clearly diagnostic pottery from this level means that it remains undated. No diagnostic pottery was found on the pebble floor itself either, although indirect evidence for the date of construction of this burial structure comes from 1.3 (see infra). In the south part of space 1.2, the pebble floor was cut through for the deposition of a pithos burial, which can stylistically be dated to MM II (figs. 4.11-12-13-14-15). In the pithos were found the remains of a woman about 40 years in age. Because the head of the body protruded from the pithos opening, it was covered by another vase. Apart from a small cup, no grave goods were found associated with this pithos burial. The pit in which the pithos was placed was carefully lined with stones, notable being a large triangular piece of schist. This material would appear to have been especially selected since schist was as a general rule not used as building material for the walls. A possible doorway was discovered in the west wall of 1.2, ensuring communication with the area to the west (1.1) where a MM IIB pottery deposit was excavated (see below). The top of the pottery deposit broadly coincided with the floor level inside 1.4.

8Of space 1.3, the north wall of the compartmentis not preserved. In its south-east corner a deposit of pottery was found which consisted of handmade coarse pottery including a jug, twelve cups and one tripod dish (fig. 3.4) (absolute level 7.06 m). The cups were intentionally placed upside down, some of them partly under the protruding stones of the south wall (thus excluding that they had fallen in this position from elsewhere). The cups are all handmade and of the straight-sided or rounded type and have been provisionally dated to EM III/MM IA. In association with the cups and the tripod dish a fragment of a bronze pin was found. Apart from a single long bone, no bones were found in this space. This deposit of cups would appear to provide a date for the construction and initial use of the burial structure in EM III/MM IA. If this is correct, then the human remains found ca. 0.06-0.010 m above, on top of the pebble floor in 1.2, would post-date this event but predate the pithos burial tht dates to MMII. A long bone was found at the same level as the EM III/MM IA deposit in the north part of the compartment but it did not come with any other bones. There is no sign of a pebble floor in this compartment.


9If the deposit of EM III/MM IA pottery provides a construction date for the building of this tomb, then this raises the question of what happened to any burials that might have been deposited during this period. It is a possibility that the pebble floor of space 1.2 was cleared out as not a single scrap of bone was found in the 0.06 m thick layer of yellow silty soil that lay upon it. Were earlier burials cleared out? If so this could provide an explanation for the large amount of pottery that was found between the south wall of the burial structure and the natural rock to the South. This space of about 0.50 m seems to have been filled with mainly pottery as well as some disarticulated human skeletal material.

2.2. Space 1.1

  • 11 For parallels at Malia see Poursat & Knappett 2005.

10Space 1.1 is situated immediately to the west of space 1.2 and is limited to the north by a stretch of floating wall that seems to post-date the south wall of 1.2 to the east (fig. 3.3). There is no evidence that this space was ever used for burial but in its northern part, where there is a depression in the bedrock, a dense concentration of pottery was found (fig. 3.5). The pottery ranges from the fragmentary to the complete and consists exclusively of drinking and pouring shapes and serving vessels. The most common drinking shapes are straight-sided and carinated cups. Most of these were made in a semi-fine or coarse reddish fabric. The number of fine specimens is restricted, but there is one fragment of a straight-sided cup in a buff fabric and decorated in the ‘style écossais’11. This type is well attested at Malia in Quartier Mu and dates to MM IIB. The closed shapes are in the first place medium to large jugs and amphorae. In addition, a large number of serving trays, tripod dishes of varying sizes, small juglets and lamps were recovered (fig. 3.6). It is clear that this deposit is related to the consumption of food and drink, but its interpretation is complicated by the fact that disarticulated human bones (which have not yet been subjected to a detailed study) were found mixed in with the pottery: these include arm and leg bones, traces of a mandible, some teeth, skull fragments of a child and of an adolescent, a possible pelvis fragment. Worth noting also is a lack of animal bone.


  • 12 Müller 1992: 747.

11There was no obvious stratigraphy in the deposit, with pottery of MM IIB type occurring in both its upper and lower levels. This would suggest that deposition took place over a relatively short period of time in this restricted space. Many of the complete and semi-complete pottery forms were clearly broken in situ, i.e. after having been deposited, and the same may hold true of the human bone. It is at present unclear whether we are dealing with a repeated practice (within MM IIB) or with a single event involving the consumption of food and drink. On balance it seems less likely that we are dealing with clearance from tombs because of the late date of the pottery. At present, only one MM IIB inhumation has been found (the pithos burial in 1.2) and one might plausibly expect clearance contexts from this tomb to date to the earlier periods of its use, rather than the latest. So far there is no evidence that the cemetery was used after MM IIB. It is known that LM III burials occur to the south of the Kephali hill12. Moreover, in general it must be noted that the number of vases accompanying the dead are limited (on average only a couple of vases) and thus the amount of ceramics in the pottery deposit, if representing tomb clearance, would represent the clearance of a considerable part of the cemetery. The specialised nature of the pottery types and the lack of any other typical grave goods such as obsidian and stone vase fragments also argue against the hypothesis of clearance.


2.3. Burial Spaces 1.7-1.8

12A burial structure on the lower terrace of the northern slope consists of two compartments (fig. 3.2), a main room (1.7) and an annex to the west (1.8). The southern limit of space 1.7 (ca. 2.7 x 2.1 m) is formed by a double wall of small to medium sized limestone rubble. The northern limit of space 1.7 is not preserved but it is unlikely to have been located much further to the north, considering the sudden drop in the level of the bedrock here. Indeed, a flat stone placed perpendicularly onto the dividing wall between the two spaces 1.7-1.8 may originally have indicated the northern limit. At present there are no obvious doorways between the different compartments, although the flat stone in the north end of the dividing wall between 1.7 and 1.8 could have served as a threshold.

  • 13 13 See Crevecoeur and Schmitt, infra, chapter 4.

13Space 1.7 had a floor made of small blue-grey pebbles, similar to space 1.2 (see supra), running up to its south and east walls. Immediately on the pebble floor were the remains of two children aged 3-4 years and 4-5 years, one of which was accompanied by a shell13. Also on top of the pebble floor to the south were the badly disturbed remains of a primary deposition of a female adult, near to which a worked and perforated quartz bead was recovered. Pottery on the pebble floor includes a wheel-made straight-sided cup and a small tripod cup, suggesting a date in MM IB or MM II.


14At a higher level, and above a build-up of a silty yellow-brown layer of earth that covered the earlier burials, were found the remains of a minimum of three other individuals. Adult B shows signs of having been pushed aside to make place for adult A. The latter was laid out along an east-west wall, running obliquely over the earlier compartment. At this level, very little pottery was found apart from a complete MM II straight-sided cup (fig. 3.7). In addition to these two individuals there are more bones that cannot be attributed to the latter, suggesting that other burials were largely removed. This stratigraphy suggests that the tomb was used intensively within MM IB and MM II. The alignment of the latest burial with the oblique wall suggests that the earlier walls of the burial structure were no longer visible when the latter was constructed.

15In the small space 1.8, to the west of 1.7, were found the very disturbed remains of an adult and a 2-3 year old child. The bedrock had been cut in order to accommodate these remains. With the human bones, an obsidian blade was found.

2.4. Space 1.6

16The east and south walls of compartment 1.6 (ca. 2.60 x 0.95 m) follow the same orientation as the walls of 1.7-1.8, which could suggest that it originally formed part of the same burial structure 1.7-1.8. Because of heavy erosion on the lower part of the slope, this area of the cemetery was not well preserved. A single individual was found laid-out in a primary position. The deposition of a single handmade cup allows this burial to be dated to EM


2.5. Spaces 1.9-1.10

17To the north-west of the previously described burial spaces and on a lower terrace, were two spaces of a single structure that comprised a well-built façade wall of large limestone blocks, some of which partly worked. The inner face of this wall uses some limestone fieldstones. All walls were constructed directly onto the unlevelled bedrock. A dividing wall of large boulders divides the structure into two compartments, of which only the eastern compartment (1.9) has thus far been completely excavated. Space 1.9 measures ca. 1.80 x 0.75 m and space 1.10 ca. 1.85 x 1.30 m. A considerable number of medium sized stones found above the human remains suggest that the upper courses of the walls must also have been constructed in stone. Space 1.10 also contained a number of carefully arranged skulls and long bones and here too, a number of stones were found above them.

  • 14 See Crevecoeur & Schmitt, infra, chapter 4.

18In the eastern compartment (1.9) were found the remains of nine adults, two children and one neonate14. The long bones and skulls were arranged very carefully on the uneven bedrock. Although there can be no doubt that we are dealing with secondary deposition, a number of small hand-and foot bones were also found in 1.9. Their presence indicates that some of the body parts may have been deposited in their secondary resting place before the complete decomposition of the flesh. It is not clear where the bones were moved from. There is no indication as yet as to the date at which the secondary burial was made. All sherds are worn and scrappy and it is not certain that they are contemporary to the deposition of the bones. Unlike other secondary burial deposits, as e.g. at Archanes, no grave goods were deposited with the bones. What is certain is that the remains that were reburied after having been laid out elsewhere. Spaces 1.9-1.10 are very restricted and would each be able to accommodate no more than one or two primary burials. It seems therefore likely that the compartments were conceived from the start as ossuaries.

2.6. Spaces 1.11-1.12 (fig. 3.9)

Fig. 3.9. BURIAL SPACES 1.11-1.12 (I. SCHOEP)

19In 2008 excavation of a rectilinear structure located on the higher terrace, a few metres further south up the northern slope of the hill (absolute level 9.4 m) was begun. The structure was divided into two parts by a wall, forming spaces 1.11 (ca. 1.0 x 1.0 m) and 1.12 (ca. 1.30 x 1.80 m). The northern, western and eastern limits of the structure have already been found but the southern limit is currently less clear. The walls are constructed in field stones and the large number of stones that were recovered from these rooms suggests that not only the lower courses but also the higher courses of the walls were constructed in stone. This tomb distinguishes itself from the others by its location higher up the slope, its early date and the good preservation of the finds, helped by the fact that a stratigraphy of 0.50 m was preserved. On the basis of the well-preserved pottery, the burials may be dated to EM IIA (ca. 2500 BC). The natural bedrock was used as a floor level. In comparison to the later tombs lower down the slope (cf. supra), these tombs contained a relatively large number of complete vases. At present no whole vases postdating EMIIA have been found, but it seems that the EM IIA tomb was disturbed at a later stage (see infra 1.11).

  • 15 See Crevecoeur & Schmitt, infra, chapter 4.
  • 16 Branigan 1970; 1993.
  • 17 Sakellarakis & Sakellarakis 1997: 207, 210, 216-217.

20Space 1.11 contains the primary burial of four individuals, which had been badly disturbed. Three skulls were found grouped together in the northwest corner of the room. The skull of a fourth individual appears to be missing. The bones belong to at least one large and robust adult and one adolescent15. The remains all belong to primary burials, since small connexion bones of hands and feet were recovered. They were all oriented northeast-southwest, their heads facing northeast. Part of the post-depositional disturbance is due to the moving aside of earlier burials to make place for a new one. This is a well-attested practice in other cemeteries16. On top of and below the bones were found large flat fragments of a terracotta container, which can only have been a larnax or a very large tub. There is no evidence as yet for the use of larnakes in tombs in EM IIA17. To the north of the skulls, a jar with horizontal handles, a double pierced lug and three short feet, which has been preliminarily dated to EM IIA, was lying on its side. A lid found to the west may originally have sealed this jar (see fig. 3.9). The question arising is whether the four primary burials, above and below which were found the larnax fragments, represent depositions post-dating the EM IIA jar placed along the north wall of the tomb. This is not impossible considering that the pottery found on top of them was a mixture of EM and MM I-II sherds and that larnax fragments were found underneath the burials.

21The excavation in the east compartment, 1.12, is unfinished but some interesting finds were made. Besides the remains of at least one primary burial in the north part of the compartment, five complete terracotta containers were found on the floor: a hole-mouthed jar with rolled rim and flat base in Ayios Onouphrios style that was sealed by a shallow bowl, a side-spouted jar with T-rim, a tumbler in buff fine clay with red-brown paint (fig. 3.10), a jar with horizontal handles, double pierced lug and three short feet and a lid. The remains of a foetus were placed in the hole-mouthed jar with rolled rim in the south part of the space. The contents of the jar were carefully sealed by a shallow bowl. The jar with horizontal handles and double pierced lug that was found in the centre of the space, along the dividing wall, also revealed the remains of a foetus. The presence of at least two foetus burials is important, because this practice is not well attested in other cemeteries on Crete. Thus, not all the vases from this compartment can be considered as grave goods, since some were obviously used as burial containers. Just like the tripod jar found lying on its side in 1.11, the foetus burials may be attributed to EM IIA.


2.7. Space 1.13

22The west and east walls of compartment 1.13 are completely eroded. In a space of ca. 1.5 x 1.0 m were found the remains of at least four individuals. The fact that the skeletons were not found in anatomical position suggests that they were secondary deposits. As in spaces 1.9 and 1.10, no diagnostic sherd material was found.

3. Conclusions

23After around nine weeks of excavation some 12 burial spaces have been identified. The present evidence suggests that the cemetery was used from EM IIA (ca. 2500 BC) to MM IIB (ca. 1700 BC). In the Neopalatial period, the cemetery seems not to have been used. There are signs that some tombs were in use for long periods of time, which is interesting from a social perspective – did the same groups keep using the same tombs or not? There is evidence for differential treatment of the dead. The most common type of burial is primary inhumation, as attested in 1.7-1.8, 1.2 and 1.11-1.12. Secondary burial involved additional treatment of the body and the removal and reburial of the bones, which on the evidence of spaces 1.9-1.10 could take place in a separate space. The reasons for selecting bones and body parts for secondary treatment are not clear. Another differential treatment is represented by the pithos burial, especially in the case of an adult (cf. 1.2). Special treatment is also suggested by the care with which the pithos was dug into the pebble floor in 1.2. One wonders whether the MM IIB pottery deposit found in 1.1, perhaps just outside the entrance into 1.2, is connected to the MM IIB pithos burial of this 40-year old woman. Another way of marking differences is by the quality and the quantity of grave goods. So far, only pottery and the occasional obsidian blade, stone vase fragment, metal object and quartz bead has been found. However, further excavation and study will allow a variety of data to be correlated, including demography (sex, age, treatment of bones), type and location of tomb, quantity and quality of grave goods etc. It is expected that this will shed important new light on social organisation within the cemetery.


4. References

▪ Branigan 1970 = K. Branigan, The Tombs of Mesara. A study of Funerary Architecture and Ritual in Southern Crete, 2800-1700 B.C., London, 1970.

▪ Branigan 1993 = K. Branigan, Dancing with Death. Life and Death in Southern Crete c. 3000-2000 BC, Amsterdam, 1993.

▪ Branigan 1998 = K. Branigan, “The Nearness of you. Proximity and Distance in Early Minoan Funerary Landscapes”, in K. Branigan (ed.), Cemetery and Society in the Aegean Bronze Age, Sheffield, 1998, 13-26.

▪ Evans 1921 = A. Evans, The Palace of Minos I, London, 1921.

▪ Müller 1992 = S. Müller, Prospection de la plaine de Malia en 1991, Bulletin de Correspondance hellénique 116 (1992), 747.

▪ Poursat & Knappett 2005 = J.-C. Poursat & C. Knappett, Le Quartier Mu, IV: La poterie du Minoen Moyen II: production et utilisation, Paris, 2005.

▪ Sakellarakis & Sakellarakis 1997 = Y. Sakellarakis & E. Sakellarakis, Archanes. Minoan Crete in a new light. I, Athens, 1997.

▪ Schoep 1999 = I. Schoep, The Origins of Script and Writing on Crete, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 18 (1999), 265–276.

▪ Soles 1992 = J. Soles, The Prepalatial Cemeteries at Mochlos and Gournia and the House Tombs of Bronze Age Crete (Hesperia suppl. 24), New Jersey, 1992.


1 Took part in the excavations: F. Carpentier (2007), A. Gilon (2008), S. Dédérix (2008), T. Devos (2008), T. Gomré (2008), A. MacGillivray (2008), V. Demarie (2008), L. Cannaerts (2008), A. Schmitt (2008), I. Crevecoeur (2007-2008) as well as workers Luan Bellova and Nikolis Gkika (2008).

2 Soles 1992. The finds from Petras are as yet unpublished.

3 Evans 1921: 72-74.

4 Cited in Soles 1992: VI.

5 Branigan 1970; Idem 1993; Soles 1992; Schoep 1999.

6 On this issue, see Branigan 1998.

7 Se the discussion on the remains in the sea at Kharkoma by J. Driessen, above, chapter 1.

8 Se Soles 1992.

9 See Soles 1992: 19-20, 51-57, 88-91.

10 For a detailed assessment of the human remains, see the report by I. Crevecoeur and A. Schmitt in this volume, chapter 4.

11 For parallels at Malia see Poursat & Knappett 2005.

12 Müller 1992: 747.

13 13 See Crevecoeur and Schmitt, infra, chapter 4.

14 See Crevecoeur & Schmitt, infra, chapter 4.

15 See Crevecoeur & Schmitt, infra, chapter 4.

16 Branigan 1970; 1993.

17 Sakellarakis & Sakellarakis 1997: 207, 210, 216-217.

Table des illustrations

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Légende Fig. 3.9. BURIAL SPACES 1.11-1.12 (I. SCHOEP)
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