Bronze and Early Iron Age Burial Tumuli across the Western Balkans

Burial tumuli are a major characteristic of the Bronze and Early Iron Age of the Balkan Peninsula. Hundreds have been excavated (over 130 only in Albania), and many more have been identified, while recent projects continue to reveal a great number of tumuli in key areas such as Northern Albania and Dalmatia.

Fig. 1: Map of the geographical units and tumulus sites presented at the workshop.

A workshop recently organised by Ole Christian Aslaksen (University of Gothenburg), Maja Gori (University of Bochum), Tobias Krapf (Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece) and Giulia Recchia (University of Foggia), who co-authored this presentation, gathered scholars from nine countries to discuss ongoing research projects on tumuli across the Western Balkans on the occasion of the Athens Balkan Archaeology Days (8-10 December 2017).

Fig. 2: Athens Balkan Archaeology Days 2017.

The event was organised by the Balkan Prehistory Initiative, the Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece, the Institute for Transbalkanic Cultural Cooperation and the French Albanian archaeological mission in the Korçë basin. It also included the presentation of the book “Balkan Dialogues, Negotiating Identity between Prehistory and the Present” edited by Maja Gori and Maria Ivanova, which aimed at stimulating discussion on theoretical frameworks and interpretation. This was the third workshop of a series that started with  the Balkan Bronze Age Borderland Workshops in 2015 and in 2016 (Krapf et al. 2017). Six papers were presented by Anne-Zahra Chemsseddoha (France), Christos Kleitsas (Greece), Rovena Kurti (Albania), Esmeralda Agolli (Albania), Maja Gori (Germany), and Anna Touchais (Greece) and Nikos Papadimitriou (Greece). John Papadopoulos (USA) and Giulia Recchia (Italy) acted as discussants for the book presentation and the workshop respectively.

Fig. 3: Presentation of E. Agolli on Albanian tumuli at the Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece.

From Attica through Epirus and Albania to the Cetina valley

Although many differences can be observed in tumulus dimensions, architecture and position within landscape, it must be noted that there is a continuum in the use of burial mounds throughout the Bronze and the Iron Age in a territory stretching from the Peloponnese, Central and Northern Greece through Albania to the Dalmatian coast up to the Caput Adriae. A short overview of the phenomenon will be presented here, following the same geographical order as the workshop contributions.

Since the excavation of the Early Iron Age tumulus cemetery of Vergina (Bräunig – Kilian-Dirlmeier 2013) in the middle of the 20th century, these mounds have definitely become an emblematic feature of the funerary landscape of Northern Greece. Tumuli have been equally characteristic ofthe Epirote highlands already sincethe Bronze Age, and their use continues deep into the Iron Age, not to mention the Medieval graves found in some of the mounds, as in Albania just across the border. In Epirus, most important are the tumuli of Pogoni, Liatovouni, a newly discovered mound near Igoumenitsa, and those in the monumental settlement of Xylokastro/Ephyra (Tartaron 2004: 148). Both Epirote and Southern Albanian tumuli (for the most recent publication of a tumulus excavation see Papadopoulos et al. 2014) often contained large numbers of graves (88 at Parapotamos, 202 at Rehovë) and the pottery and other finds are very similar on both sides of the modern borders. While the Macedonian, Epirote, and South-Albanian tumuli are built as earth mounds surrounded by a stone circle, the tumulus structure is quite different in Northern Albania and Dalmatia, where the overwhelming majority of them isentirely built with stones, making excavation extremely difficult.

Fig. 4: Kamenica tumulus in SE Albania.

Dozens of tumuli have been recently identified on coastal ridges in the Albanian districts of Lezha and Shkodra close to the border with Montenegro thanks to a new project carried out since 2014 by the Albanian Archaeological Institute. Their structure is quite similar to Montenegrinian tumuli, e.g. those of the Planinica Hill (Bugaj et al. 2013) and those even further North in Dalmatia. There, mounds became an extremely popular form of burial monument already during the Early Bronze Age, when the so-called Cetina culture spread over Dalmatia. Within the Cetina tumuli both inhumation and cremation are attested. Cist graves are often – but not exclusively – placed in the middle of the tumulus, while simpler graves are built with smaller stones  and placed in different parts of the tumulus (Marović 1991). Within the CEVAS – Cetina VAlley Survey project clusters of burial mounds excavated by Marović in the Cetina valley from the 1950s to the 1990s are being mapped, and, together with newexcavations and intensive survey, the transregional cross-cultural connections of tumulus landscapes are being re-evaluated (Tomas 2017). In the same area, archaeometric analyses of variousarchaeological materials combined with a thorough study of the ceramics have been undertaken on the tumuli of Brnjica and Poljakuše as part of the project “Cultural Encounters across the Adriatic and Ionian Seas 2500–2000 BC”. Besides focusing on the chronological dimension of the tumulus phenomenon, this project has produced new data regarding mobility, ritual practices and cross-cultural interconnections, which have been analysed in the wider framework of the spread of the Cetina phenomenon across the Central Mediterranean (Gori – Recchia forthcoming). The eastern Adriatic coast is indeed important for the study of the diffusion of tumuli: it is no coincidence that the first Early Bronze Age tumuli of Greece appeared in the West, as on Lefkada island. Some grave goods from the EH IIB burial mound cemetery at Steno appears to have parallels with those from the early 3rd millennium BC burial mounds at Mala Gruda and Velika Gruda in Montenegro (Della Casa 1995).

Fig. 5: One of the tumulus of the Brnjica plateau in Šibenik, Croatia.

The temporal dimension of the construction of a tumulus constitutesa central issue. Several steps can be recognised in the life of a tumulus, from theinitial construction , mostly identified as a central grave to  the development into a monument accommodating dozens of further graves, the role as a marker in the landscape and later reuse. Tumuli on ridges, but also in plains, were mostly visible from afar and thus structured the topography of the area, creating “ancestral landscapes” (see e.g. Borgna – Müller 2011 and Henry – Kelp 2016 for recent research). Tales and “histories” developed about tumuli up to nowadays, as has been documented for the Lofkënd tumulus in Albania (Papadopoulos et al. 2008). Although of later date,  the Great tumulus over the royal tombs of Vergina and the Athenian tumulus of the Marathon battle, both built near earlier tumulus necropoles, best illustrate their function as memorials. Furthermore, tumuli were sometimes built over earlier settlements (Goutsoura, Epirus) or buildings (Lerna, Peloponnese), or constructed with soil taken from older settlements (Lofkënd, Albania).

Fig. 6: Group photo in front of the tumulus of the Athenians at Marathon.

The workshop ended with a presentation and visit of the Middle Bronze Age tumuli at Vrana/Marathon in Attica that are currently being re-examined by an interdisciplinary team. One of the workshop highlights was the discussion on the spatial and chronological distribution of tumuli and their coexistence with other types of funerary practises, especially during the Late Bronze Age, such as e.g. cist graves and Urnfield cemeteries. This diversity was pointed out for Macedonia, where a broad variety of burials is attested. During the workshop, it has been demonstrated once more that in many aspects the separating between Balkan and Aegean archaeology is artificial. This became clear to the Athenian public through the direct comparison of e.g. Northern Greek and Albanian sites, but also through the fact thatthe tumuli at Vrana/Marathon, less than one hour drive from Athens, were included in the discussion on the Balkan origin of tumuli.


Borgna, S. Müller Celka (eds) 2011. Ancestral Landscapes, Burial Mounds in the Copper and Bronze Ages, Proceedings of the International Conference held in Udine, May 15th-18th 2008, Lyon, Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée.

Bräunig, I. Kilian-Dirlmeier 2013. Die eisenzeitlichen Grabhügel von Vergina, Die Ausgrabungen von Photis Petsas 1960-1961, Mainz, Verlag des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums.

Bugaj, P. Lutovac, M. Bogacki, M. Trzeciecki, M. Novak 2013. Bronze-Age Stone Tumuli on Planinica Hill, obš. Tuzi, Montenegro, Sprawozdania Archeologiczne 65, 427-433.

Della Casa 1995. The Cetina group and the transition from Copper to the Bronze Age, Antiquity 69, 565-576.

Henry, U. Kelp (éds) 2016. Tumulus as Sema. Space, Politics, Culture and Religion in the First Millennium BC, Berlin, De Gruyter.

Marović 1991, Istrazivanja kamenih gomila cetinske culture u srednjoj Dalmaciji, Vjesnik za arheologiju i historiju dalmatinsku 84, 15–214

Krapf, E. Agolli, O. Ch. Aslaksen, E. Ilieva, S. Ivanov, Ch. Kleitsas, G. Papadias, A. Papazovska Sanev, E. Tsafou, A. Tsonos, E. Vliora 2017. Balkan Bronze Age Borderland, Along Ancient Routes from the Aegean to Albania, F.Y.R.O.M., Kosovo and SW Bulgaria, in: M. Fotiadis, R. Laffineur, Y. Lolos, A. Vlachopoulos (eds), HESPEROS, The Aegean Seen from the West, Proceedings of the 16th International Aegean Conference, University of Ioannina, 18-21 May 2016, Aegaeum 41, Liège, Peters, 279-285.

K. Papadopoulos, L. Bejko, S. P. Morris 2008. Reconstructing the Prehistoric Burial Tumulus of Lofkënd in Albania, Antiquity 82, 686-701.

K. Papadopoulos, S. P. Morris, L. Bejko, L. A. Schepartz (eds) 2014. The Excavation of the Prehistoric Tumulus at Lofkënd, Albania, Los Angeles, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.

Tartaron 2004. Bronze Age Landscape and Society in Southern Epirus, Greece, Oxford, BAR International Series 1290, Archaeopress.

Tomas 2017. Early Bronze Age Sailors of the Eastern Adriatic: the Cetina Culture and its Impact, in: M. Fotiadis, R. Laffineur, Y. Lolos, A. Vlachopoulos (eds), HESPEROS, The Aegean Seen from the West, Proceedings of the 16th International Aegean Conference, University of Ioannina, 18-21 May 2016, Aegaeum 41, Liège, Peters, 215-222.

Les auteurs

Tobias Krapf is the scientific secretary of the Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece (Athens) and part of the French Albanian archaeological mission in the Korçë basin.

Ole Christian Aslaksen is a postdoctoral researcher at the Gothenburg University, focussing on aesthetics, mobility and archaeometric analysis in the LBA Balkans.

Maja Gori is a postdoctoral researcher at the Ruhr-University of Bochum and part of the French Albanian archaeological mission in the Korçë basin.

Giulia Recchia is a researcher at the University of Foggia, co-director of the excavation at the Bronze Age site of Coppa Nevigata (Italy), and director of the Italian archaeological mission at Malta.

Pour citer ce billet : Tobias Krapf, Ole Christian Aslaksen, Maja Gori, Giulia Recchia. Bronze and Early Iron Age Burial Tumuli across the Western Balkans, ArchéOrient-Le Blog, 16 février 2018. [En ligne]

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