Lost and Found: The Mycenaean Palace of Laconia

Archaeologists and conservationists are now unearthing and preserving a Mycenaean palace in the region where ancient Sparta once reigned supreme.

Another view of Building A excavation.

Seven miles south of the town of Sparta, in the softly rolling hills of Laconia, Greece, and along the seaward road to Gytheio, a one-room church stands in a grove of olive trees. Known as Ayios Vasileios, it is an unassuming structure, a small building made of local stone and brick named in honor of Saint Basil the Great, one of the Three Holy Hierarchs of the Greek Orthodox Church. Once, it was thought to be nothing more than a simple church near a simple village, Xirokambi, in the outskirts of the municipal center of Sparta. Indeed, no one gave it much attention besides the local parishioners. 

But in 2008, farmers that owned a nearby olive orchard came across something that by all accounts should not have been there. After digging a terrace, and amid the debris of construction, they discovered a clay tablet written in an ancient script: Linear B, the earliest attested form of Greek used by the Mycenaean civilization. What they stumbled upon would soon come to be recognized as the only Mycenaean palace ever discovered in Laconia and the first to be found in decades. Named Ayios Vasileios for the nearby church, this new palace was soon hailed as the most important discovery in Greek archaeology in the new millennium. Indeed, nothing like it had ever been found before.

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Clay tablet (PY Ub 1318) inscribed with Linear B script, from the Mycenaean palace of Pylos. This piece contains information on the distribution of bovine, pig and deer hides to shoe and saddle-makers. Linear B was the earliest Greek writing, dating from 1450 BC, an adaptation of the earlier Minoan Linear A script. The script is made up of 90 syllabic signs, ideograms and numbers. This and other tablets were fortuitously preserved when they were baked in the fire that destroyed the palace around 1200 BC. It is on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.  Image and text, Sharon Mollerus, Wikimedia Commons

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The initial excavations revealed a building with ten rooms populated by countless priceless artifacts. In the first few years of excavation, the archaeological team found multiple religious objects, including clay cattle figurines and an ivory male figurine holding a young calf, as well as more secular ones, such as a large clay rhyton (drinking cup) in the shape of a bull’s head and many small decorative objects and gems, such as Egyptian scarabs. Additionally, they found a cache of 20 bronze swords buried amidst organic debris in one room and, in another, a dense layer of animal bones, pottery fragments, and precious objects. A large pile of mosaic fragments was also discovered in a separate building.

Most important of all, however, was the archive. All Mycenaean palatial centers employed professional scribes to record the palace’s business and religious affairs. Because writing was an uncommon skill often restricted to an elite caste centered in important urban centers, the tablets suggest the palatial function of the settlement at Ayios Vasileios. Further confirming the suspected palace as genuine, some of the first texts uncovered on the baked clay tablets referred to the sale of weapons, textiles, substances for the manufacturing of perfume, a ceremonial vase, and perhaps an individual’s name.

However, like many monumental Greek sites before, Ayios Vasileios instantly fell victim to the archaeological pabulum that envelops new discoveries in the cradle of Western civilization. Some asked, was this the palace of Menelaus, king of Sparta and husband of Helen, as described in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and numerous ancient dramas? Would excavation confirm yet again the truth of Homeric topography, as it did with Mycenae and Troy? Could we, perhaps, finally put a face to the names of these heroes?

Homeric Sparta – From Fiction to Fact and Back Again

Adamantia Vasilogamvrou is Ephor Emerita of Antiquities for the Archaeological Society of Athens, the lead excavator and head of the Ayios Vasileios Archaeological Research Project, and Global Heritage Funds project manager for the Ayios Vasileios site. He pours cold water on the speculative ideas surrounding the site. “The Homeric myths offer invaluable information about the politics and composition of Mycenaean Greece,” she says, “but calling this [Ayios Vasileios] the Palace of Menelaus is very fanciful. There is no proof of that.” Adamantia has worked at the forefront of research on Ayios Vasileios since excavation began here in 2009, spearheading the initial excavations and working diligently to ensure the delicate site remains protected and conserved. “The palace seems to have been built at the beginning of the 14th  century BCE, so it predates Homer. That doesn’t stop the speculation. But it does ground the site in an older and what I consider to be more interesting reality.” 

Although it is unlikely the myths of Homer will ever be confirmed in the shade of these olive groves, it is nonetheless true that the civilization that gave birth to his epics was very much a real thing. The Mycenaeans, named after their largest settlement, Mycenae in the central Peloponnese, were the first advanced civilization to make their mark in Greece. Arising in 1700 BCE and holding sway from the mainland to the islands of the Aegean and as far as southern Italy and the Levant, the Mycenaeans based their power in the lucrative trade routes of the Mediterranean Sea and consolidated it in large palatial estates, where a warrior nobility administered their holdings through the invention of a new Greek script, Linear B, while creating a rich artistic tradition and the rudiments of Greek high culture. 

The Mycenaean civilization came to an end in the 12th century BCE, when its great urban centers met their end for reasons archaeologists still cannot fully explain. Between 1250 and 1100 BCE, the cities of Mycenae, Thebes, Orchomenos, Pylos, and others were attacked and destroyed, with evidence of destruction by fire once and sometimes twice found in the last archaeological layers of settlement. Trade throughout the Mediterranean ceased as the other great Bronze Age powers were attacked or overthrown, a dramatic decrease in population occurred, Linear B disappears, and the Mycenaean artistic tradition gives way to the simpler Geometric style. The end of Mycenaean civilization ushered in what some scholars still call the Greek Dark Ages, a period of cultural and economic decline that only ended with the emergence of the Greek poleis in 900 BCE.

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 The Mycenaean palace-states. Approximate borders based on archaeology and Late Bronze Age scripts.  Image and text, Alexikoua, Wikimedia Commons

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 The lady from Mycenae, from the acropolis at Mycenae. Fresco, 1300 -1200 BCE. © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0.

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Though the Mycenaeans are gone, their achievements remained to inspire later peoples, and their poetry, codified by the mythic poet Homer sometime in the ninth century BCE, served as a root for Classical Greek civilization and by extension the entire Western world.

It was to this tradition that Heinrich Schliemann appealed when he began excavating the sites of ancient Mycenaean civilization. A controversial treasure hunter and classics enthusiast active in the earliest days of archaeology, Schliemann believed that the hexameters of Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, referred to actual physical sites that could be conclusively tied to a Mediterranean-wide Mycenaean civilization. His quest to find these places culminated in the discovery of the site of ancient Troy at the site of modern Hissarlik in Turkey and his excavation of the city of Mycenae, where he destroyed irreplaceable archaeological evidence and unearthed multiple treasures, claiming all of it as the patrimony of his favorite epic heroes. 

Some of the spirit that animated Schliemann in the late 19th century is still found in modern excavations in Greece: whenever a new site is discovered, there is a drive to tie it back to the epics of mythic antiquity. But despite the controversy swirling around him, his central premise is nonetheless true. In Homer’s epics there is to be found a kernel of truth, and from his hexameters have emerged some of early antiquity’s greatest discoveries. Indeed, all the great palatial centers mentioned in Homer’s Iliad have been discovered on the Greek mainland. In 1700 CE, Venetian explorers under the orders of the Provveditore Generale of the Kingdom of Morea first rediscovered Mycenae, the titular settlement of the civilization, on a hill in the central Peloponnese, and in its faded opulence and grandeur, it is unmatched among the great cities strung like pearls throughout the islands and mainland of Greece. Homer sung how the Boeotian city of Orchomenos sent 30 ships and their crews to aid the war against the Trojans, and the ruins of that city may still be seen on the plains of Kopaida along the shores of a drained ancient lake. “Seven-gated Thebes” was the most important settlement in Boeotia, and the ruins excavated there have attested its importance as a center of Mycenaean civilization. And Pylos, associated with the Homeric hero Nestor, is the best-preserved of all the Mycenaean palaces that have been excavated.

All these were found and catalogued. All, except Sparta. 

Out of all the mythical settlements confirmed through discovery, Sparta’s omission from the pantheon of palatial centers was especially curious. At the very center of the poem’s epic drama, it was in Sparta that Menelaus, its king, lost his wife Helen to the Trojan prince Paris, starting a war that in the words of Marlowe’s Faustus, “launch’d a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium.” The towns Menelaus was said to have held in the mold of the Mycenaean warrior nobility, “Pharis and Sparta and Messe, the haunt of doves, and Bryseiae and lovely Augeiae, and Amyclae and Helus, a citadel hard by the sea, and Laas, and Oetylus” have all been attested in the region of Laconia, and all within a constrained geographical space within the Eurotas Valley.  And yet, no great palatial center could be found to unite this series of towns into one polity. In its absence, some have even thought that Sparta – contrary to the stories of the Iliad – was simply not the sort of power that Mycenae, Thebes, Tiryns, or others were in the Bronze Age. But if it was, the discovery of its remains would be what University of Cambridge classicist Torsten Meissner has called “the last big prize.”

Excavations at Ayios Vasileios

That lacuna in the history of archaic Greece came to an end when, in the summer of 2008, those unwitting olive farmers discovered the first evidence of a significant Mycenaean settlement at Ayios Vasileios. The revelation was nothing short of remarkable, and the Greek government moved quickly to protect the site. Just a year later, the Ayios Vasileios Archaeological Project (AVAP) was founded with Adamantia at the helm to begin excavations.

As head of the archaeological project, Adamantia developed an excavation team and quickly got to work. During the yearly excavation season in the summer, the team begins by removing the soil inch by inch and then sifting it to ensure no archaeological artifacts are discarded in this time-consuming, laborious process. When an artifact is discovered, a team member makes use of much finer tools, such as dental brushes, to gently remove soil particulate from around the artifact until it is fully exposed and able to be removed. As the site is in an active olive orchard, whose trees cannot be removed even when they impinge on the archaeological site, special care must often be taken to work in and around the roots of the trees if they penetrate a wall or wrap around an artifact. 

Any artifact thus discovered is meticulously labeled, cataloged, and set aside for further study. Researchers and visiting students conduct anthropological, archaeozoological, and archaeobotanical analyses of the archaeological remains in addition to more sophisticated techniques, such as X-ray diffraction, Fourier Transfrom Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), MicroRaman spectrographic investigation, and chromatographic mass spectrographic analysis. Further analyses are planned as more of the site is revealed during the yearly excavation season.

The excavation has developed around Ayios Vasileios in three main areas: Building A to the east, Buildings D and E to the south and the North Cemetery. 

Building A

Building A is the most extensively excavated part of the site, covering an area of roughly 300 square meters. Although the locus of much digging and speculation, Building A remains a mystery and its functions are still unknown. However, the size and architectural complexity of the building are suggestive, providing strong evidence that this was the location of a powerful central authority. 

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 Broad view of Excavation Zone A. Matthew Strebe/Global Heritage Fund

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 A view of Building A excavation. Matthew Strebe/Global Heritage Fund

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Stone walls in the Building A excavation zone. Matthew Strebe/Global Heritage Fund

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 Adamantia Vasilogamvrou, head of excavation and conservation at Ayios Vasileios. Matthew Strebe/Global Heritage Fund

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Buildings D and E

North of the church of Ayios Vasileios two other buildings have been discovered: Building D and E. Here, the excavation team has discovered a large open space with two long stoae, or porticoes, running alongside and extending northward. These are supported by colonnades of alternating wooden columns, which have mostly been destroyed in the intervening centuries, and pillars with stone bases. There are also large retaining walls nearby, which belong to Building E.

Although it is too early to tell from the current state of excavations, the excavation team hopes to discover evidence that these buildings formed the megaron, or audience chamber, the indicative architectural motif of the Mycenaean palace. Per the Ancient History Encyclopedia, a megaron was 

“…the precursor for the later Archaic and Classical temples of the Greek world and consisted of an entrance porch, a vestibule and the hall itself. This was the heart of the palace and contained a large circular hearth (usually more than 3m in diameter) with four wooden columns supporting a holed ceiling or light-well. It was also the throne room of the ruler, or wannax. There is usually a second, smaller hall (Queen’s Megaron), many private apartments and areas set aside for administration, storage and manufacturing. Rooms were richly decorated with fresco paintings on the walls and plaster painted floors. Regarding materials, rooms in the palace were constructed with rubble fill and cross-beamed walls covered in plaster inside and limestone blocks outside. Columns and ceilings were usually of painted wood, sometimes with bronze additions.”

Beyond the extensive evidence already discovered for a positive identification of Ayios Vasileios as the lost palace of Laconia, the discovery of the megaron will be the final confirmation.

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Excavation Zones D/E.  Matthew Strebe/Global Heritage Fund

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Archive

Like all centers of power in the Bronze Age, the palace at Ayios Vasileios had an archive that held ledgers recording its business transactions. These were written in Linear B on unbaked clay tablets, which would be discarded up to a year later when their useful life had ended. However, unlike any other palace, the records of the palace at Ayios Vasileios have survived to the present day due to an accident of fate. When a fire destroyed the palace, it also baked all the tablets into unintentional permanence, preserving them until their discovery in the present day. Whereas palace life could only be inferred at the other great centers of Bronze Age palatial civilization, these tablets have yielded invaluable information on the economy, life, and social, religious, and political structure of the palace and its holdings.

More than 120 fragments of Linear B tablets have been unearthed in situ at Ayios Vasileios, providing important context to date and catalog these artifacts. Ranging from ledgers of items bought and sold to the names of palace scribes or rulers, the tablets show a sophistication of administration consistent with a large and highly organized palace society. Based on the state of the excavations, the tablets were stored on the first floor of the West Stoa that collapsed when the building burned down. 

Beyond its recordkeeping value, Linear B is significant to the archaeologists because of its rarity: it is mainly found in important palatial centers because that is where professional scribes and their attendants lived and worked. Like many archaic forms of writing, Linear B was not designed to be used by common folk as a system of and for the people. Instead, professional scribes sold their services to the warrior nobility, and in return, they were able to coalesce into a highly skilled upper class integral to the administration of the Mycenean palatial centers. 

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 Excavation of a Linear B tablet in the Building D and E excavation zone. Matthew Strebe/Global Heritage Fund

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North Cemetery

The North Cemetery was one of the first plots to be excavated in Ayios Vasileios, and it was also the first where excavation came to an end. Conducted under the supervision of Dr. Sofia Voutsaki, Associate Professor at Groningen University, the excavations discovered a series of cist graves, or stone ossuaries, in addition to several bodies found buried without extensive preparation. Once all this had been catalogued, the excavations at the cemetery were backfilled with soil to both prevent looting and to preserve the delicate Mycenaean settlement layers.

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 Excavation of cultic object at Building A, perhaps an ossuary. Matthew Strebe/Global Heritage Fund

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Through the last eight years of excavation, Adamantia and her colleagues have pieced together a rough history of the settlement. Initially, the site was sparsely populated and no major, permanent settlement was established. In the 17th or 16th century BCE, however, the site was heavily developed into a 210,000-square-meter settlement, with the palace constructed in its center on a chain of commanding hills. Sometime at the end of the 14th century BCE, the palace was destroyed in a fire so ferocious it split the stone foundations of the building and, lying fallow for centuries afterwards, the site did not play host to any major settlement until the Late Byzantine period. The contemporary church of Ayios Vasileios was constructed in this time, perhaps in part from stone that originally belonged to the palace.

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Conservation at Ayios Vasileios

Ironically, the fire that preserved the palace at Ayios Vasileios also presents one of the site’s biggest conservation challenges. Substantial adobe structures, clay walls, and floor plasters were only preserved due to the random firing that took place with the destruction of the buildings. However, many of these clay plasters, mortars, mudbricks, and pottery were fired beyond their vitrification point, which fused them together in complicated collapse structures that are difficult to disentangle. Attesting to the ferocity of the blaze that destroyed the site, these collapse layers have nonetheless preserved important information on the architectural design and use of the buildings.

Before and after the removal of each layer, the archaeologists on site produce detailed documentation of the multiple collapse layers, and during excavation, they apply a series of ‘first aid’ treatments and supports to the collapsed architectural elements. This includes the removal of plant and tree roots that have penetrated into walls, crack and edge filling on wall and floor plasters, the injection of earth-hydraulic lime grout into existing cracks, the stabilization of fragile walls and the recovery of small-scale collapses.

A major problem requiring remedial first aid treatment is the Byzantine-era pits on the site. These pits were dug through the Mycenaean-era settlement layers, and in conjunction with the many tree roots on the site, caused the surrounding structures to lose their stability as well as their coherence. In most of the pits discovered so far, the edges were collapsing and causing damage to the adjoining structures. To ensure the integrity of the surrounding structures, the conservation team backfilled these pits with local soil and aggregate.

To ensure the most delicate archaeological layers are preserved, temporary protective covers are erected to shield the site from rainfall and create a buffering microclimate until next year’s excavation season, when everything is removed. After work has ceased at the site, the conservation team and the skillful local technicians create a flat cover over the excavation area using timber planks and posts, which forms a stable load-bearing base. Layering geotextile and polyethylene membranes one atop the other over this base, the conservation team then buries the entire excavation zone with local soil until it is flush with the ground level. 

Studies of these measures have shown their effectiveness in stabilizing the site’s most fragile features. However, while many of the first aid and remedial conservation treatments are de rigueur for a site preserved in such a unique way, others – such as the yearly erection of temporary protective structure – are cumbersome and could be avoided.

Indeed, these processes, while effective, have many challenges. 

  • First, the documentation, excavation, and preservation of these rather complicated and vulnerable collapse layers are a real challenge, involving hard, time-consuming procedures on a site where the excavation and conservation seasons are abbreviated to two months out of the year. 
  • Second, setting up the temporary covers requires significant investments of time and money, eating up a large portion of the yearly budget and preventing time from being spent on more targeted or relevant conservation goals. 
  • Third, the yearly erection of temporary shelters has caused many building materials to accumulate at the site, creating issues around storage and turning the site into a target for theft. 
  • Fourth, the continued cultivation and maintenance of the surrounding olive orchards has continued the process of root intrusion into the delicate, as-of-yet unexcavated collapse layers. 
  • Finally, the parlous financial situation the Greek government has found itself in after the Great Recession has meant a reduced budget for regional archaeology, imperiling the conservation and management of Ayios Vasileios and other sites.

To address these issues and ensure the site is maintained in its historical integrity in the long term, the Ayios Vasileios Archaeological Research Project envisages the development and demonstration of a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach towards the conservation, protection, and management of the architectural remains. As such, the Ayios Vasileios Archaeological Research Project is working on developing a site management and conservation policy. Adopting a multidisciplinary approach towards the excavation, study, and preservation of the site, these master plans are based on a sound assessment of the aforementioned risks and maintenance of the principles of in situ preservation of the archaeological remains, minimal intervention and maximal prevention at the excavation and conservation stages, and the sustainability of any interventions.

At the forefront of the conservation plan is the construction of a permanent shelter over the archaeological dig site. The first step of this process was completed in July, 2016, when structural engineer, Theodoros Marinis, who specializes in the restoration and protection of archaeological sites, created a technical study and design of the shelter and submitted it for evaluation and approval by the central directorates of the Ministry of Culture and the Central Archaeological Council. When constructed, the shelter is expected to facilitate further field research, survey, conservation, and assorted works in the main excavation area of Ayios Vasileios as well as be applicable to future expansion above adjacent trenches of the main excavation site.   

Particular consideration was paid to the sensitive nature of the dig site, as much of the former palace remains unexcavated and the imposition of a support structure could potentially destroy or render inaccessible unexplored areas. To create a space that both protects the archaeological remains while allowing ongoing excavation work to continue, the shelter has been designed to be much larger, at 818 m2, than the currently excavated area of approximately 300 m2. A perimeter of five meters around the outside of this site has also been excluded from excavation for at least the next 10 years to serve as the foundation for the structure.   

The design is intended to preserve not just the archaeological integrity of the site but its aesthetic beauty as well. Some designs, such as the tent placed over the Temple of Apollo Epikourios in Arcadia, are imposing in keeping with the nature of the site and its surroundings. Ayios Vasileios, on the other hand, has no above-ground structures and is situated not in a dramatic mountain range, as is the Temple of Apollo, but on a low hill in the Eurotas river valley. The nature of the adobe and plaster remains and the cycle of cold, rainy winters and scorching hot summers further necessitated a space that would be waterproof and provide sufficient natural light and ventilation. A more nuanced and understated structure was thus required.

The final choice was a frame structure with sidewalls. The steel structure consists of frames with a span of 31.40 meterson the columns axis. The roof height descends from north to south in three levels following the slope of the ground, each part lowering one meter in height. Each roof part is supported by three frames in six-meterspacing. For this span, a sloped truss beam forms the frame with two edge columns, while orthogonal trusses connect the frames on the sides. The demand for the most limited foundation possible, both in size and loading, was the dominant consideration for this shelter design. Therefore, foundation is calculated with very low allowable stress on the soil of σ=100KN/m2. 

This satisfies the multiple and seemingly contradictory demands for a protective shelter over the site. Despite the small footprint, the structure will have both the strength to withstand local climatic conditions and produce minimal stress on the soil. Furthermore, it will maintain the aesthetic continuity of the site through balancing the large-scale shelter with a simplicity of form that is in keeping with the understated nature of the site. Although the design has not been given the green light by the Ministry of Antiquity and the AVAP team, models of the frame building have been mocked up by Mr. Marinis in his capacity as chief engineer for the project (figs. 1-3). The aesthetics of the design and the compatibility of this “ordinary” form with the archaeological landscape is mostly a matter of balanced volumes and material choices.

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 Artist rendering of the protective shelter for the site. Courtesy Matthew Strebe/Global Heritage Fund

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Managing the Future of the Site

Ayios Vasileios requires extensive conservation work to preserve the many remnants of Mycenaean civilization that have been and are yet to be discovered. In concert with the AVAP and our local and national partners, Global Heritage Fund is providing comprehensive planning for the long-term conservation and management of this site. On the ground, GHF is assisting with the conservation work on site, including the construction of a shelter for both conservation and research purposes. GHF is also intensively researching community development opportunities for the modern city of Sparta and the nearby village of Xirokambi to foster a sense of stewardship for the site. GHF’s involvement will take place in two phases:

  • Phase I will comprise necessary research and planning for the development of a framework to guide the effective long-term sustainable preservation of Ayios Vasileios, including: an assessment of what Ayios Vasileios is and stands for, an analysis of its current state and the development of a management plan and risk management program.
  • Phase II will be contingent on the above-mentioned activities and the implementation of management, conservation, and community development plans identified in Phase I. Phase II will also involve significant infrastructure investments, including visitor facilities and site interpretation, to offer education on the history, archaeology, and conservation of the site. These measures are designed to ensure Ayios Vasileios becomes self-sustaining, creating the revenue that it spends for its improvement and conservation.

With the forthcoming construction of the shelter and work progressing on comprehensive conservation and management plans, Global Heritage Fund and our partners are confident that the lost palace of Laconia will remain a rich – and well-preserved – source of study for years to come.

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Credits

Matthew Strebe is Global Heritage Fund’s in-house writer and website manager. Conceptualizing, executing, and implementing the content strategy for GHF, Matthew brings his creative vision and eye for detail to open new horizons for GHF’s future development. Prior to GHF, Matthew wrote for several cultural and political publications, and also worked as a freelance copywriter for several startups. He received his BA from the University of California Santa Cruz in Philosophy and Classics.

Special thanks to Adamantia Vasilogamvrou, Stefania Chlouveraki, and Nektarios Karadimas of the Ayios Vasileios Archaeological Project (AVAP), who provided reports on the current state of excavation and conservation at Ayios Vasileios and reviewed this article for accuracy.

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For more information about the Global Heritage Fund and how you can support its work, go to the GHF website.

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