More on the Hagios Charalambos Cave Burial

07 Jun

The perception of the Minoans as peaceful people originated with Sir Arthur Evans He deduced this from their artistic creations which in contrast with gory and grisly themes in Near Eastern art,show so sensitive an appreciation of the beauties of nature that to associate their creators with strife and  violence seemed impossible. In the past three decades papers by various authors.Alexiou(1979, 1981), Evely(1996, Driessen(1999), Norwicki(1999), Alusik(2006), have re-examined evidence for fortification, arms, armour and attitudes which contradicted Evans romantic view.

The continuous existence of defence architecture from the final Neolithic throughout the Bronze Age was documentd by Alusik(2006).Logic tells us that there must have been a reason for the massive fortifications of Pre-and Proto-palatial sites. The increase in guardhouses in the Middle Minoanll period was interpreted as measures against internal enemies. Norwicki suggests that there were “zones of conflict and tension between Proto-palatial states”, Evely concluded that a thalassocracy could not have functioned without the implicit threat of warfare and that the Minoans quite probably were the premier arms producers of the Middle and start of the Late Bronze Age. Finally,reason tells us it is unlikely that the Minoans were an ecception to the rest of the human race and never participated in warfare or resorted to physical violence to settle differences.


By Photini.J.P. McGeorge.

Tina McGeorge one of my colleagues at the Instap Study Centre has been working on the bones from the Hagios Charalambos cave burial in Crete. Here she shows us evidence from the anthropological remains excavated by Professors Davaras and Betancourt in the Hagios Charalambos cave ossuary, of discord amongst the inhabitants of the Lasithi Plain. There are a startling number of head injuries indicating occasional outbreaks of violence.

The cave was used as an ossuary for the secondary burial of skeletal remains. The finds date from the Late Neolithic to the Late Minoan period.The number of burials (skulls excavated so far exceeds 400.) The excavators believe that the bones were transferred to this location on one or possibly two occasions separated by a short interval of time ,from tombs in the vicinity and placed in the cave in Middle Minoan ll period. Some stones intrusive to the contents of the cave betray their origin from built tombs.

There are no discrete burials,so each bone is treated as a serparate individual. l l,000 have been identified so far. The material includes many healed fractures of arms,legs,collar bones etc; some of which may be accidental but some may be due to force. However there are  l6 cases of cranial trauma,some of which are definately deliberate injuries. The majority of cases involve men(l l). The majority are on the frontal (l0/l5) or the left parietal(6 / l5), consistent with an instinctive rightward turn of the head to avoid a missile or to avoid a blow from a right-handed assailant. Three cases are trephinations; two more bear traces of what looks like scoring of the surgeon’s knife delineating the injured area.

Frontal Traumas

Case 8065: Is male, he has an incision cut mark over the midline of the forehead below the hairline,caused by the tip of a blade,which probably only perforated the external surface of the bone(PL.2.) there is limited osteitos of the surrounding bone tissue and no reaction on the internal surface(so the patient did not die from this wound(the wound may have been caused by a knife,tip of dagger or sword,or even an arrowhead from a distance which caught him a glancing blow from his left side.Presumably he was not wearing protective/effective headgear.

Blade wound on forehead.

Case 8121 is a woman with a fractured frontal bone. The woman sustained a very forceful blow to the left side of the forehead above th orbit,inflicted perhaps with a wooden club causing distortion of the shape of the frontal bone and the bone to fracture adjacant(PL.4.) One can trace the course of the fracture line descending from the left coronal suture,horizontally above the left and right orbits terminating on the right side  of the frontal bone. The jagged edges of the fracture had partially healed so she survived the attack at least for a short time. There is an area in the sinuses which is evidence of an infection,which may or may not be a result of the trauma.

PL.4 Frontal bone fracture inflicted by a blow to left side of forehead.

Temporal-parietal fracture.

Case ax 14/18,  is a middle aged male with a severe head wound: a healed right temporal-parietal fracture, caused by a severe trauma to the right side of the head,which displaced the bone inwards ( Pl.15). This would have caused pressure on the brain and possible spasms of limbs on the left side of the body. The displacement of the bone can be seen very clearly in the x-ray( Pl 16).

Pl 16: AX 14/18 showing inward displacement of bone.

In ancient times doctors did not of course have such means at their disposal but Hippocrates knew that such traumas to the area of the temporal bone cause spasms and advised against trephination in such cases.Indeed there is no evidence of attempted trephination on this specimen. The area of the wound appears to be encircled by a residual line scored by the sugeon’s knife ? perhaps when tending the wound.


To sumerize there are a remarkable number of head injuries in this series(;15-16 so far ), proving that the Minoans were indeed capable of violent behaviour. We cannot know the precise nature or scale of the discord,if clashes took place on one or many occasions,if there were quarrels between individuals or larger scale regional conflicts,but we have incontestable evidence from these head injuries that violence did indeed take place.

The casualties are mostly men, presumably not wearing adequate head protection.Women and children are under-represented. Most traumas are on the left side of the skull. Some of these traumas are certainly deliberate,not accidental. In the case of mutiple wounds there can be no doubt that the trauma is deliberate. The lesions were caused by various weapons: a blade wound sustained perhaps in hand to hand combat.Another caused by a pointed object,sharp stone arrowhead or lancet. A fracture caused by a blow from a wooden club. Some circular depressions could have been caused by sling stones,highly effective missiles flung from a distance.

The finds from Hagios Charalambos also have implications for the history of medicine and as far as Tina McGeorge is aware this is now the earliest evidence on Crete for the practice of trephining skulls.These cases are earlier than the example at Mycenae. The warrior from Grave D 51 reported by  Angel( 1973: 380-81 is an amazing example of verbatim adherence to a proceedure handed down and recorded centuries later in the Hippocratic Corpus!. Following a head wound, trephination was performed on the left frontal and the flaps of bone left to exfoliate,unfortunately,the patient did not survive. But the patients from Lasithi did survive their operations,two of them for a considerable time,and judging from the beautiful healing of the bone,their operations seem to have been performed by highly skilled surgeons. So it appears that surgeons were already practising in the 18/19th century B.C. protocols that were transmitted to Hippocrates and written down in the treatises which date from the 5th and 4th centuries.

Tina McGeorge working on bones from Hagios Charalambos Cave burial.


Me sorting bones from the Hagios Charalambos Cave burial.

The prehistoric surgeons at Lasithi knew that they had to avoid invasive surgery in the case of injuries to the temporal bone (eg. AX 14/18, which can cause spasms. They would have known that the brain floated in liquid and that it was important not to damage the meninges. Trephinations were probably more commonplace than we imagine as the physician/surgeon had none of the diognostic technology that we have today. He was obliged to investigate directly; delay could be fatal. Symptoms from head injuries could range from simple head-aches,blurred vision to paralysis of the limbs or the entire side of the body opposite to whichever brain-hemisphere sustained the pressure of a sub-dural haematoma caused by the injury, which it was imperative to relieve by trephination. So we can conclude from this new evidence that many generations of practice and accumulated observation preceeded Hippocrates’ description of these surgical procedures. How did this expertise come to exist in Lasithi? Perhaps war was the catalyst,as has often been observed,for aquisition, development and dissemination of surgical techniques and knowledge.

Why was the cave used for secondary burial? We know that secondary burial was practiced from the early Minoan period,but the origin of the material from built tombs was betrayed by the inclusion of intrusive stones transported to the new burial site. According to one hypothesis,the motivation for the  disinterment and re-deposition of these burials a huge undertaking could have been to safeguard the ancestors’ remains from hostile intruders. The evidence of violence seen in the crania seems to provide internal proof of the plausibility of this explanation

What could have been the cause of the conflict or reason for the presence of hostile intruders? The pottery analysis has recognised changing patterns of regional “orientation” or loyalties. Prior to Early Minoan lll the pottery was mainly Messara orientated; in Early Minoan lll- Middle Minoan la loyalties switched to East Crete, though seals continued to come from the Messera; from MMlb-MMll there is an orientation to Malia and at the end of MM llb-MM lll there are Knossian incursions. Why? Nowicki has suggested that Lasithi was in important source of wood, but it may also have had other desirable commodities such as (food products,livestock), to give in exchange for those luxury items,which Susan Ferrence(2006) presented in her paper. The evidence of violence may reflect a local resistance to outside interference and coercion, though due to the nature of secondary burials these casualties of violence cannot be related to specific chronological horizons. The skeletal evidence for violence in Lasithi destroys the myth of the “peaceful” Minoans and reinforces hypothesis of tensions and territorial conflicts.

Details are below for anyone wishing to study this subject further.

Reference. Journal of  The American School  of  Classical Studies Athens Hesperia 2008 p.578-596

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Posted by on June 7, 2012 in Uncategorized


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