Archaeology in Greece

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Ruins of Troy

Describing his experience, working as a volunteer at an Early Bronze Age site in Mitrou, a small island in southern Greece, Stefan Beck wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “It was before six on my first morning...I found myself hauling potsherds, pickaxes, shovels and computers from a gecko-infested “apotheke” (warehouse) to a big orange truck parked outside. When the truck was full, we headed off, a police escort alongside to protect us from hijackers—that is to say, from antiquities smugglers eager for our loot. We then unloaded it at a new, more spacious apotheke.”

“The second day was spent removing backfill at the site. At the end of each season of exploration, the archaeologists put a tarp over the site and then cover it with soil to protect artefacts from the ravages of I began to grasp how little of archaeology is strictly ‘digging,’ As the dirt came out these scientists paid careful attention to the profile of the tarp beneath it; even a after a year, the trench supervisor knew what lay under every contour—a cist tomb, a fragment of wall. The site operated as melodically as an ant arm and with every bit as much purpose.”

As the days wore on—and my back wore out—I became more impressed by the range of knowledge that mere “digging” required. Archaeology cuts across the shallow trench that divided the hard sciences from the humanities. To get the full value...requires some knowledge of technology, history, language (both ancient and modern), classical literature, zoology , botany, geology and art...And how can I forget the charming field of mortuary analysis.”


Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

How We Know What We Know about the Ancient Greeks

Almost everything we know about ancient Greece and Rome has been ascertained from historical, philosophical and literary texts (most of which reached us through the efforts of Arab scholars and medieval European monk scribes); archaeological excavations; art work (most of it painted on vessels, jugs and vases); and sculptures and friezes.


Much of what is known about Greek civilization before for the 8th century B.C. has been derived from the Homeric classics, some other texts and some artifacts---but for the most part there isn't that much material. The period from the 8th century to 4th century B.C. is much richer. There is a great deal of art, literature, documentation and architecture that has survived from this period, providing a much clearer picture of what went on, particularly in cities such as Athens and Sparta.

We know more about the Greeks and Romans than, say, the Celts and Visigoths who lived around the same time, because the Greeks and Romans had a written language and these other cultures didn't. Because only a very few people knew how to write after the alphabet was developed, little is known about Greek history during the sixth and seventh century B.C. when the alphabet emerged.

Archaeologists and historians warn that with ancient history one must tread carefully and go only as far as the data takes you, understanding the limits and realizing the fragility of the constructs and presence of contradictions. History is derived from the Greek word historia , meaning"inquiry" or "knowing by inquiry." Ancient history is often based on hearsay and biased accounts. Many historians who give us the first accounts of events reported on these events centuries after they took place.

Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768), First Archaeologist of Ancient Greece

Johann Joachin Winckelmann (1717-1768), the son of a poor shoemaker from Stendal in Prussia, is considered the founder of modern archaeology and art history. He secretly read Greek texts while supposedly listening to lectures in school and a developed a fondness of Greek sculptures of men based on his latent homosexuality. He once wrote that his feelings for a handsome boy from a family he tutored caused a "passion which has troubled the peace of my soul."

Johann Winckelmann

Winckelmann did really do any archeological work himself but he wrote passionately about the classics and ancient worlds he visited as a tourist as a roused an interest in others. The historian Daniel Boorstin wrote that he "awakened Europe to the charms of ancient civilizations which he only faintly glimpsed. He would entice others to do the exploring."

According to Wikipedia, “He was a pioneering Hellenist who first articulated the difference between Greek, Greco-Roman and Roman art. Called, "the prophet and founding hero of modern archaeology", Winckelmann first applied the categories of style on a large, systematic basis to the history of art. His work had a decisive influence on the rise of the neoclassical movement during the late 18th century. His writings influenced not only a new science of archaeology and art history but Western painting, sculpture, literature and even philosophy. Winckelmann's History of Ancient Art (1764) was one of the first books written in German to become a classic of European literature.

“It is an entirely new and unsuspected world that I am discovering for archaeology!" Winckelmann wrote. Winckelmann was strangled with a rope and stabled to death by a an Italian man who stole several gold coins given to him by the Austrian empress. The murderer had already been condemned to death but pardoned for theft.

Discovery of Minoa

The Palace of Knossos and the Minoan culture were discovered in 1900 by Sir Arthur Evans, an Englishman who had come to Crete to search for information about the origins of Mycenaean culture.

Sir Arthur John Evens

Evans traveled to Crete several ties between 1894 and 1899. He began his search at the mound of Kephala, outside Heraklion, where seals with Mycenaean-like marking were found. Twenty-five years later he had finished excavating the 5½ acre Knossos Palace.

Evans used his own personal fortune, worth several million dollars in today's money, to finance the dig. Based on the presence of numerous images of bulls and the maze -like quality of the palace, he decided that Knossos was the source of the Minotaur myth and labyrinth story. He also found written scripts which he labeled Linear A and Linear B.

Evans work as an archeologist was shoddy to say the least. He replaced missing columns and support beams with reinforced concrete. Archaeologists that followed found concrete covering up the original gypsum and sandstone. In the original excavations and Evan did not indicate different time periods.

Other important Minoan sites include the Gorge of the Dead, an unplundered palace found in 1962 by Nicoloaos Platon in Zakros; a Bronze Age settlement on Santorini preserved like Pompeii found on Spyridon Marinatos; burial chambers of a queen or priestess found in Arkhanes; the grand stair case of Phaistos, the central court at Mallia, and the throne room of Knossos.

Tomb of Philip II, Alexander the Great’s Father?

In November 1977, Dr. Manolis Andronicos, an archaeologist at the University of Thessalonika unearthed a tomb under a mound in Vergina (40 kilometers west of Thessalonika, Greece) that is believe belonged to Philip II or Philip III. [Source: Manolis Andronicos, National Geographic, July 1978]

No inscription or definitive proof was found that linked the tomb to Philip II. Evidence that kinked the tomb to him included the discovery in the tomb of an ivory head thought to be a likeness of Philip and a diadem associated with Macedonian royalty, different size leg armor (possibly an accommodation to Philip II's bad leg), the high value of the objects and the dating of the objects to the time of Philip II reign. Evidence that refutes the claim are tooth remains usually associated with a man in his 30s (Philip II was 46 when he died).

Philip II

The tomb was very deep (23 feet under the ground), presumably to foil grave robbers. It was a barrel- vaulted structure with extraordinary Greek wall paintings with images of Pluto, god of the Underworld , abducting Persephone and a hunting scene with five horsemen with dogs and three hunters with spears pursuing wild boar and lions. These images unfortunately faded after they were exposed to sunlight and air.

Among the he objects found in the tomb were a marble sarcophagus, a large golden casket, a gold larnax (small casket) with a Macedonian star that contained cremated remains, a royal wreath of golden acorns and oak leaves, a gold-and-silver diadem, a golden quiver, purple fabric thread with gold, a perforated bronze lantern, weapons, silver vessels, bronze vessels, bronze armor, an iron helmet, a sword, scepter, sandals, a shield," spear points, javelins, golden lion heads, and sculpture, possibly of Alexander the Great.

The Vergina tomb was actually comprised of two tombs. Tomb I, which held human remains but had been looted in antiquity; and Tomb II, which was filled with treasure and armor, as well as the burnt bones of a man and a woman. Tomb II was identified as the final resting place of Philip II. But that identification is hotly contested. Some archaeologists believe that the bones actually belong to Philip III Arrhidaeus, Alexander's half-brother and a short-lived figurehead king. Philip II, they say, may actually rest in the looted Tomb I. [Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, July 20, 2015 ]

About 450 tombs dating to the 6th century B.C. have been found at a site called Archontiko in the Macedonian part of northern Greece. Archaeologists Pavlos and Anastasia Chrysostomou, of the Greek Ministry of Culture, say they have found scores of warriors buried with armor, swords, shields adorned with gold and silver as well as noble women with gold, silver amber and faience. These give clues to the rich warrior culture was thriving two centuries before Alexander's birth.

New Tomb for Philp II?

Philip II may be buried in a different tomb than was previously thought; Tomb 1 rather than Tomb II at Vergina. Sindya N. Bhanoo of the New York Times wrote: “A new study relying on the scanning and radiography of skeletal remains suggests that of the three tombs found on the Great Tumulus hill in the northern Greek town of Vergina, the king is likely to be buried in what is known as Tomb 1, not Tomb 2. The study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Source: Sindya N. Bhanoo, New York Times, July 20, 2015]

“Philip II sustained a lance-inflicted leg wound three years before he was slain in 336 BCE. Tomb 1 contains an approximately 45-year-old individual with a hole near the knee, suggesting a piercing wound accompanied by inflammation and bone fusion.” Tomb 1 also contains the leg bones of an 18-year-old female and infant; these are thought to be the king’s wife and their child, both slain shortly after his death.”

Some argue that the leg bones belong to Philip II's wife Cleopatra. According to Livescience she was a robust woman who stood about 5 feet 4 inches (165 centimeters), according to the measurement of these bones. Tiny newborn bones found in Tomb I belong to a child only one to three weeks past its due date. (It is impossible to know the baby's exact age, as it isn't clear from bones alone when an infant was born.) Anthropologists aren't sure of this infant's sex, but it may have been the murdered newborn child of Philip II and his seventh wife Cleopatra. [Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, July 20, 2015 ]

Hades and Persephone in Philip II's tomb

Philip III Arrhidaios — Alexander the Great's half-brother and successor — and his young warrior-queen wife Eurydice, were respectively killed and forced to commit suicide by Olympias, Philip III's stepmother and Alexander’s mother. Historical texts say that Philip II was buried, exhumed, burned and re-buried: A royal tomb found in Greece containing the burned bones of a man and a young woman, some scholar believe, could belong to Philip III and Eurydice. Others say the entombed man is probably Philip II, Alexander the Great's father, making the woman in the tomb Cleopatra, Philip II's last wife (She is different from the famous Cleopatra). This Cleopatra also met a tragic end. She was either killed or forced to commit suicide by Olympias. Scholars are still debating issues whether the bones were burned dry or covered in flesh and viscera. [Source: Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, April 8, 2011]

Important Bronze Age Site in Greece

In 2001, a team led by Greek archaeologist Dr. Dora Katsonopoulou that was excavating the Homeric-era town of Helike in the northern Peloponnesus, found a well-preserved 4500-year-old urban center, one of the few very old Bronze Age sites discovered in Greece. Among the the things they found were stone foundations, cobbled streets, gold and silver clothing ornaments, intact clay jars, cooking pots, tankards and kraters, wide bowls for mixing wine and water, and other pottery — all of a distinctive style — and tall, graceful cylindrical “depas” cups like those found in the same age strata in Troy.

The Bronze Age ruins were found on the Gulf of Corinth among orchards and vineyards 40 kilometers east of the modern port city of Patras. Ceramics enabled archaeologists to date the site to between 2600 and 2300 B.C. Dr. Katsonopoulou told the New York Times, “It was clear from the beginning that we had made a significant discovery." The site was undisturbed, she said, which “offers the great and rare opportunity to us to study and reconstruct everyday life and economy of one of the most important periods of the Early Bronze Age."

Dr. John E. Coleman, an archaeologist and professor of classics at Cornell who had visited the site several times, told the New York Times, “It's not just a little farmstead. It has the look of a settlement that may be planned, with buildings aligned to a system of streets, which is pretty rare for that period. And the depas cup is very important because it suggests international contacts." Dr. Helmut Bruckner, a geologist at the University of Marburg in Germany said the location of the town suggests it was a coastal town and “at the time had a strategic importance” in shipping. Geologic evidence indicates it was destroyed and partly submerged by a powerful earthquake.

Archaeology and Alexandria

In the last couple of decades Alexandria has been the focus of a major under water archaeology recovery effort. Visitors to Alexandria are often struck by how little the ancient city remains and archaeologists have often given it a short shift preferring to dig in the older sediments around the pyramids and Luxor or the classical cities in Greece. In 1890 an English archaeologist cautioned, “There is nothing to hope for in Alexandria. You classical archaeologists, who have found so much in Greece or Asia Minor, forget this city.” Interest in the city has risen however as it has been discovered that much the ancient city lies in the harbor accessible to anyone with scuba certification and the guts to brave the murky water. [Source: Andrew Lawler, Smithsonian magazine, April 2007]

ruins in Alexandria

The edge Alexandria harbor is pretty much a smooth curved line with few indentations but ancient Alexandria harbor was very different. It was heavily indented, and on the indentations were things like the Palace of Cleopatra and the Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is the areas around indentations that archaeologists have been devoting much of their attention. In the city itself, archaeologists have found things such as the remains of the world’s oldest university complex under the downtown area and a 3rd century B.C. necropolis, dating back to around the time the city was founded by Alexander the Great, now covered by a highway. An indication of how much has yet to be discovered occurred in the 1990s when the city underwent major development and construction trucks hauled away old columns and ceramics and dumped them in Lake Mariout.

Over the centuries the ancient areas of Alexandria have become submerged as a result of earthquakes, tsunamis and slow subsidence. Efforts to slow the sinking—shoring up foundations of buildings and wharves—only made the situation worse: the extra weight caused them to sink further. Particularly damaging was a tsunami in A.D. 365 that caused the sea to empty out the harbor, leaving ships grounded and fish flopping on the seabed, before a surge of water poured in, swamping and carrying away much of the city and killing perhaps 50,000 people. After that there was a wave of seismic activity. This and rising sea levels markedly changed the Egyptian coast. Other Egyptian cities— Heraklion, Canopus and Menouths — vanished completely.

Among the archaeologists that have been active in Alexandria are the Frenchman Jean-Yves Empereur of the Center of Alexandrian Studies. He is credited with launching the rediscovery effort in Alexandria in the early 1990s when he took a swim near the 15th century fort of Qait Bey, near where the Pharos lighthouse used to stand in an area that had been closed of by the military for security reason. While swimming there he saw large building stones and shapes that looked like statues and columns. He saw so much he said it made him dizzy. When he emerged he watched construction crews drop 20-ton concrete blocks into the water where he had just been swimming to shore up the breakwater there and decided something had to be done. He then told authorities what he saw and got the government to stop dumping blocks into the sea and won permission to survey the area. His team then discovered Corinthian columns more than two meters hick, markings dating back to the time of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and huge stone sphinxes and huge pharaoh-like statues of Ptolemy I and his wife. As of 2007, Empereur’s team has photographed more than 3,000 pieces from the sea floor, including 20 sphinxes and five obelisks and many columns, most of which still remain in the water.

Underwater finds at Alexandria included: columns with the cartouche of Ramses II — who from 1279 to 1213 B.C., nine centuries before Alexandria was founded — and 25 sphinxes made of calcite or red or gray granite. One colossal male statue was made from Aswan granite. From the base of the neck to the thigh measured 13½ feet. It is believed to be a Greek rule in an Egyptian costume.

In 1895, Oxford historians retrieved 50,000 papyri from what appeared to be a town dump in Oxyrhybcnus, a Greek settlements with 35,000 people that prospered on a Nile tributary around 300 B.C., and shipped them to England in 800 containers. The documents included deeds, wedding announcements, census returns, instructions on building cisterns, a Sophocles play and poems.

Discovery of the Pharos Lighthouse and Herakleion?

Artist's conception of the Pharos Lighthouse

In the mid-1990s French archaeologists claimed that found pieces of the 2,200-year-old Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and remnants of the lost Palace of Ptolemy in the waters off Alexandria. The finds included two giant red granite blocks, weighing 30 and 45 tons, and the granite torso of a woman that were brought to surface of the sea with balloons. The archaeologists also found statues of sphinxes, bases and capitals of columns, sections of obelisks, inscribed blocks, a statue of the goddess Isis and a section of male torso from a 42-foot statue.

Empereur claims he found the lintel and 13-meter-high doorjams that marked the entrance to the Pharos Lighthouse. Many scientists are skeptical whether the remains are really from the lighthouse. The French archaeologists found no inscriptions that linked the pieces to the Pharos Lighthouse nor evidence of statue which reportedly rested on the top of the lighthouse. Moreover, the lighthouse was reportedly made of marble while the fragments found by the archaeologists were granite (the archaeologists say the marble was a facade that was probably reused on other buildings).

Herakleion was a busy port at the mouth of the Nile near Alexandria mentioned in Greek myths as a place where Helen of Troy and Paris went to escape the wrath of Helen’s husband Menelaus. Sometime in the 1st century B.C. it was a struck by a catastrophic earthquake that leveled most of the buildings, swamped ships in the harbor, killed many of the residents and forced survivors to flee so quickly they left many of their possessions behind. Another earthquake in the A.D. 9th century dropped the city in the sea. In the centuries that followed it was covered by silt and 30 feet of water.

In the early 2000s, French marine archaeologist Frank Goddio said he found Herakleion and discovered remains of the Great Temple of Herakleion, three pink granite colossal statues of a pharaoh, his queen and the god Hapi, a black granite stele covered with Egyptian writing and containing the word Herakleion on it, the remains of 10 ships and thousands of artifacts, including jewelry, coins, vases, and personal items.

Ancient Greek Shipwrecks and Underwater Treasures

In July, 1992, a recreational diver checking out a starfish in 50-foot-deep water near the Adriatic port of Brindisi, Italy noticed some greenish toes sticking out of the sand. His first though was that it was the foot of a copse dumped by gangsters. "Not here too!" he later told National Geographic. "I brushed the first three toes with my hand. They were rough and hard. I knew the foot was not human." [Source: National Geographic, April 1995]

The diver, a “ carabinieri” commander named Luigi Robusto, had discovered pieces of bronze sculptures, possibly dumped by sailors to lighten their load during a storm. The diversity of the objects and their ages—ranging from the 4th century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D.—has led archaeologists to believe that the pieces possibly were going to be melted down and made into new sculptures. Archaeologist Francesco Nicosia told National Geographic, "This discovery is the first tangible proof of commerce in the recycling of ancient bronzes."

Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera shipwreck found off the island of Antikythera in 1900 by sponge divers is one of the most famous Ancient Greek shipwrecks. The immense size of the hull planks and anchors suggests the ship was a grain carrier, the only one found from antiquity. But even more amazing were its contents—Greek statues, glassware, jewelry and the sophisticated device called Antikythera Mechanism, a sophisticated 2nd century B.C. gadget described as an ancient Greek computer. According to Smithsonian magazine: “Studies of the ship and its contents have since concluded that this was a Roman vessel that sailed between 70 and 60 B.C., carrying Greek treasures—some of which were centuries old when the ship sank—from the eastern Mediterranean westward. At this time, the Romans were gradually taking over the entire region, and they shipped boatloads of Greek artwork, including paintings, mosaics and sculptures, back home to decorate their luxury villas. For archaeologists today, the wreck is a time capsule, a single moment of history preserved. Like the tomb of an ancient pharaoh, it offers a unique window into a long-lost world.” [Source: Jo Marchant, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2015]

Hundreds of ancient cargo ships have been excavated but only a handful with interesting items like those from Antikythera have been found: a load of marble columns and sculptures from a wreck near Mahdia, Tunisia; a bronze statue of Zeus in the act of throwing a thunderbolt, found off Greece’s Cape Artemision; ebony, ivory and ostrich eggs from a late Bronze Age ship that sank off Turkey’s Cape Gelidonya.

It is believed there are thousands of sunken ships, with untold treasures, are still out waiting to be discovered. In 2007, a new law intended to lure more tourists, opened most of Greece’s 15,000-kilometers of coastline to scuba divers, except for about 100 known archaeological sites. Archaeologists worry about the new law will attract looters and tempt divers to grab whatever artifacts they can find, Already some tour companies have run advertisements luring divers with promises of ancient artifacts. One has an ad that says: “Scuba diving in Greece is permitted everywhere...Ideal for today’s treasure hunter. ” An official at the Greek Culture Ministry said that metal detectors and bathyspheres allow treasure hunter to find objects with relative ease in the Aegean and Adriatic.

Modern Archaeology in Greece

Greece’s 1932 antiquities law states that all artifacts found on land and in the sea belong to Greece. There have been conflicts between archaeologists and developers who want to raise vacations home on promising sites before archaeologists have a chance to check them out.

Greek workmen are probably the countries most productive archaeologists. In Athens, ancient mosaics have been uncovered by telephone repairmen, ancient walls by bulldozers and vases and graves by street repairmen. Sewer workers have received some of the greatest acclaim. One worker in 1959 found an ancient cache of bronze figurines that was one of the most important finds of the 20th century.

Athens Metro tunnels have been placed 30 meters feet below the ground in part to prevent disturbing archeological sites. Even so Greek archeologist working in conjunction with the Athens Metro have found Roman baths, a classical bronze head, ancient walls, roads, aqueducts, a 2,000-year-old toy-filled grave of a young boy, and undisturbed grave sites from a 4th century B.C. cemetery. Many of the items found have been put on display in the Metro stations.

Delays caused by archeological concerns cost the city $600,000 a day during the construction of the Athens Metro. In most cases when something of importance was found it was carefully photographed, cataloged and described and then bulldozed over. When this happened some young archeologist openly wept. Archeologist were also angered that of the Metro passed under the ancient Greek Kerameikos cemetery and worried that vibrations from the train would upset the tombs.

In the mid 1990s, archaeologists unearth the Lyceum, or school, where Aristotle taught, and a fifth century graveyard believed to be the final resting place for figures such as Pericles, Solon and Lycourgos.


Hercules papyrus

John Seabrook wrote in The New Yorker: “Papyrology is a study that combines aspects of textual scholarship, philology, and archeology. It requires Olympian patience to find letters and words amid such badly damaged material, and immense learning to divine the meaning within. It’s unusual to get three words in a row without lacunae. [Source: John Seabrook, The New Yorker , November 16, 2015 \=/]

“Compounding the difficulty is the fact that scribes wrote Greek without spaces between words. A single line can easily take six months to decipher. Sometimes educated guesses about missing bits are wrong, causing the reader to arrive at different meanings from what was intended. One of the revelations following the Brigham Young MSI studies was how wrong many of the earlier readings of the scrolls were. Some editors were essentially making up their own texts. ““Papyrologists are a special breed,” Anthony Grafton, a professor of Renaissance and Reformation history at Princeton, says. “They work with really badly damaged manuscripts. But they live with the promise of finding something really new—which is very rare in most classical scholarship.” There, marginalia is the only hope.” \=/

3,500-Year-Old Writing Found in Mainland Greece

In the summer of 2011, a tablet with some of the oldest known examples of writing in mainland Europe, was found in the middle of an olive grove in southwest Greece, near the modern village of Iklaina. John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “The tablet seems to be a “page” from a bookkeeper's note pad. Not meant to be saved as a permanent record, it was not baked in a kiln , but ended up in a refuse dump, where a fire hardened the clay for posterity... Had it not been for some inadvertence, the tablet would almost certainly have disintegrated in the rain in a year or two and scattered with the wind as so much illiterate dust." [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, April 4, 2011]

The discoverers and other specialists in Greek history said the tablet should cast light on the political structure and bureaucratic practices near the beginning of the renowned Mycenaean period, 1600 to 1100 B.C. At its height, the culture supported the splendor of palaces at Mycenae and Pylos and inspired the heroic legend of the Trojan War, immortalized in Homer's Iliad.

“This is a rare case where archaeology meets ancient texts and Greek myths," Michael B. Cosmopoulos, director of the excavations, said last week in announcing the discovery. Dr. Cosmopoulos, an archaeologist and professor of Greek studies at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, said the tablet, only 2 inches by 3 inches, was a surprise. Judging by pottery in the dump in which it was found, the tablet dates to sometime from 1490 to 1390 B.C. Scholars said they had little evidence before that clay tablets were made and used to keep state records so early in Mycenaean history.

“The Missouri team had investigated the Iklaina site for 11 years, and in the last couple of summers examined the extensive evidence of stone walls of what may have been a palace at a district capital. Some walls are decorated with frescoes showing ladies of the court and ships with dolphins cavorting in water. There are also remains of a drainage and sewer system far ahead of its time.

Archaeologists are only beginning to consider the implications of the discovery. It suggests that political states in ancient Greece originated at least a century and a half earlier than had been documented. Iklaina may have started small and been conquered and annexed by one of the expanding powers, like Pylos, in the same region. Dr. Cosmopoulos suggested the Iklaina palace may have been a district administrative center subject to one of the main capitals: “a two-tiered government, or a sort of quasi-federal system," he called it.”

Iklaina Linear B tablets

3,500-Year-Old Tablet and Early Greek Bureaucratic Practices

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “Previous excavations had yielded clay writing tablets from 1200 B.C., close to the approximate time of the supposed Trojan War, and some references to Iklaina as an administrative center associated with Pylos. Dr. Cosmopoulos said in an interview that the new findings appeared to show that some 200 years earlier this may have been the seat of an independent chiefdom that had already achieved a degree of literacy and political organization. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, April 4, 2011]

On one side, the tablet has one readable word, a verb meaning to prepare to manufacture. Along the broken edges are other characters, but not enough for scholars to make out the word or words. On the reverse side, the tablet gives a list of men's names alongside numbers. Cynthia Shelmerdine at the University of Texas, Austin, was the first to read the writing and assess its importance.

“The fact that we have a tablet like this means that this government had scribes, and scribes are a product of bureaucracy," Dr. Cosmopoulos said. “And this suggests some degree of political complexity and a growing need to keep track of commodities, property and taxes, all earlier than we once thought."

Donald C. Haggis, an archaeologist and classics professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the tablet discovery was “really exciting and important because we don't know much of the dynamics of these palace sites and the early phases of state formation in Greece." Dr. Haggis, who was familiar with the research but not a member of the team, said that nearly all that had been known of the dynamics of these government centers came from excavations in the final stages of the Mycenaean period. Now the tablet, he said, “tells us this place had an administrative function at an early stage” and the architecture of the palace “reflects authority” and “looks like a place for ritual, communal dining and production of crafts."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except last picture from the Iklaina Archaeology Project

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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