The ancient cemetery of Akanthos lies underneath the town of Ierissos. On a municipal plot of land, across from the church of Agios Nikolaos, the 16th Ephorate of Antiquities has brough to light a small section of the cemetery that is open to the public.
The plot that is the site of the project “Shell to protect and highlight a section of the ancient cemetery of Akanthos, Halkidiki”, was ceded in 1994 by the Municipality of Ierissos to the 16th Ephorate of Antiquities.
The project was included in the Operational Program of Macedonia-Thrace (2007-2013) and co-funded by Greece and the European Union.
The purpose of the project was to reveal and present to the public at least a small section of the cemetery of ancient Akanthos, keeping it in situ at the excavation site and protecting it with a shell that needed to be functional and communicate, discreetly, the site’s public cultural character while meeting contemporary aesthetic standards.
The canopy was constructed before the antiquities were brought to light, in order to preserve the original appearance of the dig and to avoid potential damage to the ruins from the construction works.
The shell design was intended to provide security and protection of the site against the elements, natural light and ventilation, and to ensure unhindered visibility for visitors.
Lot no. 28 is situated near the NW corner of the ancient cemetery, and archaeological research identified 163 graves in total. The burials are on three subsequent levels, dating from the archaic to the Hellenistic periods, and of every known type from antiquity.
The most common are pit graves (some simple, others invested with clay soil). Usually, their location as marked by simple stones, and more rarely by tombstone stelae. Nails were often found around the skeletons, indicating that the dead were often placed on wooden litters.
The placement of the dead in vessels (such as amphorae, small clay jars, urns, and cauldrons) was the main method of entombing children. Conversely, adults were usually placed inside large burial urns. All of the above vessels came both from local workshops and from workshops throughout Greece.
There is a large number of tiles graves, where tiles in the form of roofs were used to cover the bodies of children and adults, while in infant burials narrow casings were used as floor and cover.
Less frequent are clay sarcophagi, some plain and others adorned with painting on the edges – of the Klazomenian type – and more frequently with a relief Ionic wave on the side of the edges.
The covering tiles usually formed a curved or gabled roof.
The presence of cist graves is rarer; of those, the built ones are associated with the use of the cemetery in the Roman era. In many cases, but clearly less so with the passage of time, the custom of cremating the dead was observed. Cremation, as a funereal custom, probably survives from the time of the Homeric heroes. It was usually carried out in pits (plain or invested with bricks), while is a few cases the funereal urns have been found, where the dead’s cremains were later placed.
The artifacts that accompanied the dead in the afterlife were usually clay vessels, small idols, coins and jewelry. The placement of the artifacts was not always the same, and their quantity and value was not associated with the type of grave, but with the actual or desired social standing of the deceased.
Both imported and locally produced vessels are represented in all the periods of the cemetery; Corinthian vessels were prevalent in the archaic period, and Attic in the Classical period. Idols were usually placed on the chest and are mostly found in women’s and children’s burials. Golden wreaths, gold and silver coins have been found in several cases in the positions where they were placed, while “Charon’s obol” placed in the mouth of the dead is typical mostly of burials of the 4th century BCE. Children’s burials were almost always accompanied by bone astragaloi [dice], which were used as toys.
Akanthos, “…a city lying by the isthmus of Athos, built by Andrians, after which the bay was often called Akanthios”, was established on a bay in eastern Halkidiki in the mid-7th century BCE, by settlers from the island of Andros, who at the same time established three other colonies: Argilos, Sani, and Stagira.
The name is most likely due to the thick thorny vegetation of the area [akanthion = thorn], while its renaming to Ierissos is probably associated with the Latin translation of the word Akanthos >> Cerissus >> Erissos >>Ierissos..
From the few references in ancient sources on the city’s position and involvement in the historical events of Ancient Greece (Herodotus: Z, 126; Thucydides: ΙV,84,1; Xenophon: V,II,11; Strabo: VII,31,E; Plutarch: Greek Questions 30, Diodorus: XII,68), we learn that Akanthos was subjugated to the Persians during the Greco-Persian Wars.
Initially, it was the seat of Mardonios and subsequently of Xerxes, when the latter established himself in the area to oversee the digging of the canal (today in the region of Nea Roda), in order to lead his army safely to southern Greece, avoiding the circumnavigation of the Athos Peninsula. Ten years previously, the Persian navy had been decimated in the region due to a severe storm at sea. After the end of the wars with the victory of the Greeks, Akanthos joined the Athenian League, with the obligation to pay a small monetary contribution (3 talents).
During the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), it was one of the first cities in Halkidiki to defect and join the Spartans. Following the Peace of Nicias (421-420 π.Χ.), many cities in Halkidiki were ceded to Athens and some, including Akanthos, retained their independence and paid taxes.
In the early 4th century BCE, Akanthos opposed the Olynthian (or Chalcidian) League and joined the league of Halkidiki cities that were under Spartan rule. There followed a period of autonomy and in 348 BCE, when King Phillip II of Macedonia destroyed Olynthos, Akanthos was conquered and incorporated into the Macedonian kingdom. Later, in 199 BCE, according to Livius (31.45), the city was raided by the Romans, but continued to prosper under Roman rule, when it was settled by Romans who organized themselves as a collective body.
Through conflicts and constant raids, the city continued its life during the later Byzantine period. The destructive earthquake of 1932 forced the inhabitants to move towards the coast, in the area of the ancient cemetery.
The ancient settlement covers an area of approx. 140 acres spread across three hills, to the SE of the present-day town of Ierissos. Its naturally sheltered port, its position across from the Thracian coastline, its fertile fields, rich in both ore and forests, led to the city’s growth in antiquity and established it as a commercial center with a strong financial background. Its trade activity is witnessed by the extensive local production of amphorae to transport is famous wine, by the imported ceramics, and by its numismatic treasures that have been found in regions in the wider Mediterranean basin.
The cemetery, where systematic excavations began in 1973 and continue to this day, covers an area of more than 15 acres. The number of tombs investigated exceeds 13,000.