Burial Practices: First Settlers to Talayotic People on Menorca, by Jessica Matt

In 2016 one of the tasks carried out by our students during Sa Cudia Cremada Field School’s courses was to do a project based on giving a presentation on a chosen topic (related to the site or to the prehistory of Menorca) and writing a paper on that topic. All of them were great and we hope this task was helpful for our students to know more about how to talk in public as well as write papers.

Jessica Matt
Jessica Matt
One of our students was Jessica Matt, who performed an excellent job when she gave her presentations (she prepared two of them). She also wrote two papers on the topics she chose for her presentations and both of those works are very good. We would like to share with you the first paper she wrote this year while she attended session #1 2016 at Sa Cudia Cremada Field School. Well done!

Jessica Matt (Canada) holds a BA in Anthropology. Her main interests are Minoan, Greek and Roman archaeology. She has participated in several digs in places such as Crete and Menorca, including her attendance at Sa Cudia Cremada Field School in 2015 and 2016.

Burial Practices: First Settlers to Talayotic People on Menorca

This is a brief look into the different types of burial structures built by the first settlers and the Talayotic people of the Balearic Islands, focusing on the island of Menorca, Spain. This paper will also delve into some of the burial rites and goods found within these tombs. From dolmens, to navetas, to the necropolises, the people changed the way they buried their dead, evolving with their time spent on the island. These changes also occurred in the attention they paid to the deceased. New discoveries, such as Cova des Carritx shed light on some of these practices as well as religious practices that took place in caves before they became places of interment.

Key words: Menorca, Talayotic, Burials, Collective Inhumation, Cyclopean


On the island of Menorca, one of the Balearic Islands in Spain, there lies many types of funerary structures built by the first settlers to the island as well as the Talayotic people. The lives of these people are somewhat a mystery as is some of their burial practices. But what we do know about their burial practices comes from the various tombs and their contents. No matter what type of burial chambers and structures used, what continued throughout these different types of structures was collective inhumation. Collective inhumation, burying multiple people in the same tomb, involved placing the deceased inside the tomb, after they had decayed or when the tomb was needed again, the skull was placed on a stone cut bench and the rest of the bones scattered to the sides. In some cases, as in S’Aigua Dolça, a dolmen, the long bones were grouped together in small bundles, while the rest of the bones and fragments were scattered (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 55).
Inside the tombs many types of grave good have been found, from earthenware pots, to metal rings and bracelets, jewelry beads, pottery sherds, weapons and buttons. The buttons are significant because they are triangular in shape and match the amount of people found within the tomb, meaning that it was a part of the funerary rite (Fontestad, 2015, pg. 29?). It is speculated that the deceased was wrapped in a shroud or cape that was fastened with a triangular button and then placed in the tomb (Fontestad, 2015, pg. 29). These small triangular shaped buttons show up in almost all of the various burial structures, indicating that this rite continued on throughout the various stages of burial.

Dolmens and Paradolmens

Detail of a dolmen's entrance
Detail of a dolmen’s entrance

During the period of 2300/2200-1600 BC, dolmens and paradolmens were used as places of interment by the first settlers and early Talayotic people in the Balearic Islands. They were a type of megalithic tomb that had been used by other locations, such as Portugal, France, Jordan and others. But in those locations the use of dolmens seems to be much earlier, around the 4th to 3rd millennium BC compared to the much later date of use on Mallorca and Menorca (Gili, 2006, pg. 831-832). While paradolmens consisted on a structure built using large vertical stones placed to look like a cave structure (Fontestad, 2015, pg. 27), dolmens are a single chambered tomb also made of large stone slabs but were covered by dirt, stones and other materials to create a tumulus-like appearance (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 54). They tended to be rectangular or circular in shape. The dolmens on Menorca differ than those on Mallorca, as the roofs on Mallorca tended to be made up of wooden beams, small stones, mud and plant material, while on Menorca the roof was made of stone slabs then tumulus (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 54).
In the case of Ses Roques Llises, this dolmen was built using six cyclopean stone slabs creating a chamber with a corridor which leads to the entrance of the tomb (Cerdo, 2015, pg. 107). The entrance to dolmens usually consisted of a large stone slab with a circular opening which gave access to the chamber (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 54). The circular opening also had a groove set into it allowing for a keystone or cap to be placed within the hole, allowing for the chamber to be sealed (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 54). In most cases, the tumulus covering the dolmens is gone, leaving behind the skeleton structure with a circular outline of stones around, the original size of the tumulus shape and circumference of the dolmen.

Elongated Hypogea

Hypogea or Hypogeums were funerary caves that were cut into natural rock outcroppings by hand, creating an artificial subterranean cave (Van Strydonck, pg. 68). Hypogea appeared around 2000-1400 BC and while some were simple and small, the majority of them had an elongated layout (Fonestad, 2015, pg. 28). Ones with an elongated shape consisted of an entrance with a ramp covered by stones leading to the entrance of the chamber, within the chamber was a stone bench, cut out of the rock wall, which ran around the entire inner chamber (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 68). The entrance was like that of the dolmens, having a small hole in a cyclopean slab, closed off with a capstone (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 68). The chambers themselves were usually round or oval in shape and sometimes had small niches in the walls, while other chambers were more complex having as many as five to eight caves within (Van Stydonck, 2014, pg. 68). The size might have been a reflection on the size of the community using the hypogeum, as a small community might have only need a single chambered cave, while larger ones might have had to create more cave chambers within to satisfy the need for more burial space (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 68). In the case of Biniai Nou, which is considered a mixture of a dolmen and a hypogeum, containing two separate caves that are half rock cut but having a corridor built like a dolmen and covered by a tumulus (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 52). The second of the two at Biniai Nou had the bones belonging to 81 individuals within and had collapsed at some point during its active use (Cerdo, 2015, pg. 121). These types of tombs were often reused by farmers and their livestock in later times as well as were often looted, due to this little is known about the use of the niches as well as the types of rituals done within (Van Stydonck, 204, pg. 69).


It was during the period of 1700-800 BC when protonavetas began appearing, they consisted of large cyclopean stone slabs, much like dolmens, but with rocks and stones creating a roof instead of a tumulus (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 76). They have a circular or oval shape and they appear to replace the use of dolmens, which stop being used around 1600 BC. The protonavetas kept the feature used by dolmens of having a perforated stone slab that separated the entrance corridor from the inner chamber (Fontestad, 2015, pg. 29). However, where protonavetas differ from dolmens is that their cyclopean walls are triple layered in thickness, which can be seen in the remains of Ses Arenes de Baix (Fontestad, 2015, pg. 29). These structures used three cyclopean walls to make up their circular or oval shape with smaller stones as filler between the walls (Gili, 2006, pg. 836). The protonavetas are considered large ossuaries as they were used over centuries, as evident by the large amount of bones found within (Fontestad, 2015, pg. 29). Old, young, men and women were found within these types of tombs and as in the case of Son Olivaret (approx. 1600 BC). Small bone buttons, triangular in shape were found along with the bones inside the chamber. A funerary ritual that continued on after the use of the dolmens (Fontestad, 2015, pg. 29). This protonaveta had a large number of bones within as well as grave goods such as pottery, food stuffs, and bone objects (Cerdo, 2015, pg. 53).

Walled Caves

Walled caves were used during the same time period as some of the other burial structures, from 1450-800 BC, but did not only have a funerary purpose but were also used for religious rituals (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 81). The walled caves were natural cavities or caves in ravines that were used as tombs and closed off by a large cyclopean stone slab (Fontestad, 2015, pg. 30). Due to the discovery of several untouched caves, such as Cova des Carritx, Cova des Mussol and Cova des Pas, new religious rites and burial rites have been discovered. In the case of Cova des Carritx, dating to 1600 BC, a collapse led to the end of its use, and therefore sealed the cave and its contents (Whitehouse, 1997, pg. 21). Located 25m below the top of a gorge, the only way to the cave is by rope, descending to the cave entrance (Whitehouse, 1997, pg. 20). Inside this cave were a series of caves and in a small side chamber were found four tubes made out of horn with wood bases, three wood lids and one bone lid. Inside these tubes was hair, dyed red (Whitehouse, 1997, pg. 21). Also found nearby in a pit covered by a clay layer was several artefacts related to these tubes: a comb, spatulae, a bowl and small vessels all made out of wood (Whitehouse, 1997, pg. 21). This led archaeologists to believe that this was a new burial ritual performed on a select group of the deceased within the cave. They would use the spatula, bowls and comb to perform a ritual on the deceased’s hair, combing it and dying it red, then cutting off a piece and placing it within the horn tubes, sealing it with the wooden or bones lids (Whitehouse, 1997, pg. 21-22).
There are two main caves chambers in Carritx, Cova A and Cova B. Within Cova A, more than 120 individuals were found, of all ages and sexes from three months up, while in Cova B more partially articulated skeletons were found, the majority belonging to adults (Whitehouse, 1997, pg. 21). This led archaeologists to believe that Cova A was a burial chamber for the whole community while Cova B was possibly for a select group of individuals in that community (Whitehouse, 1997, pg. 21). The hair ritual and the segregation of burial places with the cave complex indicate that an elite class may have existed during this period.

Similarly with Cova des Carritx, Cova des Pas, approx. 1100 BC, is located 15m above the bottom wall of a gully, requiring ropes to get to the cave entrance (Cabanes, 2011, pg. 1119). This cave had within it 70 individuals wrapped in shrouds in the foetal position, along with the bodies, several wooden stretchers were also found (Cabanes, 2011, pg. 1119). These stretchers would have been used as a means to lower the bodies to the cave entrance, the bodies having been tied with string into the foetal position were deposited in the tomb (Cabanes, 2011, pg. 1119). In the case of this cave, the bodies were not scattered but left tied in the foetal position, some even still attached to wood stretchers. Some of the bodies were also deposited on plants and branches, giving the deceased a more comfortable resting place (Cabanes, 2011, pg. 1119). Also found within this cave were grave goods such as bronze bracelets, needles, metal rings, and spear heads, but no pottery (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 71). However, tubes made out of antler or leather with wooden or bone lids were found, similar to those found in Cova des Carritx (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 71).

In Cova des Mussol, dated around 1200-1000 BC, a zoomorphic figure with horns was found, made out of wild olive wood, high up in a niche in an area that was not easily accessible (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 81). Near the ground, an anthropomorphic figure was found made out of wild olive wood, its mouth open and staring towards the zoomorphic figure (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 81). This led archaeologists to believe that the anthropomorphic figure represented the people who came to the cave and was possibly worshipping the anthropomorphic figure, possibly representing a deity (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 81). It wasn’t till around 1000 BC when this cave became a burial place, where items such as ivory discs from North Africa, bronze mirrors and bronze weapons were found along with the deceased (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 84). These discoveries gave rise to the belief that these caves were not just for burial purposes, but were where religious rites were practiced and that at some they stopped performing them and then the cave became strictly for burials (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 81).


Navetas began appearing around 1400/1300-900 BC and were shaped like an overturned boat, similar in shape to the naviform houses, and had an elongated shape compared to the protonavetas (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg.76-77). The walls were thick cyclopean blocks like protonavetas, but the stones become slenderer towards the top, creating the boat shape, with a flat roof made out of more large stones (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 78). Navetas also had two levels, an upper lever and lower lever for inhumation. This can be seen in Naveta Es Tudons, which has a low square door leading to a square porch or vestibule by which you can gain access to the lower level and upper level (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 78). In the case of navetas the bodies were placed originally on the lower lever and then once the body was decayed the bones were then collected and deposited in the upper level (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 77). Naveta Es Tudons had a hundred individuals found in the upper level, while the lower level contained a continuous rock bench (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 77-78). Along with the bones, bowls, dishes, daggers, awls, perforated triangular buttons, stone tools and other grave goods were found (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 77). The navetas began to appear around the date that the dolmens went out of use and like the protonavetas, they had a long period of use.

Hypogea necropolises

Hypogeum at Sa Cudia Cremada
Hypogeum at Sa Cudia Cremada

Necropolises were both natural and artificial caves that were carved in the cliff sides of ravines or bays, overlooking the sea or bays, and began being used from 600 BC to 123 BC, ending sometime after the arrival of the Romans. These caves had been used during previous phases but it wasn’t till this period that they were used on a regular basis (Fontestad, 2015, pg. 32). The necropolises consisted of a series of caves with several chambers resembling a house with a central pillar and niches (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 132). It is believed that one chamber equalled one families’ burial space (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 132). Several locations on Menorca contain necropolises, such as Caparrot de Forma, Calaʻn Morell and Calas Coves. All of these locations overlook the water and it is thought that there was a possible connection to the sea due to their locations (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 132). At Calaʻn Morell, there are also twenty-two holes or niches that are carved into the walls at various levels which are called “Capades de Moro” or the butts of the Moor, and these holes are thought to be either the graves of children or as places for urns (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 134). Also cut in the cliff at the bottom or located at the top were water wells, some with a groove leading down the side of the cliff to a trough at the bottom to collect the water (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 132). This is another connection to the sea and/or water that is present at these types of burial chambers. This is not the only new thing involving this use of burial chambers, but what is also found in necropolises is a ritual change, as the bodies were covered in calcium oxide as a means of quicklime cremation (Van Strydonck and Decq, 2013, pg. 1). Cremation by quicklime appears during this period and was practiced up until Roman times as a means of burning or melting the bodies (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 119-120). This is seen as a purification rite, a possible means of purifying the dead (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 120). The bodies were deposited along with grave goods within the caves and covered in lime, which melted the bodies and grave goods together (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 120). These burials are seen as showing less care and attention to the deceased bodies compared to the rituals done in previous methods of burial (Van Strydonck, 2014, pg. 119).


The various types of burial structures used by the first settles and the Talayotic people evolved over time living on the island of Menorca. The use of dolmens may have originated from the location that the first settlers came from, bringing their traditions and burial rites to the island and then adapting to their new surroundings and making new burial structures and rites. Whether it was from contact with other cultures or just learning new techniques, it is not known for sure. Little bits from each type of burial structure seems to have been carried on to the next, allowing for the evolution of burial structures and funerary rites. Most of these burial structures used some form of cyclopean stone construction and collective inhumation, showing care and attention for the dead. Each new discovery can lead to new insights into the burial practices and lives of the first settlers and of the Talayotic people of Menorca.


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Fontestad, Montserrat Anglada and Angela Valles Gomez. “The Island of the Talayots: Minorca’s
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Gili, Sylvia; Vincente Lull; Rafael Mico; Cristina Rihuete; and Roberto Risch. “An Island Decides:
Megalithic Burial Rites on Menorca,” Antiquity 80. 2006, pages 829-842. Online source August 8,

Van Strydonck, M.; L. Decq; T. Van Der Brande; M. Boudin; D. Ramis; H. Borms; and G. De Mulder. “The Protohistoric ‘Quicklime Burials’ from the Balearic Islands: Cremation or Inhumation,” Wiley
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Van Strydonck, Mark. “From Myotragus to Metellus: A Journey through the Pre-and Early-History of
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Whitehouse, Ruth D. “Sa Cova d’es Carritx: a New Prehistoric Cult Cave on Menorca,” Archaeology International. 1997. Pages 20-22. Online source August 8, 2016.

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