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A rich Athenian woman and child

A spectacular cremation burial of a woman and a foetus on the Areopagus of Athens has prompted much speculation about Early Iron Age Athenian society and the role of women and children within it.

Written by Matthew Lloyd on

Content warningdeath of a child; death in childbirth

In the summer excavation season of 1967, an astonishing grave was unearthed on the north slopes of the Areopagus in Athens. Excavators investigating a road besides which the Late Bronze Age Athenians had buried their dead discovered a grave dated to the Early Geometric II Period (ca. 850 BC).

While originally designated H 16:6 after its coordinates in the excavation plan and, as of the 2017 publication of the Early Iron Age graves in the Agora, numbered Tomb 15 (Papadopoulos and Smithson 2017, pp. 124-176), the grave is more commonly known by the name given to it by archaeologist Evelyn Lord Smithson: the Rich Athenian Lady.

The grave of the “Rich Athenian Lady” was of the trench-and-hole type common in Early Iron Age Athens, but what was not common were the contents of the grave, which may well be the wealthiest Athenian grave in centuries.

Trench and hole burial

Early Iron Age Athenian burials from the tenth to the ninth century BC are remarkably consistent (Papadopoulos 2017a, pp. 621-632). These trench-and-hole burials are a form of secondary cremation, that is, a mode of cremation in which the body is burned separately and in a different location from where the cremated remains are eventually buried.

In trench-and-hole cremation, surviving bones were collected from the pyre and placed inside an amphora along with some grave goods, which may or may not have also been burned on the pyre. The amphora could then be closed with a variety of objects, from complete pots or sherds, to bronze bowls or phalara (usually interpreted as shield bosses), to large stones.

Belly-handled amphora, closed with a cup, that was used as the urn in Agora Tomb 15. Museum of the Ancient Agora, Athens. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

The “trench-and-hole” refers to the final burial place: a rectangular trench with a circular hole at one end. The amphora would be placed in the hole, while the remains of the pyre and other grave goods could be swept into the trench.

The grave goods in these trenches could be many and various, but would usually include plenty of pots and some metal objects, including weapons and horse bits. In some cases, swords were bent into rings and placed around the neck of the amphora for burial.

A Rich Athenian Lady

Even though the trench was damaged by later activity, Agora Tomb 15 was not looted: there are more than 80 catalogued finds. The burial urn was a large (72cm) belly-handled amphora sealed so tightly with a cup as its lid that after nearly 3,000 years no soil was found inside.

The contents of the urn, beside the human bones and a few animal bones, included straight pins, bronze fibulae, two ivory stamp seals, and a pair of gold earrings. As there was no real duplication, Evelyn Lord Smithson suggested that the deceased wore this lavish array of jewellery at her prothesis – when the body was laid out for mourning, as depicted on the gigantic Late Geometric burial urns a century later – but that it must have been removed prior to the cremation as there was no visible heat damage (Smithson 1968, p. 81).

This removal is usual for the small finds in many Athenian trench-and-hole cremations, where the majority of small finds are found inside the cinerary urn (excepting weapons; Papadopoulos 2017a, p. 651).

Jewellery from Agora Tomb 15 including finger rings and earrings (far right). Museum of the Ancient Agora, Athens. Photo: Dorieo.

The jewellery from this burial has been much discussed since its excavation. The earrings, with their simple engraving but more complicated filigree and granulation techniques, suggest a combination of local design and Near Eastern influences (Dickinson 2006, p. 118; Stansbury-O’Donnell 2015, p. 76). Attica has no source of gold, and therefore the raw materials must have been imported, but the geometric design of the earrings suggests that it was locally worked, although scholars have long thought that the artist might have been a migrant worker based on the metalworking techniques they seem to introduce to the Aegean (Smithson 1968, p. 83; Coldstream 1995, pp. 397-98).

Similarly, a necklace of thousands of faience and glass beads must have been imported, whether in raw material or worked. The origins of these materials are uncertain, although the eastern Mediterranean is the most likely source. Papadopoulos suggests that they would have come from “Phoenicia” (i.e. the Levantine coast), North Syria, or Cyprus rather than directly from Egypt as Egyptian manufacture of glass and faience seems to have stopped for a time in the early first millennium BC (Papadopoulos 2017b, pp. 931, 935).

Necklace of faience and glass beads from Agora Tomb 15. Museum of the Ancient Agora, Athens. Photo: Dorieo.

Three ivory objects may or may not have been imported in the Iron Age. It is usually assumed that ivory was imported raw and locally worked, but in this case Bronze Age ivory could have been looted from the near-by Mycenaean chamber tombs and reworked, although there is no evidence to support either interpretation (Papadopoulos 2017b, p. 943-44). Papadopoulos also comments, however, that their unusual style points to no known origin. Two are identified as seal stones, the earliest post-Bronze Age examples in Athens (Coldstream 1995, p. 397), the third a medallion.

The pottery, dated to the Early Geometric II phase, is exceptional. A small neck-handled amphora, closed with a cup, suggested to the excavators that the grave might have contained a foetus or neonatal child (Smithson 1968, p. 81 n. 19a); the use of a neck-handled amphora perhaps suggests that this child would have been a boy as this vessel is more closely associated with male graves. Other vessels include globular and pointed pyxides (boxes), pouring vessels such as aryballoi, drinking vessels such as cups and kantharoi, and several kalathoi (ceramic baskets). There were also a number of handmade incised pieces, including pyxides and bowls, and clay spindle-whorls or beads.

The most noted vessel in this grave is the chest with a lid bearing five model granaries shown at the top of this article. Another single granary model accompanies it. While some doubt has been expressed as to the identification of these models as granaries, alternative explanations have failed to convince (Papadopoulos and Strack 2017, pp. 851-862).

The suggestion that they are beehives, for example, relies on the absence of identified beehives in Early Iron Age Greece and parallels from northwest Europe. Beehives in Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman Greece meanwhile are either long cylinders, a type which resembles the Linear B ideogram *168 and also known in Egypt from the third millennium to the modern day, or flare from the bottom to the top with a hole near the bottom – i.e. nothing like the model granaries.

The collection of animal bones was not a priority in the excavations of the 1960s, and it is probable that there were many more bones discarded at the time. However, the animal bones from the urn amount to two young goats, an older sheep or goat, and fragments from other animals. These represent more than seventy kilograms of meat – a substantial feast for the funeral, for which some of the grave’s pottery might also have been used (Liston and Papadopoulos 2004, p. 15).

The bones

What is truly remarkable about this burial, however, is what we can tell from the bones. At the end of the original excavation season in September 1967 the cremated remains from the amphora were studied by J. Lawrence Angel, who confirmed the suspicion that the deceased was a woman; however, Angel also concluded that the grave held no foetal bones (Smithson 1968, p. 81 n.18). Thus, for decades the burial was assumed to belong to an incredibly wealthy woman aged between 24 and 40 years old.

Angel, however, seems typically to have focused on large bones, particularly his career-long obsession of a typological analysis of cranial bones; therefore, when the time came to publish the Early Iron Age burials from the Agora excavations in a single volume, a new analysis of the human bones was undertaken by Maria Liston, including many bones that Angel simply ignored (Liston and Papadopoulos 2004, p. 15; Liston 2017).

Liston’s study not only incorporated material apparently ignored by Angel, but also used new techniques to get more out of the previously studied bones. Her study allowed for a forensic facial reconstruction of the rich Athenian woman, who was also discovered to have been physically healthy, showing no marks of physical labour until her death, which was most likely between 30 and 35 years old. Liston approximated that the cremation of the body, which destroyed all organic material, took six to seven hours. Furthermore, Liston’s study also revealed that the original analysis had been wrong: there were indeed bones from a seven-to-eight-month-old foetus in the grave.

The significance of these foetal bones is multi-fold. It prompted reconsiderations of the wealth in the burial and how far the unusual characteristics of this grave reflect the status of the woman and how far they reflect the status of the foetus. It offers a new perspective on the role of women as child-bearers in Early Iron Age Athens.

But another factor that is of great significance is what the collection of these tiny foetal bones from the funerary pyre tell us about the care taken by the people of Early Iron Age Athens in their cremation ritual. In order to be placed in the funerary urn these bones had to be collected individually from the remains of the pyre. Clearly, whoever buried this woman and her child had great affection for them, or for what they represented.

Women and power in Early Iron Age Athens

The funeral of this woman and child would have been quite the event. First, the prothesis at which the woman was laid out in her jewellery; then the ekphora, when her body was taken to the pyre. The cremation lasted at least six hours, during which time the massive funeral feast may have taken place. Finally, once the flames had died out or had been extinguished, the careful gathering of the bones for the urn, including the tiny foetal bones.

Prothesis depicted on the Late Geometric Dipylon Amphora (Athens 804), ca. 750 BC. National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

It is impossible to deny that this burial belonged to a significant individual in Early Iron Age Athens. Smithson suggested that she might be the daughter of a pentakosiomedimnos, the highest property class in Solon’s reforms, or even the wife of the archon Arriphronos named in the Athenian “king list” of Kastor of Rhodes, probably in the first century BC (Smithson 1986, p. 83; Frag. Gr. Hist., 250, F4).

J.N. Coldstream built on this to suggest that she was part of the Medontid genos, the first of the Athenian aristocratic clans from which an archon was elected, who ruled the village between the Areopagus and the Acropolis (Coldstream 1995, p. 393; 2003, p. 297; Aristotle, Athenaion Politeia 3). Nevertheless, Coldstream admits that much of this is speculation: “let us acknowledge how little we really know of Geometric Athens.” (Coldstream 1995, pp. 393-94).

While such specific and anachronistic identifications have largely been rejected and need not concern us (Morris and Papadopoulos 2004, pp. 228-231), one element of them deserves special attention: the Rich Athenian Lady was not permitted status through her own action, but only as the daughter or wife of a powerful man.

The presence of the foetal bones complicates matters, but has still been used to suggest that the Rich Athenian Lady’s status is not her own (Olsen 2020, pp. 311-312):

Asking whether it is the woman or the fetus who is being celebrated misses the point; the EIA conceptualizes them both as belonging entirely to the oikos.

While such characterisation of women’s role in Greek society seems apt for later periods, should we assume that this is the case in the Early Iron Age?

The case of the so-called “Heroon” at Lefkandi, named for the cremated man buried with his weapons in a bronze vessel, offers a comparison. Alongside this man was buried a woman, inhumed bedecked in gold jewellery, with an iron dagger at her side. Kate Harrell has noted that there is a discrepancy in the interpretation of these two burials (Harrell 2014, p. 100):

The weapon in her grave was the instrument that slew her; the value of her grave gifts – and indeed, her life as a sacrifice – reflects the authority of the cremated male; and her relationships with others are eclipsed by her marriage.

Harrell argues that the burial needs to be taken as a whole, the commemoration celebrating the social roles of both the man and the woman buried within the building.

Jewellery from the burial of a female adult in the so-called “Heroon” at Lefkandi, Euboea, on display in the Archaeological Museum of Eretria. Not included in the display is the knife/dagger from her burial. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

We should also note in the case of the Rich Athenian Lady that it is likely women, not men, who were in control of the funerary ritual in Early Iron Age Greece, as they are in the preceding and subsequent periods (Murray et al. 2020, pp. 232-234; Nevett 2011, pp. 585-87). If this is the case, we should be radically re-thinking the construction of women’s graves and their relationship to the social identity of women in Early Iron Age Greece.

James Whitley considered Athens noteworthy for the unusual presence of distinct female graves, something that he did not believe was evident in other areas of Early Iron Age Greece (Whitley 1996, pp. 219-221). In the wider Greek world at this time, he suggests that women occupy a conceptual space between fully adult males and more gender-fluid children (Whitley 1996, p. 228).

The idea that women and children share a relationship from which men are separate receives some support in the notion that children would have assisted in the work of their mothers until, at adolescence, the boys were separated off – we see this in Mycenaean and historical Greece evidence (Olsen 2020, pp. 295-296; Foxhall 2014, pp. 55-56).

Whitley sees the situation in Athens as unique in Greece until the seventh century when rich burials of women ‘mysteriously’ disappear (Whitley 1996, p. 229). At this point, he sees Athens aligning itself more with the symbolic pattern of the rest of Greece in the Early Iron Age; however, certain other changes indicate that the change in women’s symbolic roles should come earlier, in the eighth century.

Susan Langdon has noted that the rich burials of women in the eighth century belong not to women in their thirties, like the rich Athenian woman of Tomb 15, but rather to young girls of marriageable age (Langdon 2008: 130-43). She argues that these graves mourn the loss of marriageable girls, an attitude we see reflected later in the inscription on the base of the sixth-century korai used as a grave marker for a young woman named Phrasikleia: “Tomb of Phrasykleia, maiden shall I be called forever, given this name, not marriage by the gods.”

Some scholars have taken this focus on marriage and wifehood to be the defining feature of women’s lives throughout the Early Iron Age (Olsen 2020, pp. 306-308). But the emphasis on young, unmarried girls is a feature only of the Late Geometric period in Athens, and Langdon specifically notes a change ca. 750 BC (Langdon 2008, p. 143).

As Whitley noted, we should consider that the status of middle-aged women in earlier Iron Age Athens was quite high (Whitley 1996, p. 229). The “mystery” of their disappearance meanwhile is solved by Langdon’s model of men asserting patriarchal dominance over the household in the eighth century, when women come to be seen through their spousal relationships (Langdon 2008). What, then, of the ninth-century Rich Athenian Lady and her foetus?

A rich Athenian woman and child

While Agora Tomb 15 occurs in a period in which women receive particularly lavish graves, the Rich Athenian Lady’s remains the most opulent Early Iron Age Athenian grave known. On the other hand, she is also the only known Athenian woman cremated while pregnant or with her neonatal child in this period, and we cannot be sure if the burial reflects the status of the woman, the child, or both.

John Papadopoulos has explored several answers to the question surrounding whether this is the burial of a Rich Athenian Lady or a Rich Athenian Baby, emphasising that it should not necessarily be considered one or the other (Papadopoulos 2017a, pp. 664-67). He notes that death during pregnancy would likely place the woman and child in the category of the “special dead” who require special treatment in death alongside war dead, the murdered and murderers, and those who killed themselves, among others; in this case, the untimely dead or aôrai, who died too soon. He suggests in parallel Tomb 123 in the Early Iron Age cemetery at Torone in the northern Aegean, the cremation burial of an 18-to-25-year-old woman with a foetus, which contained an abundance of broken handmade tripods, perhaps connected with a purification ritual.

However, counter to the Torone example is that of the as-yet unpublished Late Geometric burials of foetal or neonatal infants at Vronda near Kavousi on Crete, which seem to show no special treatment of the dead. Closer to home, but not time, Papadopoulos points to the Late Helladic IIIC/Submycenaean (eleventh century BC) Tomb 81 in the Agora, the inhumation of a 15-to-17-year-old girl and an early stage foetus, which is undistinguished from its contemporaries in terms of ritual or grave goods.

Part of the difference in treatment here may relate to the recognition of the social personhood of the foetus. In Early Iron Age burial practice, there is some evidence that the age of a child reflected its position as part of the household versus society, notably the practice of burying children under the age of three in the home or settlement area as opposed to the cemetery, which may be connected to the later choes festival, when the three-year-old child was presented to the family (Liston and Papadopoulos 2004, pp. 24-25).

Similarly, in later periods Athenian families celebrated the amphodromia, a naming ceremony, five or ten days after a child was born as part of its acceptance into the family. Liston and Papadopoulos suggest that this might mark the point at which the child was considered safe, as Aristotle noted that the majority of deaths in infancy occur before the child is a week old (Hist. an. 588a8), but it may also be the point after which it was no longer acceptable or legal to expose an unwanted child (Liston and Papadopoulos 2004, pp. 22-32; Foxhall 2013, p. 52). The evidence for such life-stage rituals in later practice, hinted at in Iron Age burials, suggests that the “Rich Athenian Baby” may not have been considered for formal burial in the Early Geometric period.

The age, wealth, and health of the Rich Athenian Lady implies that her pregnancy is likely to have been intentional, but this does not mean that the grave-makers would have treated the foetus as a social entity in the way that they treated the woman. Nor does it mean that the death of the child, born or unborn, would have been of no consequence. It only reflects how the social identity of the deceased affects how they were treated in burial.

Agora Tomb 15 looks very much more like that of contemporary adults than that of contemporary infants. That there are no obvious markers in the tomb iconography to suggest that the woman was pregnant, the identification of which relied on bioarchaeological examination, may also point to this conclusion (Liston and Papadopoulos 2004, pp. 31-33). Nevertheless, the extensive wealth and food consumption at this burial may point to a ritual connected to the untimely death of the Rich Athenian Lady in late-stage pregnancy. The exceptional wealth of this burial points to the biography of the woman interred, including but not limited to her condition at death.

One last point must be considered on this question. It was once believed that young children did not receive formal burial in Early Iron Age Athens (Morris 1987, pp. 60-62). Liston’s re-examination of the skeletal material from the burials of the Athenian Agora revealed that this is emphatically not the case (Liston 2017, pp. 515-516). In this case, then, the wealth of the burial may reflect that it is a double burial of a parent and child. However, the concern here is with older children rather than neonates.

A common conception in archaeological examination of burials is that the energy expended on a burial matches the level of disruption to the social hierarchy; in this case, the death of a mother and her child, perhaps her first son, disrupting the succession of an elite Athenian family (Liston and Papadopoulos 2004, pp. 28-29). While there is something appealing in this proposal, it once again places the significance not on the Rich Athenian Lady, but on the family to which she belonged.

Neck-handled amphora from Agora Tomb 15. The association of neck-handled amphorai with the burials of men led the excavators to suggest that this may have been an urn for a male child. Museum of the Ancient Agora, Athens. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

Certainly, elements of the burial have been used to point toward agricultural holdings and land ownership. The most obvious case are the model granaries, but the kalathoi as wool baskets have also been connected to agriculture (Stansbury-O’Donnell 2015, p. 76). In addition to these there are the ivory stamp seals, which Smithson took as an indication that the woman held some kind of role in economic affairs (Smithson 1968, p. 83).

While Smithson, perhaps begrudgingly, only allowed the Rich Athenian Lady a role in domestic economics, the contents of her grave do point toward overseas connections. The gold, faience, and ivory have all been noted as possible Near Eastern imports, at a time when such imports are rare in Athenian graves.

Oliver Dickinson also noted that Athenian pottery of this period is widely dispersed within the Aegean, but not much beyond it (Dickinson 2006, pp. 213-214). One of the sites where Early Geometric Athenian pottery is well known alongside Near Eastern imports is Knossos on Crete. Coldstream muses about the possible use of Athenian amphora found in Knossian graves as gifts of wine between elite friends (Coldstream 1995, pp. 400-401).

Athenian belly-handled amphora from the North Cemetery at Knossos. Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

In her life before her fatal pregnancy, might the Rich Athenian Lady have played a role in the economic management and elite guest friendships of her family, perhaps even travelling as far as Knossos to exchange wine for gold, faience, and ivory?

Concluding thoughts

We must always be cautious in attributing biographical information to individuals based on the artifacts in their graves. But we must also be aware that the choices made in the construction of a grave are based on the social context in which it is constructed. We must not project onto that social context our own assumptions about the role of women or the social status of foetuses without first examining the evidence on its own terms.

One burial can never tell us everything about a society, especially a burial that is as exceptional as the Tomb of the Rich Athenian Woman. Nevertheless, it can be used as a starting point from which we can consider a number of aspects of Early Iron Age Athenian society, and how they were expressed in the burials of individuals or, in this case, a woman and her unborn child.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • J.N. Coldstream, “The Rich Lady of the Areiopagos and Her Contemporaries: A Tribute in Memory of Evelyn Lord Smithson,” in: Hesperia 64.4 (1995), pp. 391-403.
  • Oliver Dickinson, The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age (2006).
  • Lin Foxhall, Studying Gender in Classical Antiquity (2014).
  • Kate Harrell, “Man/Woman, Warrior/Maiden: The Lefkandi Toumba female burial reconsidered,” in: Y. Galanakis, T. Wilkinson and J. Bennet (eds), ΑΘΥΡΜΑΤΑ: Critical Essays on the Archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean in Honour of E. Susan Sherratt (2014), pp. 99-104.
  • Susan Langdon, Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece, 1100-700 BCE (2008).
  • Maria A. Liston and John K. Papadopoulos, “The ‘Rich Athenian Lady’ Was Pregnant: The Anthropology of a Geometric Tomb Reconsidered,” in: Hesperia 73.1 (2004), pp. 7-38.
  • Maria A. Liston, “Human Skeletal Remains,” in: John K. Papadopoulos and Evelyn Lord Smithson (eds), The Athenian Agora Volume XXXVI: The Early Iron Age – The Cemeteries (2017), pp. 503-560.
  • Ian Morris, Burial and Ancient Society. The rise of the Greek city state (1987).
  • Sarah P. Morris and John K. Papadopoulos, “Of Granaries and Games: Egyptian Stowaways in an Athenian Chest,” in: Hesperia Supplements, Volume 33, ΧΑΡΙΣ: Essays in Honor of Sara A. Immerwahr (2004), pp. 225-242.
  • Lisa Nevett, “Towards a Female Topography of the Ancient Greek City: Case Studies from Late Archaic and Early Classical Athens (c.520-400 BCE),” in: Gender & History 23 (2011), pp. 576-596.
  • Barbara A. Olsen, “The People,” in: Irene S. Lemos and Antonis Kotsonas (eds), A Companion to the Archaeology of Early Greece and the Mediterranean, Volume 1 (2020), pp. 293-316.
  • John K. Papadopoulos, “Burial Customs and Funerary Rites,” in: John K. Papadopoulos and Evelyn Lord Smithson (eds), The Athenian Agora Volume XXXVI: The Early Iron Age – The Cemeteries (2017a), pp. 575-688.
  • John K. Papadopoulos, “Small Finds Other Than Pottery,” in: John K. Papadopoulos and Evelyn Lord Smithson (eds), The Athenian Agora Volume XXXVI: The Early Iron Age – The Cemeteries (2017b), pp. 899-972.
  • John K. Papadopoulos and Evelyn Lord Smithson, “Four Cemeteries: A catalogue of tombs and their contents,” in: John K. Papadopoulos and Evelyn Lord Smithson (eds), The Athenian Agora Volume XXXVI: The Early Iron Age – The Cemeteries (2017), pp. 35-502.
  • John K. Papadopoulos and Sara Strack 2017, “Pottery,” in: John K. Papadopoulos and Evelyn Lord Smithson (eds), The Athenian Agora Volume XXXVI: The Early Iron Age – The Cemeteries (2017), pp. 689-898.
  • Evelyn Lord Smithson, “The Tomb of a Rich Athenian Lady, ca. 850 BC,” in: Hesperia 37.1 (1968), pp. 77-116.
  • Mark D. Stansbury-O’Donnell, A History of Greek Art (2015).
  • James Whitley, “Gender and hierarchy in early Athens: the strange case of the disappearance of the rich female grave,” in: Mètis 11 (1996), pp. 209-232.

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.