As the sun reached its peak, waves of heat rose from the cypress-clad hills around me. The turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea sparkled on the western horizon and olive groves stretched to infinity to the east. Above the deafening chorus of cicadas, signaling that we were in the hottest part of the Mediterranean summer, the rhythmic thud of pickaxes echoed from the top of the hill, each one tearing apart the rusty red soil of the Greek Peloponnese.
Amid the sweltering heat, a team of archaeologists, university students and local workers 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 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 the Bronze Age of Greece, between about 1700 and 1100 BC. C., the 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 of Mycenae and Nestor of Pylos, sought to expand their rule over the land. The period was also rich in cultural and technological advances, including the continental development of monumental architecture (in the form of palaces and vaulted arches). tombs of tholos), advances in ceramics and the development of Linear Ba script that provides the first written appearance of the ancient Greek language.
In 1876, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann began excavating the fabled city of Mycenae and, discovering treasure-filled tomb 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 palace sites, including Tiryns, Gla, and Pylos, continued to broaden contemporary understanding of the Bronze Age world.
And yet, while research at these sites offered glimpses into Mycenaean politics and elite life, it provided no evidence of life for the general population, a demographic considered by many to be essential to understanding how it emerged and Mycenaean civilization collapsed. Hoping to fill in the gaps about early Greek civilization, archaeologists for the past three decades have sought cities rather than palaces and tombs. To date, only a few have been excavated in detail.
During the summer of 1999, Michael Cosmopoulos, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Greek Archeology at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, was conducting an archaeological survey with colleagues and students through the rugged, mountainous terrain. from Messenia, a region along the southwestern coast of Greece. In particular, the study team was interested in an olive grove near the picturesque mountain village of Iklaina, where in the 1950s the Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos had found a site containing an exceptional amount of Bronze Age pottery. On his first visit to the site, Dr. Cosmopoulos noticed an unusually large mound among the olives; Based on the large amount of Mycenaean pottery found on the ground, he suspected that there was probably a sizeable settlement buried under his feet.
Systematic excavations in 2009 revealed that the mysterious mound was, in fact, the buried remains of a Cyclopean terrace, the foundations of a multi-storey building constructed of huge boulders normally found only in palaces and important Mycenaean capitals. Using magnetometry and electrical resistivity, techniques used to search for buried architecture, the researchers scanned the surrounding area to find the boundaries of the site and help them plan where to focus excavation. The results were shocking: not only were there dozens of buildings surrounding the terrace, but the labyrinth of structures extended to an area of almost 32 acres.
Iklaina was not simply a confined palace or an elite residence. It was a whole city, with houses, streets and workshops.
Over the last 16 years, the work at Iklaina represents the most comprehensive excavation of a Mycenaean regional capital. Excavations conducted in and around the cyclopean terrace revealed an elite district made up of plazas, paved roads, and administrative buildings, with large megara, or large halls used for formal events, in the center. Ceramic pipes used to distribute fresh water were found below the site, and a network of stone drains provided an elaborate sewage system.
Inside several rooms, the team found remnants of vibrant frescoed walls depicting scenes with boats, fish and people. Based on the way the buildings and walls were built on top of each other, the researchers argue that the site was probably occupied between 1800 and 1200 BC. C. (The existence of several collapsed walls and burned buildings suggest multiple phases of construction and destruction).
It was in a burned pit next to a building that the team made an exceptional discovery: a fragment of a Linear B clay tablet describing what appears to be an economic transaction, dating to around 1350 BC. C. The tablet represents one of the first records of the bureaucracy. found anywhere in Europe.
Beneath an olive grove next to the original palatial find, the team discovered a large residential and commercial complex that has provided a rare and much-sought glimpse into mainstream Mycenaean culture.
“If we want to reconstruct ancient society and learn how it developed, we can’t just look at palace sites and monuments,” Dr. Cosmopoulos explained. “We need to seek a balanced view of everyday life.”
Analysis of pottery at Iklaina shows that although some pottery was traded throughout the Mediterranean, local artisans generally made their own wares from local clay. Recovered animal bones and charred plant remains have revealed the importance of cattle, sheep and pigs and the prevalence of olives and grapes in local Mycenaean agriculture. The discovery of special artifacts, such as clay spindle whorls, help identify where the cloth was once made. And figurines found alongside charred bones indicate areas of possible ritual or religious importance.
Examination of the destroyed architectural layers shows that Iklaina was probably ruled as an entity of its own before being sacked and annexed by the kings of Pylos. This discovery has provided new insight into how the Mycenaean states developed and suggests that rather than grow as a single, unified kingdom, a conglomeration of competing rulers united smaller regional capitals like Iklaina to amass power.
The Iklaina project, carried out under the auspices of the Archaeological Society of Athens with the permission of the Ephorate of Messinia and the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports, has required a team of researchers with experience 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, 15 to 20 professional archaeologists from the United States, Greece, and Canada work alongside contract laborers in the village of Iklaina. With their work orchestrated by Dr. Deborah Ruscillo, deputy project director and specialist in animal bones and ancient diets, an additional dozen specialists can be found each day in the project’s laboratory and repository, processing and studying artifacts brought back from the countryside.
Students also played an important role in the excavations, which acted as a “field school” for people interested in becoming professional archaeologists, Dr. Cosmopoulos said. He and his fellow professionals “want to help students understand the relevance of ancient cultures to modern society and their own lives,” he added.
From the beginning, the team involved the modern town of Iklaina by hiring locals to work on the site and inviting locals to view the excavations. For some people, having income opportunities close to home is the main draw. But many others are fascinated by the ancient city and the opportunity to connect with their ancestors.
“It’s great to see the villagers embracing the ancient site as part of their community,” Dr. Ruscillo said, adding that, over the years, Iklaina has undergone something of an awakening. “The modern city has come alive with excitement,” he said.
The locals have also embraced their role as caretakers: every winter, when the researchers return home and the site becomes inactive, the Iklaina people keep watch over the site, protecting it as an extension of their own community.
One of Dr. Cosmopoulos’ dreams is to turn the ancient city into an open-air museum where people can visit and learn about the Mycenaean culture. “Archaeology needs to contribute to larger communities,” he explained.
The Peloponnesian Prefecture recently approved funding to build a road to the site, and as plans are made to expand access, modern Iklaina hopes that heritage tourism will help share its village’s deep history with the world and continue to generate more jobs for the community. .
“The story belongs to everyone,” said 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 care for history together and truly respect it.”