The dead are many

A polyandrion from Paros

In the 1980s, excavations in Paroikia, the capital of the Cycladic island Paros, revealed the mass cremation burial of dozens of young men. It is believed to be the earliest Greek polyandrion, a grave for war dead.

Matthew Lloyd

The Greek island of Paros lies in the middle of the Cycladic islands in the Aegean Sea, west of Naxos and south of Delos. In the Archaic Period (ca. 700–500 BC) it was known for its marble, but after the collapse of the Aegean Bronze Age palaces ca. 1200 BC it is known largely from the settlement at Koukounaries on the north of the island, near modern Naousa. Paroikia, a Bronze Age settlement on the west coast of the island, shrinks drastically until the eighth century, as sea traffic in the Aegean begins to intensify once more.

A map of the Aegean. Paros is located in the Cyclades. The large island to Paros’ east is Naxos. The inset map shows two places on Paros that are mentioned in this article.

Beginning in the 1980s, excavations in the harbour of modern Paroikia revealed a cemetery that lasts for at least five centuries. The most drastic discovery in this cemetery, however, were two large cists that contained 140 vases in which the cremated remains of some 120 young men were interred. These vases were dated to the Late Geometric period, ca. 750–730 BC.

A polyandrion?

According to the excavators, all of the remains in these cists belonged to men aged between eighteen and forty-five years old. On the basis of the quantity of burials, the figure decoration of two of the vases, and a spearhead found stuck to one of the bones (perhaps indicating cause-of-death), these cists have been interpreted as a polyandrion, the mass burial of war dead. But how certain can we be about this identification?

From the published evidence, there are a few elements that allow alternative interpretations. The decoration style of the cremation urns suggest variety in the date of production and the nature of cremation burial means that these men need not have all died in the same event. Spearheads are not unusual burial gifts in eighth-century Greece. As the polyandrion appears to be the earliest burial in the Paroikia cemetery, it may represent the clearing of another cemetery going into disuse.

On the other hand, if all of the deceased are males aged between eighteen and forty-five then the demographics suggest specific criteria for inclusion in these cists. It seems unlikely that with so many cremated remains the excavators could be absolutely certain about all of the burials, but without specific evidence to the contrary it seems likely that the identification as a polyandrion is correct.

The Geometric amphorae

The urns – mostly neck-handled amphorae – were packed and piled into the two cists. But from among these hundreds of vases, two in particular stand out for their figure decoration showing scenes of combat. These two vases stand on proud display in the Paros Archaeological Museum.

On the stylistically earlier vase (B3523, ca. 750 BC) a chaotic battle is taking place. Men on horseback raise their spears; a man with a large sword and a Dipylon shield chases down a naked man; several chariots are in the fray. Also among these figures is a goat, calmly grazing between the stripped-naked corpses. Given that the artist of this vase does not appear to have used filling ornaments, it seems likely that this goat gives us our setting: a raid against unarmed herders, perhaps.

On the belly of the stylistically later vase (B3524, ca. 730 BC) the combat is much more orderly. Central is the apparently naked figure of a dead warrior, his armour already stripped from his body. To the left stand two archers, to the right, three slingers. Behind these slingers are fairly typical Geometric Greek warriors: round shields, helmets, and two spears. But behind the archers are much more unusual warriors on horseback.

Two amphorae from Paros. The one on the left is stylistically older than the one on the right. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

It is possible to use these vases to suggest that there has been a significant change in the tactics of Greek warfare in the decades that separate their painting. The orderly formations of the later vase have been likened to so-called hoplite warfare, even though archers, slingers, and men on horseback are prominent. These conclusions make two methodological assumptions that I do not believe hold: that vase painting accurately and uncomplicatedly reflects contemporary warfare; and that there is only one kind of warfare at any one point in time.

It is more interesting to view these vases as variations on a theme: a raid against farmers and a pitched battle between warriors. If we assume that these scenes reflect reality rather than mythology (and in genre scenes the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive) then they contain further elements of interest, such as the use of chariots in battle and men fighting from horseback.

The later vase contains two other features that are particularly astonishing. The first is the contrast of this scene, in which slings and bows are prominent, to a fragment of poetry by the seventh-century Parian poet Archilochus (fr. 3; trans. Martin West):

There won’t be many bows drawn, nor much slingshot,
When on the plain the War-god brings the fight
Together; it will be an agony
Of swords – that is the warfare that the doughty
Barons of Euboea are expert at.

If we take the Parian amphora as typical of Parian warfare, it appears that Archilochus is explicitly contrasting Euboean warfare to that of his home.

Detail of the shoulder of the later vase, showing two warriors (painted in white) carrying a body. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

The second feature is the figure decoration on the rest of the vase. On the black-painted shoulder of the vessel, above the corpse, two warriors have been painted in white, carrying the body from the battlefield. Then, on the neck of the amphora, is a typical Late Geometric prothesis scene – the laying out of the dead body, with mourners. This vase is an early example of sequential art, showing the progression of the body from the battlefield to the funeral.


The contrast between the funeral of the individual depicted on the amphora and the mass burial in which the amphora was found dovetails with the descriptions of funerals of important individuals like Hector and Patroclus and the mass-cremation of other warriors in the Iliad. From an historical/archaeological perspective, it is noteworthy that this polyandrion occurs at the turn of the seventh century, just as warrior graves of individuals fade out of the archaeological record. But it is also worth noting that no such warrior graves are known from contemporary Paros.

It is also unclear whether the polyandrion reflects a devastating local conflict or an increase in Pan-Hellenic warfare. The burial lies close to the ancient harbour, and thus may be the returned dead from some distant conflict. But it is also part of a cemetery that continues to be used for centuries, and the location may have been chosen for its pre-existing funerary connotations.

Part of the ancient site. This photo gives an idea of just how close the cemetery is to the sea. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

While the polyandrion has inevitably been linked with the semi-mythological Lelantine War between the Euboean settlements of Chalcis and Eretria, it also correlates in date to the abandonment of the Parian settlement of Koukounaries, potentially hinting at a more local conflict. But the hill site of Koukounaries may have been abandoned in favour of the seaside settlement of Oikonomos seventh century – such a move is a common feature of the Aegean in the eighth century, and also happens at Paroikia.

On more firm ground, the burial clearly indicates a sense of communal responsibility for the dead, and probably for the war dead in particular. Paroikia was a young settlement at the end of the eighth century, and whatever led to the deaths of these young men ultimately seems to have strengthened their community into a long-lasting settlement.