ATHENS – The remnants of Ancient Greece continue to astound archaeologists and scientists who look to the country for clues about how societies formed and led to widespread Western Civilization, much of the proof found underground.
But it had focused on the glory of the times and a hunt for palaces and tombs and a glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and famous, not for workers or lower-classes or what their lives were like.
Findings in the Messenia area of the Peloponnese, around the mountain village of Iklaina, 10 kilometers (6.2) miles from the coastal municipality of Pylos have changed that, with revelations of an entire buried town showing how life was lived.
In a feature for The New York Times, archaeologist and photojournalist Matt Stirn wrote about the importance of what was found there, with work building on earlier excavations adding further weight to the significance of Greece.
A team of archaeologists, university students, and local workers dug deep into the remains of the Bronze Age city that ruled the area and, the piece noted, was thought by Homer to have even played a role in the Trojan War.
What’s left was burned and buried but gave the researchers critical clues of the often incendiary politics of the times and a look into the complex lives of the Mycenaean people, much of whose lives remain shrouded in mystery.
The Mycenaean civilization flourished from about 1700-1100 B.C. under the dominance of royalty living in palaces and extending through regional kingdoms during a time of war and hostility – not unlike today.
More than a thousand years before Greece’s Golden Age, before the Parthenon and the Peloponnesian and Persian Wars and the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae and Salamis saved Western Civilization, it was already a noted civilization there.
Along with only rudimentary tools and equipment, there were signs of cultural and technological advancements and monumental architecture, the use of ceramics, and the development of Linear B, a script that provides the first written occurrence of the Ancient Greek language.
The famed German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann began excavating Mycenae in 1876, laying the groundwork for what came after in the region and turning the fascination and attention of archaeologists to that area.
But the ongoing work today at Iklaina is noteworthy for showing how the general population lived, building on the digging and exploration of the previous three decades and looking for cities and towns, not palaces.
Much of that is due to the work there in 1999 of 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.
He was leading an archaeological survey with colleagues and students through the rugged and hilly terrain and became interested in an olive grove near Iklaina, where in in the 1950s the Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos had found a site that contained an exceptional amount of Bronze Age pottery, the piece noted.
On his first visit to the site, Cosmopoulos saw a large mound among the olives and so much Mycenaean pottery on the ground that he suspected a settlement was below ground. He was right.
BONES, RITUALS, BUREAUCRATS
Further work a decade later showed that it was the remains of a Cyclopean terrace, a multistory building foundation constructed of massive boulders usually found only at palaces and Mycenaean capitals.
Using magnetometry and electric resistivity, techniques used to look for buried architecture, the researchers scanned the surrounding area to determine the boundaries and found a 32-acre labyrinth of structures.
It was an entire city with houses, streets, and workshops, a gem of a find.
Since then, the ongoing work has continued to provide further evidence of the everyday rituals of life in a time centuries before the most basic results of science and technology began to shape modern life.
Instead of a king’s tomb or a queen’s bedroom or ornate mosaics in a regal residence, Iklaina has shown a district of plazas, paved roads, and administrative buildings, as well as great formal halls, indicating that life then was much like it is today.
There were ceramic pipes carrying fresh water and stone drains for an elaborate system to carry sewage away to protect hygiene and health and indications that it was occupied from 1800-1200 BC.
And, of course, Greek bureaucracy, with a fragment of a clay Linear B tablet describing what seemed to be an economic transaction around 1350 BC, one of the earliest signs of administrative records.
“If we want to reconstruct ancient society and learn how it developed, we cannot just look at palatial sites and monuments,” Cosmopoulos explained. “We need to seek a balanced view of everyday life.”
That’s the beauty of what’s left at Iklaina.
There were signs of craftsmen building wares from clay, recovered animal bones and charred plans, and the remains of olives and grapes, even artifacts such as clay spindle whorls to make fabric and charred human bones likely tied to religious rituals.
Iklaina was believed to have been felled by the kings of Pylos who sacked and annexed the city and the excavations have given a new perspective, the piece added, about how Mycenaean states developed and had regional units.
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 a team of researchers in various specialties.
The work is overseen by Assistant Director Deborah Ruscillo, a lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis and a specialist in anthropological archaeology and faunal remains as well as animal bones and ancient diets.
Students have played an important role as well, the excavations acting as a kind of field school for those wanting to become professional archaeologists, said Cosmopoulos of the rare opportunity for them.
Local residents have also been hired to help in the dig that showed who was there thousands of years before them and a chance to make some money at the same time from the project.
“It’s neat to see the villagers embrace the ancient site as part of their community,” 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.
Cosmopoulos said he’d like 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.
Ruscillo said that, “history belongs to everybody. 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.”