Pella is a well-known archaeological site in Central Macedonia, Northern Greece, only 40km (25mi) to the west of Thessaloniki, the region's modern capital. From the 4th to the 2nd centuries BC, Pella was a place of great importance: the capital of the Kingdom of Macedon and the birthplace of its two most famous kings, Philip II and his son Alexander the Great. There is a well-known and extensive archaeological site here, and next to it a fairly new and very large archaeological museum, both of them highlights on Peter Sommer Travels' Exploring Macedonia tour. This post is not about Pella (I'll certainly come back to it), but about just one room in that museum, housing one of the finest exhibits in all of Greece, presenting finds from an immensely important archaeological site of which you have almost certainly not heard yet: the ancient burial ground of Archontiko.
Archontiko - an overlooked site
Today, Archontiko is an insignificant village a short distance west of Pella. It was not always so. Before Pella was founded as a capital city around 400 BC (most likely during the reign of King Archelaos I, or possibly under one of his successors), Archontiko was the main settlement in the area, just a short distance from the great River Axios and close to the Thermaic Gulf (the northwestern extremity of the Aegean Sea, part of which has silted up since antiquity). The place overlooked much fertile land and controlled the crossroads of two major communication routes, one running south-north, the other west-east, thus linking all parts of the region. People settled here from the Early Iron Age onwards (perhaps earlier), but Archontiko (its ancient name is unfortunately not clear, it might have been Tyrissa) appears to have been highly significant, as one of several local centres across Macedon, in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, before Pella eclipsed it.
Excavations have taken place at Archontiko since the 1990s, but especially between 2000 and 2010, when parts of the extensive cemeteries surrounding the settlement were investigated. Over a thousand burials were discovered over the years, covering centuries of activity. Of special interest are 474 of them, belonging to the Archaic era, essentially the 6th century BC, when Archontiko was flourishing. There is nothing visible for the modern visitor at Archontiko, but a room on the upper floor of Pella's Archaeological Museum is dedicated exclusively to those Archaic burials, namely to 22 individual graves.
The Archontiko graves and their importance
The graves themselves were relatively simple affairs. Nearly all of the burials were inhumations; only very few contained cremated remains. Usually, the dead and the objects accompanying him or her, encased in a wooden box (which does not survive), were placed in a simple pit, then covered with soil and often with a protective layer of stones. In terms of distribution, the graves were not evenly spread, but occurred in clusters, most likely indicating groups connected by links of kinship.
What makes the Archaic graves of Archontiko so significant is their stunningly rich contents, foreshadowing the great wealth of Macedonian burials in the Late Classical and Hellenistic eras a few centuries later. These contents demonstrate that Archaic Archontiko was home to a very affluent society dominated by an elite class, a nobility, that was able and willing to engage in major material expense for burial rituals. They also underline the fact that already at this early stage, these people maintained wide-ranging contacts with the rest of the Greek World further south, importing sophisticated luxury products from southern Mainland Greece (especially Athens and Corinth), from the Aegean Islands (most significantly from faraway Rhodes) and even from Ionia in Asia Minor. Further, the material placed with the dead throws some light on what kinds of lives they led, what roles were ideally associated with men and women, perhaps even what these people believed, how they understood the world and their place in it.
A wealthy elite
The graves contained men and women in roughly equal numbers, strongly distinguished by certain personal accoutrements of the bodies, and much less so by other artefacts that were buried with them. Although virtually all the burials contained objects placed alongside the dead, some have more modest contents than others, indicating social stratification, differences in affluence that permit the archaeologists to group them in a number of subsets. The room in Pella Museum, and thus this post, concentrates on the wealthiest of these subsets, distinguished by larger numbers of artefacts, and even more so by the value and quality of these artefacts.
The faces of the dead in the richer graves were covered, probably usually with cloth and often with a specially-made sheet gold cutout (known as a stomion) over the mouth, probably reflecting beliefs of the era. In some cases, the eyes are similarly covered. In seven graves (four men and three women) a larger golden mask covers the entire face; in two more an unshaped gold sheet fulfils that role. This habit of burial masks, known from the 'royal' Bronze Age (Mycenaean) tombs of southern Greece a millennium before, had disappeared in Iron Age Greece. The Archontiko masks are the earliest in their era, but the habit lasted and spread from here. The masks tend to be decorated with patterns or motifs in the repoussé technique, suggesting beliefs or notions associated with death.
The men of Archontiko were buried as warriors, accompanied invariably by their armour and weaponry as well as some ornaments and personal items. Their equipment tends to include a sword and dagger/knife, often also a spear or lance. In many cases these weapons are made of bronze, but in the wealthiest tombs they are of iron, the most 'modern' metal at the time. About a third of the male graves contained helmets, all made of bronze, mostly of the so-called 'Illyrian' type that was widespread in Macedon, although a hybrid Illyrian/Corinthian variety also occurs very rarely. Some of the helmets bear golden decorations. The richer graves also included a shield, either of the composite 'Argive' type (of which only the metal decorations tend to survive) or more rarely of bronze. There is evidence that many were buried dressed in armour, made of starched linen or perhaps leather. Only decorative appliqués survive of it.
Other objects found in these rich male graves include vessels of bronze or more rarely silver. Locally-made pottery is complemented with high-quality imported wares, especially from Corinth and Athens, the two dominant production centres of luxury ceramics at the time. The Corinthian imports tend to be aryballoi (perfume vessels), whereas the painted Athenian vessels are mostly associated with the serving and consumption of wine, suggesting that the symposion, the ritualised social drinking party that was the backbone of male social life in the Greek city states, played a similar role in Archaic Macedon. Such graves also contain clay figurines (often imported) and miniature bronze models of chariots, carts or items of furniture, perhaps stand-ins for the real thing, to be used in the afterlife or to symbolise wealth?
And ladies to match them
The ladies in the richest graves were buried dressed in their finest and wearing large amounts of jewellery, the way they would appear at important events, perhaps most importantly at their own weddings. Common ornaments include golden diadems, earrings or hair ornaments, necklaces of gold, silver or amber, clothes-pins, bracelets and rings of various metals. Countless small ornaments or beads of gold, glass and other materials were attached to the long-disappeared robes or dresses they wore. Some even had gold applications on their shoes!
Other finds from the female graves include, again, silver and bronze vessels, pottery of local production and finer wares imported from the areas mentioned above, perhaps surprisingly including symposion wares, figurines, models, knives, needles and more. Some of the ladies were also equipped with sceptre-like objects made of metal or ivory.
Interpreting the Archontiko graves - and displaying them
There can be no doubt that the elite burials of Archaic Archontiko represent the dead in their idealised roles, the men as heroic warriors, also as well-equipped hosts, and the women as great ladies, bedecked in beautiful and sophisticated splendour, but also sharing many types of grave goods with the men. For both sexes, it is clear that those burying them were also eager to stress their access to and familiarity with luxury items from across the Greek World. At the same time, by removing such rare and valuable items from circulation, an act of 'conspicuous consumption', their families also demonstrated their own wealth, status and importance to those present at the funerals. It is tempting to suggest that on departing their earthly lives, the dead of Archontiko were seen and revered as joining the world of the ancestors, and there is evidence that worship continued at their graves after burial.
The exhibit at Pella is uniquely effective. The curators have chosen 22 of the richest burials, 11 male and 11 female, lining them up in two rows of vertical displays on either side of the room, men on the left and women on the right. Each display contains the armour or ornaments of the individual as it would have been placed on the body, from helmets, masks and diadems atop, via weaponry and ornaments, down to the decorations of the shoes. Pottery and further items from the grave is placed at the bottom of each case. This way of presentation preserved the individuality of each grave, allowing us to see the finds from each grave as an ensemble, permitting us a glimpse of who these people were themselves, and of the society to which they belonged. (Note that each case only contains the objects that were sufficiently well-preserved after conservation, and usually just a selection of the pottery and other finds. It's also worth keeping in mind that all organic content, such as textiles or leather, is long gone. The actual bones of the dead, still undergoing study, are not part of this concept, nor are they needed).
The Archaeological Museum of Pella and the finds from Archontiko are one highlight among many on our Exploring Macedonia tour, where they are just one great collection of Macedonian funerary treasures, the others being the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and that of Vergina. Meanwhile, you can see more images from the exhibit in the gallery below.
(For further reading on the Archontiko burials I recommend the excellent article The “gold-wearing” Archaic Macedonians from the western cemetery of Archontiko, Pella by Anastasia Crysostomou and Pavlos Chrysostomou . It is only proper for me to express my gratitude to the authors, as their work has been enormously helpful not just for this post, but for my research in preparing the tour itself and presenting the material to our guests. Their fine work is available for download here.)