The site of Vranas is located at the SW edge of the Marathon plain (Fig. 1a), on a prominence in the northern slope of the Agriliki hill, which is part of Mount Penteli. The prominence where the burial mounds were built is bounded on the north by the torrent ‘Skorpio Potami’ (the Wandering River), the bed of which has never been stable (Fig. 1b). From prehistoric times the floods of the torrent have fertilized the plain, but at the same time have caused soil erosion.
The tumuli cemetery excavated at Vranas is part of a wider archaeological landscape of the Bronze Age (3000-1100 BC) in the area: other very important sites exist, such as the large and well-organized cemetery at Tsepi dated from the end of the Final Neolithic to the very beginning of the Early Helladic II (ca. 3500-2700 BC), the impressive Mycenaean tholos tomb at Arnos dating to around 1400 BC, and the coastal settlement of Plasi sited approximately at the middle of the Marathon coastline. This prominent settlement, which is currently being excavated by the University of Athens, was inhabited throughout the Bronze Age, but the most important buildings (“mansions”) date to the Middle Helladic (MH) period (2000-1700 BC).
The large-scale exploitation of the area throughout the Bronze Age is due on the one hand to its fertile lands, and on the other hand to the pivotal location of Marathon on the sea trade route that connects the Cyclades and Aegina with the Euboean Gulf, and thence to the basin of Athens (Fig. 2). Vranas, judging by its finds, also had from the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age communication links with the eastern coasts of Attica, as well as with NE Attica (Aphidnai) and to the NW with Boeotia.
In 1970, Professor Sp. Marinatos excavated at Vranas four burial mounds (I-IV) surrounded by well-constructed circular enclosures (Fig. 3). According to the excavator, three more mounds (V-VII) were identified in the same area, but were not excavated. The excavation was supervised by the then curator of antiquities of Attica, Professor P. Themelis (Fig. 4). Most of the excavation photographs, which today belong to the photographic archive of Mrs Pantelidou Gofa, were taken by Sp. Marinatos himself. However, some of them were shot by the famous photographer Sp. Meletzis (Fig. 5), known as the “photographer of the Resistance” because in the war of 1940 he photographed guerrillas in the mountains of Greece. It should also be noted that before the start of the excavations in Vranas there existed a settlement of the Sarakatsani whose straw huts and livestock facilities were gradually removed.
The monumental tumuli of Vranas constitute one of the most important burial complexes in Attica and indeed in Greece as a whole during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, mainly due to their good preservation and long-term use, which covers almost the entire 2nd millennium BC, i.e. from about 2000 to 1100 BC. Unfortunately, the excavator did not manage to complete the study of the cemetery. Thus, the prehistoric tumuli of Vranas remained until recently known in the literature only through preliminary excavation reports.
The New Program
In 2014, a new 5-year program for the study of the Vranas burial mounds was launched, under the auspices of the Athens Archaeological Society: the main goal was a detailed review and final publication of Marinatos’ excavations and finds. The project is managed by the Emerita Professor of the University of Athens and Member of the Archaeological Society, M. Pantelidou Gofa, in collaboration with archaeologists G. Touchais, A. Philippa-Touchais and N. Papadimitriou. A number of researchers have undertaken studies on specific topics (e.g. Human and animal osteological material, Ceramic technology, Textiles and Stone tools, etc.), as well as laboratory analyses (of bone, ceramics and metal objects).
In the context of the new program, detailed architectural drawings of the monuments were made with a three-dimensional digital scanning technique (Fig. 6), by the architects N. Michaelidis and D. Bartzis. In addition, a geophysical survey of the burial monuments and the surrounding archaeological site was conducted (2016) by the Laboratory of Geophysical – Satellite Remote Sensing and Archaeoenvironment of the Foundation for Research and Technology – Hellas, under the direction of Dr. A. Sarris (Fig. 7).
The Burial Mounds and their Findings
Tumuli I and II are currently preserved in very good condition inside a modern shelter. They both have similar architectural features (Fig. 8) in size (diameter ca. 17m), orientation and, mainly, construction method. Stone slabs have been used for the construction of the circular enclosures and the tombs themselves (Fig. 9, 11), while river pebbles have been used to compose the mounds (Fig. 9). Tumulus III, although constructed in the same way, is smaller (diameter ca. 7.40m) and much more damaged (Fig. 8), while Tumulus IV also has close analogies with I and II, but today it is covered with soil. All mounds include large, built tombs covered with large slabs.
Tumulus I has two enclosing boundaries that are not contemporary (Fig. 9). The smaller, interior circle is the older and encompasses one tomb. Six more graves were found within the outer circle. Only three of them (1, 2, 4) contained grave goods, mainly vessels (Figs. 10-11), all Middle Helladic, a few clay spindle whorls, two bronze objects, and two silver rings which are particularly rare and valuable items for the early MΗ period. Two tombs (5, 7) contained only bones, while in Tomb 3 the burial had been removed and a horse was buried within a deep pit, at a much later period (Fig. 12). Finally, Tomb 6 contained a MH pithos probably of funerary purpose, as well as a Roman burial next to it. The skeletal material of all tombs, coming from primary and secondary burials, remains in situ (Fig. 11).
Tumulus II has a double outer enclosure that suggests two phases of construction (Fig. 8). A large, central tomb was created within the mound, consisting of three compartments (two burial chambers and a paved entrance (Fig. 13). The tomb was constructed in at least two phases: the innermost compartment was structurally independent and apparently belongs to the initial construction phase of the tomb. Both burial compartments were found disturbed: only a few bones and grave goods from the Mycenaean period were collected on the floor. However, some interesting finds were recovered from the innermost compartment: 17 arrowheads (16 of stone and one of bronze) that should represent a single act of deposition (Fig. 14), and a small bronze knife of rare type in the Aegean (two-edged blade, twisted handle, and suspension ring) probably for cosmetic use (Fig. 15). It is possible that more tombs remain unexcavated in the north part of the tumulus, as suggested by the geophysical study.
The west part of Tumulus IV was partly destroyed by the Sarakatsani constructions (Fig. 5, 19) and more so by Italian military installations during World War II. Three tombs have been excavated in the east part of the tumulus: an original, elongated burial construction with three communicating compartments, as well as two large tombs, each of two-compartments, but empty of bones and grave goods (Fig. 16). In contrast, in the tripartite tomb, very rich skeletal material was found, coming from at least 40 secondary burials. These burials were accompanied by a number of simple grave goods, of the Mycenaean period: several vases (Fig. 17-18), stone buttons and clay spindle whorls, some beads made of semi-precious stones, and a very few bronze items.
Questions and Ways Forward
An intriguing matter, but one difficult to interpret, that emerges from the study of the tumuli is the contradiction between the obvious structural similarities that characterise them, and the chronological difference between Tumulus I and the other mounds, as suggested by the finds. According to the data, mainly derived from the pottery, Tumulus I dates to the early Middle Helladic period (MH I-II, 2000-1800 BC), while Tumuli II, III and IV date to a somewhat advanced stage of the Mycenaean period (LH IIIA1-IIIC, 1400-1100 BC). Various suggestions can be made to account for the significant time gap between the monuments but a substantiated answer can only be reached through new, targeted excavation at specific points of the site.
There are other interesting and challenging concerns that have emerged from the study of the tumuli and require answering:
- the clarification of the successive, construction phases of the burial mounds and certain tombs,
- the relations of the mounds with the pre-existing Early Helladic tombs, which were found in the same area during the installation of the new shelter, in 2004,
- the complex burial practices and their significance for the symbolic expression and ideological formation of the local community,
- the social and symbolic significance of the construction of monumental burial buildings; if they are thought to be elite burials, how can this be proven?
All these issues, and many others, will be discussed in the collective volume under preparation that will soon be published in the series of the Archaeological Society.
The Diachronic Use of Vranas
Activity in the post-Bronze Age eras is also part of the process of review and discussion. The Vranas excavations and present studies have provided some evidence for the later use of the site. The tumuli were employed for burials in Roman times: in Tumulus I an undisturbed female burial was found, while in Tumulus IV the C14 (AMS) analysis of bones showed that there were probably other burials of this period. Moreover, next to Tomb II, residential architectural remains and pottery of the Middle Byzantine period (11th-13th centuries) were found, while the horse thrown into tomb 3 of Tumulus I is dated to the Late Byzantine period (15th century).