Unearthing Everyday Life at an Ancient Site in Greece

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As the sun peaked, heat waves rose from the cypress-covered hills around me. The turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea shimmered on the western horizon, and olive groves stretched toward infinity to the east. Over the deafening chorus of cicadas, which indicated we were in the hottest part of the Mediterranean summer, the rhythmic thud of pickaxes echoed across the hilltop, each swing tearing into the rusty red soil of Greece’s Peloponnese.

Amid the stifling heat, a team of archaeologists, university students and local workmen were digging deeper into the remains of Iklaina, a Bronze Age city that once ruled the surrounding landscape and, according to Homer, may have played a role in the legendary Trojan War, more than 3,000 years ago. Today, the settlement lies burned and buried, offering the researchers an invaluable means of studying the volatile politics of ancient Greece and the complex lives of the Mycenaean people, who lived at the crossroads of history and mythology.

During the end of Greece’s Bronze Age, between approximately 1700 and 1100 B.C., Mycenaean civilization flourished throughout the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Ruled by a conglomerate of palaces that oversaw regional kingdoms, Mycenaean society was dominated by war and hostility; various kings, including Agamemnon from Mycenae and Nestor of Pylos, sought to expand their rule over the land. The period was also rich in cultural and technological advancements, including the mainland development of monumental architecture (in the form of palaces and vaulted tholos tombs), advancements in ceramics and the development of Linear B, a script that provides the first written occurrence of the Ancient Greek language.

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In 1876, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann began excavating the fabled city of Mycenae and, in uncovering treasure-laden grave circles of ancient kings, turned the world’s attention to the Mycenaean civilization. In the century and a half since Schliemann’s great discoveries, the excavation of other Mycenaean palatial sites — including Tiryns, Gla and Pylos — continued to expand the contemporary understanding of the Bronze Age world.

And yet, while research at these sites offered glimpses into Mycenaean politics and the lives of the elite, they did not provide evidence of the lives of the general population — a demographic considered by many to be essential to understanding how Mycenaean civilization rose and collapsed. With the hope of filling in gaps about the early Greek civilization, archaeologists over the past three decades have sought out towns in lieu of palaces and tombs. To date, only a few have ever been excavated in detail.

During the summer of 1999, Michael Cosmopoulos, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, was conducting an archaeological survey with colleagues and students through the rugged and hilly terrain of Messenia, a region along Greece’s southwest coast. In particular, the survey team was interested in an olive grove near the quaint mountain village of Iklaina, where in the 1950s the Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos had found a site that contained an exceptional amount of Bronze Age pottery. On his first visit to the site, Dr. Cosmopoulos noticed an exceptionally large mound among the olives; based on the sheer quantity of Mycenaean pottery found on the ground, he suspected that a considerable settlement was likely buried beneath his feet.

Systematic excavations in 2009 revealed that the mysterious mound was in fact the buried remains of a Cyclopean terrace, a multistory building foundation constructed of massive boulders typically found only at palaces and important Mycenaean capitals. Using magnetometry and electric resistivity, techniques used to look for buried architecture, the researchers scanned the surrounding area in order to seek out the boundaries of the site and to help them plan where to focus digging. The results were shocking: Not only were there dozens of buildings surrounding the terrace, but the labyrinth of structures extended to an area of nearly 32 acres.

Iklaina was not simply a confined palace or elite residence. It was an entire city — with houses, streets and workshops.

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Over the past 16 years, the work at Iklaina represents the most comprehensive excavation of a Mycenaean regional capital. Excavations conducted on and around the Cyclopean terrace revealed an elite district composed of plazas, paved roads and administrative buildings, with large megara, or great halls used for formal events, at the center. Ceramic pipes used for distributing fresh water were found running beneath the site, and a network of stone drains provided an elaborate system of sewage.

In the interior of several rooms, the team found the remains of vibrant frescoed walls depicting scenes with ships, fish and people. Based on the way the buildings and walls were built on top of one another, researchers contend that the site was likely occupied between 1800 and 1200 B.C. (The existence of several collapsed walls and burned buildings suggest multiple phases of construction and destruction.)

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It was in a burned pit next to a building that the team made an exceptional discovery: a fragment of a clay Linear B tablet describing what appears to be an economic transaction, dating to around 1350 B.C. The tablet represents one of the earliest records of bureaucracy found anywhere in Europe.

Beneath an olive grove next to the original palatial discovery, the team uncovered a large residential and commercial complex that has provided a rare and much-sought-after glimpse into conventional Mycenaean culture.

“If we want to reconstruct ancient society and learn how it developed, we cannot just look at palatial sites and monuments,” Dr. Cosmopoulos explained. “We need to seek a balanced view of everyday life.”

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Analysis of the ceramics at Iklaina shows that, while some pottery was traded throughout the Mediterranean, local craftsmen by and large made their own wares from local clay. Recovered animal bones and charred plant remains have revealed the importance of cows, sheep and pigs and the prevalence of olives and grapes in local Mycenaean agriculture. The discovery of specialty artifacts like clay spindle whorls helps identify where fabric was once made. And figurines found alongside charred bones indicate areas of possible ritualistic or religious importance.

Examination of destroyed architectural layers show that Iklaina was likely ruled as its own entity before being sacked and annexed by the kings of Pylos. This discovery has provided a fresh perspective on how Mycenaean states developed and suggests that, rather than growing as a single unified kingdom, a conglomerate of competing rulers unified smaller, regional capitals such as Iklaina to amass power.

The Iklaina project, conducted under the auspices of the Archaeological Society of Athens with the permission of the Messenian Ephorate and Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports, has required a team of researchers — with expertise in the Mediterranean Bronze Age, ceramics, architecture, biomolecular analysis, geochemistry, remote sensing and artifact conservation, among other disciplines. During a typical four-week excavation season, between 15 and 20 professional archaeologists from the United States, Greece and Canada work alongside laborers hired from the Iklaina village. With their work orchestrated by Dr. Deborah Ruscillo, the project’s assistant director and a specialist in animal bones and ancient diets, a dozen additional specialists can be found each day at the project’s lab and repository, processing and studying artifacts that are brought in from the field.

Students have also played a major role in the excavations, which have acted as a “field school” for people interested in becoming professional archaeologists, Dr. Cosmopoulos said. He and his fellow professionals “want to help the students understand the relevance of ancient cultures to modern society and their own lives,” he added.

From the beginning, the team has involved the modern village of Iklaina by hiring locals to work at the site and inviting locals to see the excavations. For some people, having income opportunities close to home is the main draw. But many others are fascinated with the ancient city and the opportunity to connect with their ancestors.

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“It’s neat to see the villagers embrace the ancient site as part of their community,” Dr. Ruscillo said, adding that, over the years, Iklaina has experienced a kind of reawakening. “The modern town has come to life again with excitement,” she said.

The locals have also embraced their role as caretakers: Each winter, as the researchers return home and the site goes dormant, Iklaina’s villagers stand watch over the site, guarding it as an extension of their own community.

One of his dreams, Dr. Cosmopoulos said, is to turn the ancient town into an open-air museum where people can visit and learn about Mycenaean culture. “Archaeology needs to contribute to wider communities,” he explained.

The Prefecture of Peloponnese recently approved funding to build a road to the site, and as the plans are made to expand access, modern Iklaina hopes that heritage tourism will help share their village’s deep history with the world and continue to bring more jobs to the community.

“History belongs to everybody,” Dr. Ruscillo said. “Archaeology loses its value when you can’t share it with people — and one of the most important things we can do is encourage everyone to take care of the history together and truly respect it.”

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Matt Stirn is an archaeologist and photojournalist based in Boston and Jackson Hole, Wyo. You can follow his work on Instagram.





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