A search for the terms “tholos” in the University databases pointed me towards Mycenean tombs dating from the middle of the bronze age. My tombs are dated a few hundred years before that, and are on Crete, not the mainland. Searches for Kamilari turned up … nothing. So, I went and had a chat to a lecturer, as you do. She pointed me directly to what turned out to be, after putting the bibliography through the library computers, the only book the library has on those tombs. Of course, being a lit major, research is less within the scope of my expertise than lying about research (we call it “independent thought” or “analysis”), so someone who knows what they’re doing may have more luck. Come to think of it, pretty much all the research I did for my Engineering degree focused more on processing information than on obtaining it.
Anyway, I have perused the larger part of Branigan’s The Tombs of Mesara and found that it had pretty much everything you want from an academic text:
– Full and cogent reasoning
– Lucid text
– Pretty pictures
It really is quite insightful and easy to follow… but it covers pretty much everything I had contemplated contemplating, including a rudimentary structural analysis of the tombs’ structure. So, I fear I will be reduced to regurgitating his main points and observations, without really being able to add much. But I suppose that this is largely the nature of archaeological inquiry at my level. What, seriously, could a neophyte like myself really add to the historical understanding of any artefact? None.
This made me ponder, again, the essential difference between this field and Literature. In Literature, they tend to set essay topics on obscure or difficult points which usually revolve around some point of minutiae. I might look back to the first essay for ENGL 247:Contemporary Fiction, with a question like: What kinds of “homes” are made in Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Most of the critical essays I own wouldn’t dream of restricting themselves to such a limited aspect of a work or an author. Picking an essay at random from The Secenteenth Centure Background by Basil Willey (itself selected at random from my shelf) we’d see topics like: Locke’s Theory of Knowledge. That’s an essay trying to get to grips with two very big things: a broad-based concept and the whole of an author’s work! There are more specialist essays published, for example, Walls’ ‘Adam-wits’ in Absalom and Achitophel. ‘adam-wits’ is an adjective used once in Dryden’s entire corpus. But, on the whole, they’re more concerned with the “big picture”, just as I am in my forthcoming essay. The specificity of these topics is driven, I think, by a sense that our contributions should by necessity be original. Since nobody is writing on such obscure topics, the opportunity for plagiarism is reduced.
It is ironic that in Literature, where academics seem generally concerned with the generalities, we are set topics of great specificity, but in Archaeology, which is entirely consumed by details, the big picture is the fashion. (You might now ask yourself how this meshes with yesterday’s post about new criticism. I could answer you, dear readers, but space and time forbid.)
But, to the matter at hand! What have I learned (in 5000 words or less) about the Kamilari ‘tholos’ tombs?
Firstly, that they are centred around the Mesara plain in southern Crete, vaguely near the middle. (Those of you, like me, who have Google Earth, can now go look at pretty pictures of said plain. Isn’t technology marvellous? though I haven’t been quite able to locate either Kamilari or nearby Phaistos in Google Earth. They don’t seem to have labelled all foreign towns and villages, so I’m trying to scale from some hand-drawn maps from the 1960s.) ‘tholos’ tombs are circular tombs, with walls about 1m thick. There is a lot of disput about the kind of roof they had, but it is generally thought to be a timber roof above corbelled walls. They were in use for about 1500 years all told, and as you can imagine, quite a few people were buried in them over that huge time span. So, periodically they’d have to sweep out all the old corpses (relieving them of any burdensome valuables) and chuck them in ossuaries nearby. They went out of fashion on Crete somewhere near MMIII (about 1600 BC), at about the time that the Mycenaeans were just getting the hang of them.