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The Cemetery Excavation at the Middle Byzantine Cemetery of Zoodochos Pigi (Crete-Greece)

Chryssi Bourbou, Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Greece, Project Grant 2010–2011


The history of Crete during the Byzantine period is scantily documented in both the textual and the archaeological record. The greater emphasis given to prehistoric and classical antiquities has resulted in a relative neglect of Byzantine sites, few of which have been properly excavated and investigated, and even fewer of which have been the subject of detailed publication. In particular, the investigation of everyday life is more or less an under-explored aspect of the Byzantine world, and often takes a backseat to the more visible aspects of Byzantine culture, such as works of art and ecclesiastical architecture.

The church of Zoodochos Pigi, a monument remarkable in its architectural features and wall paintings, was founded by John Xenos at the beginning of the eleventh century (1030) between the village of Alikianos and the area of Koufos (southwest of Chania, Crete).For an overview of the church, see Bourbou 2010a, note 1. It is among the very few recovered and systematically excavated cemeteries on the island, offering a unique opportunity for a thorough bioarchaeological study of Byzantine Crete.For a bioarchaeological review of Byzantine Crete (7th–12th c. AD), see Bourbou 2010b.

The Cemetery Excavation

The rescue excavation, as part of the restoration work conducted at the church, began in February 2007 and finished a year later in February 2008.For a report on the excavation, see Bourbou 2010a and Bourbou in press. During the consolidation of the foundations at the interior and the exterior, numerous graves have emerged. Trenches were opened at the interior of the church (narthex, sections I-II; main church, sections VII-IX), as well as at the exterior (periphery of the church, sections III-VI). The size of the exterior trenches, indicated by the consolidation work, is approximately 2 m in width and 0.60 m in depth.

Grave topography

Fig. 1: Sixteen graves from the narthex, and five from the main church (Bourbou 2010–2011)
Fig. 1: Sixteen graves from the narthex, and five from the main church.

Sixteen graves were excavated in the narthex and another 5 graves in the main church, where the excavation did not continue further. From the total of 21 graves, 15 contained the burial of non-adults (in situ or as a secondary interment). Nine graves included only non-adults, while the remaining included the burial of adults (in situ or as secondary interment). For example, Grave I included two non-adults and the secondary interments of three adults, while Grave IV most likely included the burial of a young mother (around 20 years old) and her newborn child.

Fig. 2: Fifty-eight graves from the exterior of the church (Bourbou 2010–2011)
Fig. 2: Fifty-eight graves from the exterior of the church.

Fifty-eight graves were excavated at the exterior of the church. Although Graves 1 and 1a, as well as Graves 26 and 26a, share common borders, they should be considered separate graves. From this total, in the current study, we have excluded Grave 18 (which most probably served as an ossuary),This was a large rectangular cist grave (2.50m x 0.90m), containing the commingled remains of both adult and non-adult individuals. Grave 5 (dating to the Venetian period), and Grave 28 (dating to the Ottoman period), while Graves 2, 13 and 55 had no associated human remains. Graves 2 and 55, however, must have been for non-adult burials due to their small size. From the remaining total of 52 graves dating to the Byzantine period, 23 graves included the burial of non-adults (in situ or as a secondary interment). Nineteen graves included only non-adult individuals, while the rest included the burial of adult individuals (in situ or as a secondary interment). Grave 1, for example, included the burial of 3 non-adults (aged from around 1 month to 4–8 years). It is therefore obvious that the majority of graves (74%) included the burial of only non-adult individuals (one or more individuals).The archaeological record of middle Byzantine cemeteries excavated in Greece, usually include more non-adult burials with adults, while in some sites non-adult in situ burials are absent, e.g. at the cemetery of Thebes (12th–13th c. AD); see Tritsaroli and Valentin 2008, 98. The distribution of graves demonstrated that no special area was exclusively used for the burial of non-adults. A small, but perhaps significant number (8%) of non-adult burials (aged up to 2 months) was noted at the eastern side of the church. Possibly, this area was reserved for the interment of unbaptized children who died prematurely, and thus some special care was taken for their afterlife.The recent discovery of a children cemetery (newborns to 6 months) at Amorion to the north of the Basilica and near the baptistery is possibly associated with the burial of unbaptized children, see, Lightfoot et al., forthcoming.

Grave typology

Fig. 3: Example of a cist grave (Bourbou 2010–2011)
Fig. 3: Example of a cist grave.

The usual types of graves were encountered are as follows: cist graves, simple pits, and tile graves. Cist graves were the most widespread type; they are usually rectangular in shape, built of stones or stones and tiles, and covered with slabs. Smaller stones filled the gap between the slabs. Simple pits were usually a relatively shallow ellipsoidal opening, sometimes covered with slabs. Some variability in their construction was noted: scattered stones outline the pit or one pit grave had its north side built.

Fig. 4: Example of the second type of tile grave (kalyvitis) (Bourbou 2010–2011)
Fig. 4: Example of the second type of tile grave (kalyvitis).

Two types of tile graves were noted: the simple type, where the covering tiles were placed horizontally; and the more complex type, where the tiles were placed in the form of two-sided roof (kalyvitis). They were usually rectangular; the elongated sides had one tile (if a child burial) or more (if an adult burial), and the narrow sides were blocked with a fragment of tile or stone. In all graves the floor was soil.

Funerary rites

The deceased was placed directly on the soil, although the use of wooden carriers or coffins was evidenced by the recovery of iron nails around the skeleton. Thirty-four nails were collected, most of them severely eroded, with mainly fragments preserved. However, one intact nail (M38) was 8 cm long. Twelve nails were collected from Grave 54, while 6 nails were collected from both Graves 34 and 46.

Fig. 5: Burial in which the left arm is folded over the sternum and the right over the abdomen (Bourbou 2010–2011)
Fig. 5: Burial in which the left arm is folded over the sternum and the right over the abdomen.

The orientation was relatively stable (W-E) and the deceased was placed in a supine position with his or her lower legs lying parallel. A greater variety was observed on the position of the upper arms: in addition to being folded on the abdominal area (the most usual position), in some burials they were folded on the sternum, or the left arm was folded on the sternum and the right arm folded on the abdominal area. The cranium was often placed among two stones or tiles, while in some cases a third stone was placed under the mandible or on the sternum. Occasionally only one stone was placed under the mandible. Possibly associated with burial rituals (liquid offerings) was the ellipsoidal opening (approximately 10 cm) on the stone slab of Grave IV. Finally, the upside-down bowl placed on the face of the deceased (Grave 11), possibly indicates a ritual where a clay vessel was placed either on the face or between the lower limbs of the deceased .

Accompanying goods

Of the 18 Byzantine graves that included accompanying goods (mainly jewelry and adornments of vestments), 10 were of non-adults (3 in the narthex and 7 at the exterior of the church).

Of special interest were Graves 54, 16, and 47, which contained a large number of accompanying goods: Grave 54 included 3 bronze bracelets (Μ41-Μ43), 4 glass bracelets (Υ5-Υ8), a pair of basket-shape earrings (Μ44-Μ45), and a necklace made of glass beads (Χ2). Grave 16 included a fish vertebra, possibly a gaming piece (Ο1), 2 bronze earrings (Μ17-Μ18), a part of a bronze jewel (possibly of earring? Μ19), and a glass bead that may have been part of a jewel (Υ2). Grave 47 included a necklace made of glass beads (Χ1) and a gold-plated earring (Μ65). The practice of adorning children of both genders with jewelry remained unchanged throughout the history of Byzantine empire. Byzantine parents also took care to adorn their children in death. From the early Christian era and into the middle Byzantine period, jewelry continued to be a part of childrens' graves, illustrating the continuity of beliefs about premature death in ancient societies. The jewelry may reflect the attachment and intense grief of the parents as well as their desire to protect their child on its journey to the realm of the dead.Pitarakis 2009, 194 and note 95 The authors of the Djadovo excavation suggest that the bulk of jewelry accompanying the burials of little girls may reflect the custom of “marriage-to-death”.Fol et al., 1989. This custom alludes to the ancient Greek perception of death as a marriage to the underworld deities, especially in the case of a young unmarried person. The journey of the soul to its last abode is linked to that of the bride to the unknown home of the bridegroom. The association between death and marriage is found in both ancient and modern Greek customs and is reflected in the burial of maiden girls in their wedding attire.

Below are presented some of these accompanying goods:

  1. Pair of silver basket-shape earrings (Μ44-Μ45)
    Height: 4.6 cm; Width: 2.3 cm; Chronology: 12th c.
  2. Bronze, gold-plated earring (M7)
    Height: 2 cm; Width: 3.2 cm; Chronology: 12th c.
  3. Bronze earring (M65)
    Height: 2.5 cm; Width: 2.5 cm; Chronology: 12th c.
  4. Bronze, gold-plated cross (M29)
    Height: 2.5 cm; Width: 1.5 cm; Chronology: 11th–12th c.
  5. Glass bracelet (Y5)
  6. Diameter: 8.7 cm; Thickness: 0.8 cm. Chronology: 11th–12th c.
    Note: A number of these bracelets are painted with geometric motifs of white or yellow color
  7. Bronze bracelet (M42)
    Diameter: 6.3 cm; Thickness: 0.5 cm. Chronology: 11th–12th c.
  8. Necklace of glass beads (X1, X2)
    X1: length of necklace: 17 cm, number of beads: 102; Chronology: 11th–12th c.
    X2: length of necklace: 20.5 cm number of beads: 129; Chronology: 11th–12th c.
    Note: The beads are very small (0.2–0.3 cm), made of glass, and are of various shapes and colors. Of special attention are the spheric beads of black glass, whose surface is decorated with an inlaid yellow glass fiber.
  9. Fish vertebra, possibly a gaming piece (Ο1)
    Height: 1.5 cm; Diameter: 1.2 cm; Chronology: 12th c.

Articles of adornment included bronze and bone buttons and decorative items possibly sewn on the clothes. Of great interest and still under investigation, is the lead object found (M66) during the cleaning of skeleton 008. Our original interpretation was that possibly this item was a katadesmos; unfortunately its numerous folds are too fragile to completely unfold.

The Analysis of Skeletal Remains (Figs. 25–44)

The human skeletal collection under study was relatively well preserved; with the exception of secondary interments, where usually only few bones were present, a great number of skeletons were recovered almost intact.For the anthropological and paleopathological methodology applied, see Bourbou, 2010b, 34–37. Out of 80 individuals, almost half were non-adults—a striking proportion (see charts of comparative mortality figures). It is important to note that non-adult mortality patterns in the Alikianos sample provide useful information on the impact of impoverished environmental conditions and possible cultural practices, such as breastfeeding/weaning patterns and the type and quality of supplementary foods introduced. Most deaths occurred between 1 and 5 years old and a number of hematopoietic disorders, such as cribra orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis (Figs. 25 and 26), and metabolic conditions, such as scurvy, tended to develop around this age. Cribra orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis are lately associated with a vitamin B12-deficient diet,Vitamin B12 is found in food that comes from animals, including fish and shellfish, meat (especially liver), poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products. as the most likely key nutritional component in a set of interacting variables.Walker et al., 2009. Scurvy (vitamin C deficiency), on the other hand, has been recorded in at least three cases: skeletons 011, aged 2 years ± 8 months, and 010 and 014, both aged 18 months ± 6 months. Skeleton 011 in particular presented pathognomonic features of the condition (Figs. 27–29). Although a number of factors can explain the sporadic appearance of scurvy in the paleopathological record of Greece, it should be noted that metabolic conditions are often argued to coincide with weaning.Bourbou, 2010b, 121-122. Recent isotopic analysis for the detection of breastfeeding and weaning patterns in Greek Byzantine populations has demonstrated that breastfeeding was completed by the age of three.Bourbou and Garvie-Lok, 2009. Weaning represents a crucial time in a child’s life, and the nutritional value of supplementary foods, as well as sanitary conditions in which feeding take place, are of vital importance. The results of the isotopic analysis of our sample are expected to further contribute on the possible association of weaning with the development of specific pathological conditions in non-adults.

In the adult sample a number of interesting pathological conditions were observed. Besides evidence of the most frequently encountered pathologies in archaeological populations, such as dental disease and degenerative joint diseases, infections, trauma, and neoplastic conditions have also been recorded. Dental diseases included cases of carious lesions, calculus (Fig. 30), antemortem tooth loss (Fig. 31), and abscess (Fig. 32). Teeth-cleaning appears not to have been a common activity of the population, and the composition and consistency of foods consumed primarily determined the development of dental diseases. Degenerative diseases were among the most commonly observed pathological conditions in the sample, affecting the vertebral column and the joint surfaces. Osteoarthritis affects the synovial joints (Figs. 33–35) and is associated with the wear and tear of advanced age. On the vertebral column, besides osteoarthritis, cases of spondylosis, discal prolapse (Fig. 36), and Schmorl’s nodes (Fig. 37) were also commonly noted. Infectious conditions included mainly cases of periostitis of the lower limbs (Fig. 38). Traumatic incidents were also attested; primarily fractures of the bones (Fig. 39) or of the soft tissues (Fig. 40) usually attributed to everyday accidental injuries; evidence of possible interpersonal violence can be suspected in the case of a cranial fracture (Fig. 41). The large perforation on the cranium of skeleton 040 (Fig. 42a and b), possibly represented a case of surgical operation (trepanation?). Finally, the paleopathological analysis also included cases of benign neoplasms: button osteomas (Fig. 43) and a possible case of osteoma of the ethmoid (Fig. 44).

Toward the Future

The study of the funerary and anthropological data from the cemetery excavation of Zoodochos Pigi offers an insight into aspects of life and death in middle Byzantine Crete. The results add considerably to the relatively poor bioarchaeological record of the period in question. As is the fate of all salvage excavations, valuable information may have been lost, as a significant part of the cemetery remains unexcavated. To this extent, and in order to at least roughly estimate the number of unexcavated graves, a geophysical survey is currently applied. Furthermore, half of the collection has been sampled for stable isotope analysis (δ13C and δ14Ν values) in order to detect the dietary and breastfeeding/weaning patterns of the population. The isotopic results will contribute to the growing body of similar studies from a number of Byzantine sites throughout Greece. This type of data is also expected to shed light on two very important issues associated with dietary patterns in the Byzantine period: first, regarding non-adult diet, to further investigate the formulated hypothesis on the effects of weaning on mortality patterns and the development of specific pathological conditions, such as scurvy, and for the adult diet, to also test the already suspected increase of marine consumption.

Selected References

Bourbou, C. 2010a. "Η ανασκαφή του νεκροταφείου στο Ναό της Ζωοδόχου Πηγής (Αλικιανός)." In Πρακτικά της 1ης Συνάντησης για το Αρχαιολογικό Έργο Κρήτης, 754–66. Rethymno: Πανεπιστήμιο Κρήτης-ΥΠ.ΠΟ.Τ.

———. 2010b. Health and Disease in Byzantine Crete (7th–12th Centuries AD). Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

———. Forthcoming. "Οι παιδικές ταφές στο Ναό της Ζωοδόχου Πηγής (Αλικιανός): ταφικές πρακτικές και ανθρωπολογικά δεδομένα." In Πρακτικά της 2ης Συνάντησης για το Αρχαιολογικό Έργο Κρήτης.

——— and S. J. Garvie-Lok. 2009. "Breastfeeding and Weaning Patterns in Byzantine Times: Evidence from Human Remains and Written Sources." In Becoming Byzantine: Children and Childhood in Byzantium, edited by A. Papaconstantinou and A.-M. Talbot, 65–83. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Fol, A, R. Katinčarov, J. Best, N. de Vries, K. Shoju, and H. Suzuki. 1989. Djadovo: Bulgarian, Dutch, Japanese Expedition, vol. 1, Mediaeval Settlement and Necropolis (11th–12th Century). Tokyo: Tokai University Press.

Lightfoot, C., N. Tsivikis, and J. Foley. Forthcoming. Amorium Kazilari 2009.

Pitarakis, B.. 2009. "The Material Culture of Childhood in Byzantium." In Becoming Byzantine: Children and Childhood in Byzantium, edited by A. Papaconstantinou and  A.-M. Talbot, 167–251. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Tritsaroli, P. and F. Valentin. 2008. "Byzantine Burials Practices for Children: Case Studies Based on a Bioarchaeological Approach to Cemeteries from Greece.: In Nasciturus, infans, puerulus vobis mater terra: la muerte en la infancia, edited by F. Gusi Jener, S. Muriel, and C. Olària (eds), 93–113. Spain: Diputació de Castelló, Servei d'Investigacions Arqueològiques i Prehistòriques (SIAP), España. Online here (retrieved 4/5/2011).

Walker, P. L., R. R. Bathurst, R. Richman, T. Gjerdrum,and V. A. Andrushko. 2009. "The Causes of Porotic Hyperostosis and Cribra Orbitalia: A Reappraisal of the Iron-Deficiency-Anemia Hypothesis." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139:109–25.

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