Rulers of Mycenaean Laconia: New Insights from Excavations at the Palatial Settlement of Ayios Vasileios near Sparta
The Homeric epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, offer an account of the events related to the Trojan War. At the same time, they are an invaluable source of information about the topography of Mycenaean Greece, the Mycenaean polities that flourished during the Late Bronze Age, as well as about the peoples' ways of life and customs.
The Archaeological research, which started in Greece in the last decades of the 19th century, has located and revealed most of the Late Bronze Age (Late Helladic or Mycenaean era) Palaces (Mycenae, Pylos, Thebes), thus proving the accuracy of the Homeric narration. However, in Laconia, where the Kingdom of Menelaus and his beautiful wife Helen were allegedly, none of the major Mycenaean sites had produced evidence for having served a central administrative/palatial function. Therefore, until recently, the location of the center of Mycenaean Laconia remains unknown.
This situation changed in 2008, when an important discovery was made at Ayios Vasileios: clay tablets inscribed in the Mycenaean script Linear B. They prove the existence of the Linear B script and suggest the palatial function of the settlement. The tablets display a significant variety of administrative texts, implying a high degree of centralized control. The first Laconian texts refer to weapons (a large number of scabbards for daggers or swords), textiles, substances for perfume manufacture, a specific type of vase (the two handled tripod vase, said to be made of gold in other archives), and perhaps the name of an individual.
In order to excavate the palace, "The Ayios Vasileios Archaeological Project" (AVAP) was established. It is carried out under the auspices of the Athens Archaeological Society, with the participation of a large research team. The project aims to discuss and analyze the excavation, study and produce a publication about the palatial center of Ayios Vasileios. The research concentrates on establishing the stratigraphy and related chronology of the settlement, investigating the spatial organization and function of the architectural remains, exploring associations with other Mycenaean sites in the Eurotas Valley and the Laconia region, reconsidering the overall human occupation during the Late Bronze Age, and investigating contacts with other Mycenaean centers in the Peloponnese and the Aegean.
The site is located on the east bank of the Eurotas river in the Sparta plain, at a distance of about 11.5 km south of the modern city of Sparta. The palatial settlement occupied a chain of hills, today covered by olive groves. The size of the settlement, reconstructed primarily on the basis of surface survey data, is estimated at about 210,000 square meters. Greater concentration of surface evidence was found on the hill topped by the Post-Byzantine chapel of Ayios Vasileios, which has a commanding view over the Sparta plain and within the view of other Mycenaean settlements all around it. The systematic archaeological research that started there since 2010 combined excavation and geophysical survey and shedding new light on the topography, chronology and function of the settlement. The smallest remains are recovered by soil sieving and flotation. Anthrolopological, archaeozoological and archaeobotanical analyses are used. Various analyses of wall-painting samples are in progress (X-ray diffraction, FTIR and MicroRaman spectrographic investigation, Chromatographic- Mass Spectrographic analysis). Many further analyses are planned (radiocarbon analyses of human bone and carbonized wood, dendrochronology for the best preserved remains of wood, soil micromorphological analysis, etc).
A cemetery of elaborate cist graves, the Northern Cemetery, situated on the flat hilltop and a habitation layer found at a small distance in the south ascertained the occupation of the site since the 17thc. B.C. The geophysical survey, which was conducted over an area of about 35,000 square meters, showed dense human occupation and large building complexes. Three of them are currently excavated. Their main construction phases date to the 14th c. BC, i.e. the first Mycenaean Palatial century. Large-scale buildings elaborately decorated suggest that this used to be the location of a powerful central authority.
Large parts of the earlier buildings were then erased, and impressive complexes were erected, which introduced new architectural features found nowhere else in Continental Greece. The new buildings were arranged around a large open space, a Great Court, which was bordered on (at least) two sides by long porticoes (stoas), supported by colonnades alternating pillars and columns.
These features as well as various other significant finds indicate contacts and exchange of ideas with Minoan Crete.
Cultic practices took place in one of the buildings excavated thus far (Building A), where a thick layer with feasting remains were found along with many precious small finds from stone, gold and ivory, figurines, cultic vases from clay, bronze vases, and a hoard of long bronze swords.
Numerous wall-painting fragments have been recovered from different parts of the excavated area. They showed that the pictorial programs of the buildings and the execution of the wall paintings followed the same techniques, style, and iconographical choices as those of the other palatial centers of the Greek Mainland and the Aegean.
By the end of the 14th/ early 13thc. B.C, the site was destructed by a generalised fire, most probably caused by accident.
These discoveries clearly suggest a centralized political administrative and economic organization in Laconia as early as the first palatial century. They prove that the Homeric narration about the existence of a Mycenaean kingdom in this region was rooted in historical facts. They also raise many further questions, regarding the form of the main architectural unit, the function of the site during the second palatial century (13thc. B.C), the extent of the administrative and political scope of the palace at Ayios Vasileios.
Nevertheless, as a 14th century palatial settlement, Ayios Vasileios adds significantly to our knowledge not merely of the history of the Mycenaean Laconia but the Mycenaean Mainland as well.
Adamantia Vasilogamvrou (Archaeological Society of Athens)
Adamantia Vasilogamvrou is Director Emerita of Antiquities (Greek Ministry of Culture). She at the moment directs the "The Ayios Vasileios Archaeological Project" (AVAP), aiming to the investigation of the recently discovered Mycenaean Palatial Center at Ayios Vasilios, Sparta. She obtained her Degree in History and Archaeology at the University of Athens, Greece, another Degree and her D.E.A in Prehistory at the University of Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne, in France. She held a position at the Archaeological Service of the Greek Ministry of Culture during 35 years. She worked in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and in three local Ephorates of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities: on the island of Rhodes, in Patras, Achaea, as deputy director, and in Sparta, Laconia, as director. Dr. Vasilogamvrou has conducted numerous rescue excavations in different parts of the country, covering different kinds of settlements and monuments dating to various periods of the Greek history and prehistory (from Late Neolithic to Late Roman). She was a member of the Greek Mission to the Excavations of Sybaris (Italy) and participated in, and directed various research projects, both in Achaia and Laconia. Her special interests are the Aegean Bronze Age (3rd and 2nd millennia BC), Bronze Age Burial Customs, Linear B script, and Late Helladic Wall-painting.