A Step Back in Time: Santorini’s History
These days, shipborne visitors landing on Santorini quickly come face to face with its impressive geological and cultural past, as they disembark at the foot of its sheer volcanic cliffs. Three main archaeological attractions – the houses and streets of “Pompeii-like” Akrotiri, the ruins of the hilltop town of Thera and the island’s once-fortified towns and watchtowers – bear witness to three major phases in Santorini’s lengthy history: the prehistoric period, Geometric through Early Christian or Byzantine times and the medieval to early modern era.
Recurrent features in all these times were war and peace, as Santorini (or Thera) evolved from being a quiet island settlement, to a key maritime crossroads, a frequent target for pirates and, most significantly for its native population, a political plaything of great Western and Eastern powers
Rise and Fall of AkrotiriOne of the platforms that provide excellent views over the archaeological site
© Vangelis Zavos/Ministry of culture and sports/General directorate of antiquities and cultural heritage/Ephorate of antiquities of Cyclades
One of the platforms that provide excellent views over the archaeological site
© Vangelis Zavos/Ministry of culture and sports/General directorate of antiquities and cultural heritage/Ephorate of antiquities of Cyclades
The earliest inhabitants of Santorini arrived during the Neolithic era, by at least the 4th millennium BC. Minimal, scattered traces of their architecture and pottery reveal they were very few in number, probably attracted by the natural abundance of the volcanically-formed island – freshwater springs, rich, arable soils and an encircling sea well-stocked with fish and other marine creatures.
Obsidian was also a much-desired volcanic product in Neolithic times, used for tool manufacturing, and early sea travelers may have looked to Santorini as a potential source of this valuable raw material, supplementary to the region’s main supply on nearby Milos.
As prehistoric seafaring expanded in the Aegean, more and more people migrated to Santorini, settling especially on a peninsula (“akrotiri”) at the southwestern end of the island, beside a large, south-facing bay that offered a naturally protected harbor.
After limited Neolithic occupation, the site known today as Akrotiri was reinhabited during the Early Bronze Age, from ca. 2,500 BC, and then went on to become an increasingly populated, prosperous and architecturally elaborate urban center and maritime hub through the Middle and early Late Bronze Ages (ca. 2,000-ca. 1,627 BC).
© Vangelis Zavos/Ministry of culture and sports/General directorate of antiquities and cultural heritage/Ephorate of antiquities of Cyclades
Leaping dolphins, in a wall painting from ancient Akrotiri, 17th c. BC.
In the last quarter of the 17th c. BC, however, one or more earthquakes and minor volcanic eruptions were followed by a massive, far more devastating explosion that altered the island’s landscape and buried the town of Akrotiri beneath meters of volcanic ash. Thus was created one of the Mediterranean’s great archaeological sites, covering an enormous area of about 200,000m2 (20ha), which serves as a long-sealed time capsule of Late Bronze Age Aegean life.
Rediscovered in 1967 by archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos, Akrotiri has been steadily unearthed to the point where now about one hectare of ruins can be viewed beneath a vast protective roof. Removal of the thick ash layer revealed a remarkable prehistoric town: a sophisticated Cycladic culture heavily influenced by the Minoans of Crete, who likely were frequent visitors for trade with Akrotiri or even long-term or permanent residents.
Cultural affinities with Knossos and other Minoan centers include a light-spirited appreciation of nature and life, reflected in the more than fifty-eight colorful frescoes so far recovered and conserved. Among the extraordinary images are semi-tropical and spring landscapes, papyrus plants, dolphins, monkeys, antelopes, nearly-naked boxing boys, a young priestess, elegant ladies harvesting saffron, a fisherman holding up his bountiful catch and a fleet of ships arriving at port. Scenes from a naval battle may be allusions to an historical event and may show that life on Santorini was not always serene.A portable ceramic oven/stovetop from Akrotiri, 17th c. BC (Archaeological Museum of Thera)
A portable ceramic oven/stovetop from Akrotiri, 17th c. BC (Archaeological Museum of Thera)
Minoan architectural influence is seen in Akrotiri’s multi-storied buildings, some with suites of rooms with multiple doors, light wells and lustral basins. Water and waste were managed through a complex system of pipes and drains. Akrotiri’s excavations, led by Professor Christos Doumas since 1975, have also yielded tens of thousands of ceramic vessels and other artifacts of stone, metal and ivory. Even traces of wooden furniture, bed frames and basketry have been preserved within the site’s volcanic overburden.
Some thirty-five buildings stand beneath the modern roof, separated by a network of streets occasionally punctuated by small open squares. There are lavish public buildings such as “Xesti 3,” where a small golden ibex offering was found in 1999, and the imposing “Xesti 4” with its monumental façade of squared blocks and a painted procession of life-sized male figures that flanks its stepped entranceway.
Private residences include the “West House,” which features storerooms, workshops, a kitchen, a mill installation, a weaving room, a storeroom stocked with ceramic vessels, a bathroom and two possible bedrooms splendidly decorated with murals.Firedogs or ''souvlaki trays'' with bulls-head finials, from Akrotiri, 17th c. BC (Archaeological Museum of Thera)
Firedogs or ''souvlaki trays'' with bulls-head finials, from Akrotiri, 17th c. BC (Archaeological Museum of Thera)
The exotic subjects of some wall paintings and the many imported objects recovered at Akrotiri indicate the town enjoyed links with the outside world, including mainland Greece, Crete, other southern Aegean islands, Cyprus, Syria and Egypt. Its diverse population included traders, craftsmen, fishermen, farmers, shepherds, priests, priestesses and probably civic officials, at least some of whom were literate, judging from inscribed Linear A tablets discovered in “Building Complex D.”
To date, no royal palace or other evidence for a singular leader has been detected. Also lacking are any skeletal traces of the inhabitants themselves. This could mean they rightly took earlier seismic and volcanic events as signs of impending disaster, and thus were able to evacuate their doomed island before its final, cataclysmic eruption.
According to Doumas, further investigation outside the town – especially westward, where residents may have fled upwind to avoid smoke, ash and noxious gases – may still reveal burials or other archaeological clues regarding the ultimate fate of the exceptional and mysteriously absent Akrotirian people.
Ancient Thera: The mountain citadel
© Getty Images/Ideal image, ministry of culture and sports/General directorate of antiquities and cultural heritage/Ephorate of antiquities of Cyclades
© Getty Images/Ideal image, ministry of culture and sports/General directorate of antiquities and cultural heritage/Ephorate of antiquities of Cyclades
After the great Theran eruption, there is scant archaeological evidence for inhabitants on the island for many centuries. The historian Herodotus, however, reports that during this period, “…Theras…was preparing to lead out colonists from Lacedaemon [Sparta]. This Theras was of the line of Cadmus… and…held the royal power of Sparta… On the island now called Thera, but then Calliste, there were descendants of Membliarus…a Phoenician…[who had] dwelt [there]…for eight generations…It was these that Theras was preparing to join…to settle among…and not drive them out but claim them as in fact his own people.”
The presence of such mainland Greek (Dorian) colonists is well attested in the 9th and 8th c. BC by Geometric graves and pottery, which indicate the island’s new center of settlement was now on its east coast – on the slopes and summit of the mountain Mesa Vouno, overlooking the bays of Kamari and Perissa. It was here that the Geometric-through-Early Byzantine town of “Ancient Thera” was established.
Thera, named after its mythical founder, grew to be a far-reaching trade station, as shown by hundreds of excavated coins (6th c. BC) linking the town with Athens and Corinth to the west, and Rhodes and Ionia (western Anatolia) to the East. It also sent out its own colonists when, as Herodotus further reports, a seven-year drought (ca. 630 BC) led Therans to sail to Libya and establish the great port city of Cyrenaica.Geometric-period vases are the earliest surviving works of art from Ancient Thera. (Archaeological Museum of Thera)
Geometric-period vases are the earliest surviving works of art from Ancient Thera. (Archaeological Museum of Thera)
Thera’s zenith came in Hellenistic times, during the 4th–2nd c. BC, when Alexander the Great’s rivalrous successors and later the Egyptian Ptolemaic navy exploited its port facilities as a strategic naval base. The fortified mountain-top town was reorganized with a more regular plan of paved, often stepped streets affluent courtyard houses appeared and religious/public life was enhanced with numerous temples, sanctuaries, gymnasia, Doric stoas (colonnaded walkways), a theater and/or council house (capacity 1,500) and, in Roman times, a bath complex.
German and Greek archaeologists, excavating since 1895, have unearthed a central marketplace and administrative center (agora) a major sanctuary honoring the Spartan deity Apollo Karneios a large manmade terrace for hosting the annual Karneia festival another sanctuary adorned with statues and relief-carvings, founded by the Ptolemaic admiral Artemidoros of Perge and dedicated mainly to Poseidon, Zeus and Apollo a shrine for the Egyptian gods Serapis, Isis and Anubis a natural grotto dedicated to Hermes and Hercules and many dwellings, including an impressive residence thought to belong to the commander of the Ptolemaic fleet.
In early Christian times, Thera became the seat of a bishopric – the first bishop was Dioskouros (AD 324-344) – and several basilicas or smaller churches were soon established, sometimes on the spot of a previous pagan temple or shrine whose stones were reused for the new building. By the 8th or 9th c. AD, Thera had declined and was finally abandoned, perhaps partly as a result of renewed threats from the island’s volcano, such as the heavy barrage of pumice stone recorded as having fallen on the town in AD 726.Serving dish a representative example of Theran pottery in the Geometric and Archaic periods. (Archaeological Museum of Thera)
Serving dish a representative example of Theran pottery in the Geometric and Archaic periods. (Archaeological Museum of Thera)
Clay figurine dating to the 7th c. BC, with amazingly well-preserved colors. From the position of the arms above the head, it is believed to depict a woman mourning
Outside interference and Ultimate Freedom
In addition to the dangers they faced from volcanic activity, Santorinians were also plagued by seaborne bandits and covetous foreign powers. The story of Santorini in the medieval and early modern era represents a microcosm of the larger history of the Aegean islands during this period.
Many coastal communities, seeking greater security, moved inland after the mid- 7th c. Marauding Saracen (Arab/Muslim) pirates took control of Crete in the early 9th c. and began exacting tribute or “taxes” from the Cycladic islands. Through the following centuries, Santorini held little political or military significance and suffered greatly from poverty.
With the European Crusaders’ victory over Constantinople in 1204, the Venetians moved into the Aegean Mark Sanudo took Naxos in 1205 and his relative Jaccopo Barozzi was initially granted “Santorini,” a name that recalls the conspicuous church of Santa Irini (Aghia Irini) in coastal Perissa.
As wealthy, adventuring lords divided up spoils from the Fourth Crusade, a feudal system was imposed in the Cyclades much like that in Europe sea routes through the region were made safer and maritime trade flourished. In Santorini, wine and cotton became profitable products. An aristocratic culture also developed. John IV Crispo, a governor of the Duchy of Naxos (1518-1564), is said to have fostered a lavish court life and tried to emulate locally the Western Renaissance.
Despite such lofty aspirations, the Aegean remained fraught with risk. The Santorinians of the 13th through 17th c. increasingly found themselves on the fringes of a watery battlefield, caught between disputatious Byzantines, Venetians, Genoese, Catholics, Orthodox, Spaniards (Catalans) and Turks. Commonly heard on Cycladic streets and wharves were Greek, Italian and Turkish, while even the multi-lingual wording of contemporary legal documents reflected this rich mixture of cultures.
Pirates of diverse origin also continued to pose a threat, as they repeatedly raided Santorini and neighboring Aegean islands. Among them were the Barbary Pirates (from North Africa) and the infamous Barbarossa, Grand Admiral of the Ottoman Navy, in the 16th c. Albanian, Maltese and other Christian pirates – such as Hugues Creveliers, “the Hercules of the seas” – defied the Turks’ increasing hegemony in the 17 th c., often aided by priests and monks who gave them provisions.
Francois Richard, a Jesuit, recorded at this time that Santorini had poor resources and suffered from severe drought when rainwater did not fill the islanders’ rock-cut cisterns. Moreover, he noted that, to counteract the danger of pirates, “most of the villagers’ houses or farmhouses, even churches and chapels, are underground. Thus, many families have over their roofs the fields, vineyards and gardens they cultivate.” Santorini’s wines, according to Richard, were exported to Chios, Smyrni, Chandakas (Heraklion) and Constantinople.Panoramic view towards the island of Thirasia from the castle ruins at Aghios Nikolaos, Oia.
Panoramic view towards the island of Thirasia from the castle ruins at Aghios Nikolaos, Oia.
The larger towns or important manors on Santorini were fortified by the island’s Venetian lords with stout, castle-like walls. These “kastelia,” equipped with gateways and “goulades” (watchtowers), existed at Skaros (or present-day Imerovigli), Oia (Castle of Aghios Nikolaos or Apanomerias), Pyrgos, Emporio and Akrotiri (Punta Castelli). Although heavily damaged by the earthquake of 1956, remains of these defensive structures are still visible today. They stood on strategic spots, difficult to attack from the sea, and served as nuclei for expanded settlement during later, more peaceful times. The best-preserved outlying watchtower is that of the Venetian Bozzi family in the island’s present-day capital of Fira.
Santorini’s fortunes greatly improved following the Greek War of Independence in 1821. Despite characteristically arid soils and few fresh water resources, agriculture and industry developed and commercial shipping flourished through the 19th and early 20th c. Before steam ships eclipsed sailing vessels in the late 1800s, Santorini possessed one of the largest merchant fleets in the Aegean, while Oia came to be known as “the village of the captains.”
The devastating 1956 earthquake severely altered the island’s upward course many homes were destroyed, lives were losts and livelihoods were wiped out. The people of Santorini once again returned to poverty and hardship. However, since the economic resurgence of the 1970s, Santorini has, with the help of its unique history, stunning geology and burgeoning wine and tourism industries, now reached new heights of world-wide popularity as a vacation destination.
Many of the pots found during archaeological excavations are perfectly preserved, and found as they were left by the people who used them. This has enabled archaeologists to learn a great deal about the ceramic traditions on the island, and how the spaces in which they were found were used. The range of ceramic vessels recovered is typical of a village setting: there are practical and ceremonial vessels including storage jars, cooking wares, rhyta, lamps and incense burners. Both the type and decoration of vessels show influence from Minoan Crete, but with a distinctly local interpretation.
The iconography of the polychrome decorated vessels shares many similarities with the frescoes. Polychrome representations of lions, wild goats, dolphins and swallows are common. As are plant motifs, in particular reeds and crocuses.
Imported vessels, from Crete and Mycenean Greece, provide evidence for trade and commercial activities further afield.
Right, a large jar with polychrome decoration, depicting dolphins swimming between wavy lines, perhaps to give the impression of a marinescape. Left, a storage jar with relief decoration.
The Saffron Gatherer — one of many girls climbing hills to gather saffron, in Xeste 3, ca. 1750 B.C.E., a large public building in Akrotiri, on Thera (or Santorini). Restoration by painter Thomas Baker.
Part One in a series of articles on aspects of saffron. Photos under the title and below, of wall paintings from the excavated areas of Thera (also called Santorini), are taken from a magnificent site that has expired off the Internet, www.therafoundation.org.
How Far Back Does Saffron Use Go?
50,000 years ago in Western Asia, wild-gathered saffron was rubbed onto sacred stones on hilltop shrines. The sun picked them out, and they shone. Millennia later, saffron gave color, radiant in torchlight, to cave paintings in Iraq. Only relatively recently has the saffron crocus been cultivated, the spice valued as a flavoring for food. Before that, it was a ritual substance, a powerful medicine to relieve melancholy and other ills, and a dye for the clothing of high-born women. The association of saffron with female sexuality is long and intimate, referenced in the Song of Songs, in Homer and in Ovid.
The First Pictorial Record of Saffron and Saffron Culture
Where did the wild saffron crocus first appear? There are competing theories, but it’s down to Central Asia and Greece. Where was it first cultivated? In Greece. Saffron is the dark red thread linking many ancient peoples, and the first pictorial record of it was made in the Cyclades, on the island of Thera – more usually called Santorini – in the Late Bronze Age.
Until 1967, when the excavations of Prof. Spyridon Marinatos began bringing it to light, the clock had been stopped on the settlement of Akrotiri, on the Aegean island of Thera, for about 3,600 years. Volcanic ash from the Thera Eruption, the largest geological event of ancient times, had both destroyed and preserved the town, setting it apart from history for a very long time.
A riverscape, from Akroitiri on the Island of Thera — 1800-1700 BCE
A townscape on the harbor, Akrotiri. 1800-1700 BCE
In the centuries leading up to the eruption, dated around 1650 BCE, Thera was a dolphin-girt paradise, the southernmost island in the Cycladic arc, 70 miles north of Crete. Though Cycladic culture is not quite Minoan, material culture on Thera was rich in Minoan influence, and, through trade, in the influence of Dynastic Egypt. When the language of the Minoans, the tormenting Linear A, is at last understood, more will be revealed. For now, research must be conducted without history’s most ardent kiss — language that we can read.
A German map of the Cyclades and Crete, with Thera (here called Santorini) dead center. Wikimedia Commons
The Phaistos Disc, key to the language used by Minoans and Therans
Thanks to the same geothermal activity that would one day disastrously increase, hot water ran in pipes through the multi-storied houses of Akrotiri, Thera’s big town. Ventilation was understood, with light wells sunk in blocks of dwellings. Then as now in the Mediterranean, staples were stored in gigantic ceramic jars – olive oil, grain, dried figs. There was intricate and characteristic jewelry and there was perfume — of coriander, almonds, bergamot and pine. Weaving was so fine that garments could be woven sheer and then embroidered. In the harbor, resinated linen covered the hulls of ships long enough for 30 oarsmen. There were blue-toned vervet monkeys from Egypt, tall stone vases for lilies, and sufficient paint for many radiantly colored and figured walls — had there not been paint, we would know very little of the rest.
And there was saffron. The wild-growing crocus species that produces saffron, C. cartwrightianus, has for purposes of cultivation mostly given over to a selection, C. sativus. Numerous crocus species, some with deep mythological associations, bloom in the late winter, the spring and the fall. C. cartwrightianus and C. sativus, with their petals of violet-blue, bloom in the late fall, a time of tremendous fecundity in both plant and animal life in the Mediterranean. It takes about 70,000 deep orange-red stigma to make a pound of dried saffron.
In the building known as Xeste 3, larger and more decorated than any yet excavated at Akrotiri, a two-storied chamber of frescoes – true frescoes, painted on wet plaster for a time-defying bond – depicts women and girls gathering saffron crocus blooms, bringing them in baskets to a saffron-cushioned goddess seated on a three-tiered platform. It is by far the most splendid and evocative cycle of paintings from the ancient world to be discovered in our time, and a match for almost any painting from pre-classical antiquity. Xeste 3 was probably a public building – on an ashlar wall there is an altar surmounted by a painted pair of horns tipped and dripping in red and, below, a lustral basin, both too large for domestic use.
If public or semi-public rituals were performed here, then to what end? And in whose propitiation? And how was saffron involved? The cycle of frescoes in Xeste 3 poses many questions, and answers not a few of them most provocatively.
The Goddess on the Saffron Cushion… To be continued.
SOURCES CONSULTED in the WRITING of THIS ARTICLE
The White Goddess, by Robert Graves
The Masks of God, Vol. 3: Occidental Mythology, by Joseph Campbell
Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religion, by Walter Burkert
Art and Religion in Thera: Reconstructing a Bronze Age Society, by Nanno Marinatos
Thera: Pompeii of the Ancient Aegean, by Christos G. Doumas
Excellent articles for determining this aspect of saffron — never make a botany-based mistake about saffron again!
Wall Paintings of Thera
The best and most complete site left on the Internet — unfortunately the photos are tiny.
Elatia Harris is a writer and consulting editor in Cambridge, Mass. She is most often at work on books and articles about food, wine and travel. Contact her at elatiaharrisATgmailDOTcom or via text at 617-599-7159.
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Flame-Rimmed Vessel 2000 BC – Japan
This extraordinary coil-built vessel of the Middle Jomon period (c 2500-1500 BC) with a height of 61 cm. It was produced by one of the earliest societies to occupy the Japanese archipelago-the pre-literate hunter-gatherers.
The elaborate design strengthens the dynamically crested handles and spiral wave motives pointing in the same direction and adding a visualization of the vessel’s overall form. The exact meaning of the design and the function of the vessel although remain unknown. This artifact is currently placed in the Clevland Museum of Art, Clevland Ohio.
Santorini – Fira, The Kameni Islets and the north of the island – Fira: southern sector and the Museum of Prehistoric Thera Museum of Prehistoric Thera
Museum of PrehistoricThera
To the north and south ends of Chora, and equidistant from the centre, are the island’s two museums of archaeology. In the south is the Museum of Prehistoric Thera– (open 8–7.30 except Mon), which opened in 2000 and occupies the new building just below the southeast corner of the church of the Metropolis. It is an exceptional and beautifully displayed collection, essential to the proper understanding of the prehistoric site at Akrotiri (see p. 78 ff). The exhibits are arranged in chronological order around three sides of a closed, central court. If you go early in the morning as it opens, you will probably have the museum to yourself for a good half an hour.
A number of the most striking pieces displayed— pieces of furniture, in particular—are plaster ‘positives’ taken from the negative impression in the lava left by the disintegrated object. The Bronze Age city at Akrotiri was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of the island, and the objects of organic material in its buildings were slowly incinerated by the heat of packed volcanic ash. The ash then hardened with subsequent rainfall, bearing the ex act negative impression of the incinerated objects in its form, while the objects themselves slowly disintegrated into dust. The archaeologists were therefore able to re construct accurately the forms of many domestic objects, by injecting a plaster-cement into the negative space left by the disintegrated object and then clearing the ash from around it.
Right-hand wing: In the first alcove to the right of the entrance, following the rare examples of fossilised olive leaves– (Case 1, nos. 1–6) from c. 60,000 bc, which are the earliest such examples from the Mediterranean area, are objects (Case2) of Neolithic Cycladic marble-work—cups, lamps (collared jars), querns, and figurines—showing that settlement was already well-established on the island by the 3rd millennium bc. The obsidian tools used to work the marble are also exhibited. In Case 3, we see the characteristic forms and pure designs of Theran pottery emerging in the Early Cycladic period: jars with the pulled-back neck, decorated with simple, confident, abstract designs. In the Middle Cycladic pottery, we begin to see the first ‘nipple jars’ with exquisite decoration of swallows– (nos. 101, 102 & 138)—a kind of domestic pottery decorated with symbols of the returning cycle of seasons and the fertility they bring. opposite, against the wall, is a very fine, shallow marble basin– dating from c. 2200 bc.
The model of the site of Akrotiri provides a bird’s eye view of the small area of the city so far excavated: the plan of the streets and the small squares, such as the triangular public space in front of the West House, can be appreciated in their similarity to Cycladic villages of today.
Beyond (Case 4) are dis played finds from Bronze Age Thera, including the remarkable reconstitutions of pieces of furniture– (nos. 144–45) taken from the negative impression left by the piece in the hot volcanic ash at the time of the eruption. The ornate design of the table legs (uncannily reminiscent of French 18th-century furniture) is striking. Also exhibited are intriguing domestic items—standing lamps, a portable cooking oven, clay firedogs and andirons in the form of oxen, for the cooking of meat over embers, all dating from the 16th century bc. Case 5 exhibits large bronze dishes and weapons, including a dagger with gold decoration applied to the surface. There is another reconstitution from the negative impression left by a burnt woven fruit basket. Beside, is a fine clay bathtub—pre cursor to a long tradition of such objects in early Greece.
Rear Wing, First Bay: In the centre of the back wall are three magnificent storge pithoi, with different designs on their front faces which perhaps denote the contents: the impressionistic barley-shoot for stored grain, the splash for stored oil, and the circle and cross for wine (the latter appropriately has a spout at its foot). To either side (Cases 6 & 7) are lead weights and measures for commerce fragments of inventory tablets in Linear A and Late Cycladic, spouted jars. In Case 8 (opposite the pithoi) a large collection of seal-stones gives an intimation of the organisation and extent of trade contacts which the city had.
Rear Wing, Second Bay: In the central case is a beautiful ceramic tripod-altar with designs of dolphins– (no. 253). The fact that this was found by Spyri don Marinatos in one of the upper rooms of the West House at Akrotiri, at exactly the point where the trajectories of two pictorial narratives of the walking boys carrying fishes for offering meet, confirms its ritual nature as a portable offering-table. The exhibits around are dedicated to painting fragments and examples of pigments— ferric oxides, earth colours and an imported, Egyptian frit (copper silicate and calcium). The mastery and confidence of line and form, enhanced by bold colours, are striking. The corner is occupied by a reconstruction of a room from the House of the Ladies: the paintings re of papyrus plants and female figures– dressed in fine-coloured clothes with make-up and jewellery. The sense of an easeful and prosperous society is conveyed through an artistic maturity and admirable simplicity of design: there is no hesitancy, but utter confidence in the sweeping lines and bright colours.
Opposite, are more storage pithoi with dolphins and lilies– (nos. 271–72) in designs of particular beauty (perhaps suggesting ritual rather than commercial use). No. 360, which is of more elegant shape, bears depictions of gulls and dolphins on one side, and goats and bulls on the other, images which may have related to the wall-paintings in the room where it was found.
Left-hand wing: This area (Case 9) exhibits a magnificent array of Theran pottery of the 17th and 16th centuries bc, with its unflagging repertoire of decorations with both abstract and floral motifs, swallows and marine animals: good examples of both form and brilliant decoration are nos. 345 and 346. note also theenious flower-pots (nos. 350–51) designed so as to prevent the soil from dehydrating, and a kind of strainer, no. 357, elegantly decorated with swallows in flight. note also the fine ritual vessels beautifully modelled in the forms of conch shells or the heads of boar. Case 10 gives a clear picture of the geographical extent of Thera’s trading links, through the imported objects found in the excavations, which come from mainland Greece, Crete, Egypt and the Middle East: note especially the Syro Palestinian pieces, the Canaanite jar, and the beautiful Egyptian, ostrich-eggrhyton. Such trade could only have been possible in a prevailingly peaceful environment in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 18th to 16th centuries bc.
In the final corner (to left of the entrance) the painted frieze of the Blue Monkeys from House B has been reconstructed and ‘completed’ from dozens of fragmentary pieces. Once again the chromatic range, and a confident, simplicity of form, worthy of Matisse, are striking: there is a constantly varying gamut of poses of this lithe and expressive animal, which here, as in Egypt, may have been considered a sacred animal and ministrant of the divinity. Even if monkeys were not native to Thera, the Theran merchants will have seen them in Africa (the surprise at finding them in Cretan painting had led Arthur Evans erroneously to restore a monkey as a child in one segment of painting at Knossos). The last showcase exhibits the only object of precious metal to have been found so far at Akrotiri: a gold ibex (hollow-cast in the lost-wax method) found in 1999 in side a wooden box, within a clay chest close to a pile of goat’s horns. The piece may have been an import from the near East.
Top Ten Most Spectacular Greek Archaeological Discoveries of 2020
Head of the Ancient Greek god Hermes, discovered under an Athens sidewalk recently. Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture
Despite the many and varied challenges of the past year as the nation and the world struggled with the pandemic and all its ramifications, 2020 was another banner year for Greece in the realm of archaeology. Let’s discover top 10 of most spectacular Greek archaeological discoveries of 2020.
Home to some of the most spectacular finds on earth, the country offered up yet more treasures from its brilliant past in digs from the bottom of a well in Athens to artifacts found under the pumice at Akrotiri on the Greek island of Santorini.
While all the nation’s archaeological sites were forced to shut down during the two lockdown periods — and suffered tremendous losses of revenue due to global travel restrictions even when they were open — the ancient Greek city of Mycenae experienced yet another shock when a wildfire tore through the site.
However, the damage there was thankfully slight, and important archaeological work was still being carried out at many other sites around the country, with many new Greek archaeological discoveries coming to light.
Another significant milestone of 2020 was the new lighting scheme for the Athens Acropolis, with energy-saving LED lighting and new spotlights showing the Parthenon’s many features to great effect. A new lift and paved walkways also greatly improved access to the iconic site.
Another historical site of enormous importance to Greece is the shipwreck off the tiny Northern Sporades island of Peristera, offering such a hoard of underwater treasures that it is often called the “Parthenon of Shipwrecks” for its stellar importance to the understanding of Greece’s past. This underwater site was opened to scuba divers for the first time ever in the summer of 2020, with those who prefer to stay on land able to visit a nearby museum on the nearby island of Alonnisos, which exhibits artifacts and dioramas of the site.
1. Ancient Greek Head of Hermes, a stellar archaeological discovery under the pavement of Athens
The recent construction work on Aeolus Street in Athens has uncovered some astounding archaeological treasures from ancient Greece, on which the Ministry of Culture has now begun restoration (top photo).
The news of the recent discovery of the head of the Greek god Hermes, lying since antiquity at a depth of just 1.3 meters (4 feet 4 inches) under the feet of Athenians as they went about their daily business, was reported around the world.
This was perhaps the most spectacular find of all this year due to its location, with the priceless treasure lying just under the pavement of the busy Athens thoroughfare.
2. Archaeological Greek Discover at Athens in July: Ancient Aqueduct and Artifacts Unearthed
One artifact stands above all others discovered this year in the Piraeus dig: A headless statue from the Hellenistic period, which was discovered at the bottom of an ancient well. Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture
Greek archaeologists unearthed an ancient aqueduct and thousands of objects and artifacts dating from Hellenistic and Roman times during the excavations for the expansion of the Athens metro line to Piraeus.
Many of the objects were made of wood and were preserved in water at the bottom of a well. The household objects, including wooden furniture, are extremely unusual finds considering the carbon-based material of which they were made.
Some of the artifacts will frame the permanent exhibition that will be set up in the metro station called “Municipal Theater” in Piraeus, which is currently under construction.
Foremost among all the treasures found was an exquisite headless statue — which was found at the bottom of an ancient well (pictured above). Archaeologists posit that the destruction of the objects may have occurred during the Roman invasion of the area.
The exhibition will include other ancient artifacts, in addition to the Hermes, along with a model copy of the aqueduct, and an authentic pebble floor from the classical / Hellenistic era which was found during the excavations.
3. Archaeological treasures of the Minoan Civilization from Akrotiri, Santorini
Exquisite pottery shell and other objects found at the Akrotiri site. Credit: Ministry of Culture of Greece
Exquisite pottery was unearthed at Akrotiri, the ancient settlement on the Greek island of Santorini, early in 2020.
Most of the Greek archaeological discoveries at the site are related to the everyday life of the people who lived on the island before the volcanic explosion which destroyed most of the island — and subsequently, the Minoan civilization on Crete.
A perfectly-preserved shell-shaped vessel demonstrated the high level of artistic achievement in that civilization, in what was perhaps the most endearing find of all, showing that art was made for art’s sake even on the remote island in the days of antiquity.
Among dozens of other new findings, the Ministry of Culture noted that an inscription, consisting of Linear A syllables and an ideogram, was found written in ink on an object which is most likely related to the use of a building, also uncovered in the Akrotiri dig.
4. Curse Tablet Discovered in Athens Well
Part of a curse tablet against Pytheas, ordered by his opponent in an Athenian court. Photo credit: Dr. Jutta Stroszeck – German Archaeological Institute
Showing another side of Greek history, a curse tablet, showing imprecations against an unfortunate man called Pytheas, was unearthed at the bottom of a well in Athens’ downtown neighborhood of Kerameikos (Ceramicus) by archaeologists from the German Archaeological Institute of Athens.
A total of thirty well-preserved curse tablets dating back to the Classical period (2,500 years ago) were found in an ancient well which was originally discovered back in 2016, when other everyday objects — but not the tablets — were found.
The ancient tablets have curses engraved on them which Athenian citizens would pay to have made against other people, a practice which was relatively common in ancient Greece.
5. Eight graves Unearthed in Ilia, near Olympia in September
The bronze urn found in Ilia, Greece in September of 2020. Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture
Four of these rectangular grave sites in Ilia, all lined with rocks, and three extremely large funerary containers, called pithoi, were found at the site, as well as an individual coffin covered by ceramic tiles and a marble grave stele.
Inside one of the pithoi, which were so large that they were often used as coffins themselves, archaeologists discovered an ornately decorated bronze urn, together with its base
The urn features a floral design on its handles and lion heads fill the space between its handles and its rim. A bronze mirror with a relief was also found in the funerary container.
6. New Findings, Remains Discovered At Theopetra Cave
Theopetra Cave. Credit: 3kala/Wikimedia Commons
Theopetra Cave in Thessaly, Central Greece, was formed in the Upper Cretaceous period, 137,000,000 – 65,000,000 years before the present time. The cave that was created in the limestone there has been inhabited since the Middle Paleolithic period, and new findings give new insight into the lives of those early peoples.
According to archaeologists, the cave is likely to be the place of the oldest human construction on earth, as findings indicate that the shelter was inhabited as early as 130,000 years ago.
Neolithic residents of the cave ate wheat and cultivated barley, olives, lentils and wild pear, among others. They ate some meat, mostly from domesticated sheep and goats (which account for 60 percent of the bones found), and also kept cattle, pigs and at least one dog.
About 11 percent of the bones found at the cave belong to deer, wild boars, bears, hares, wildcats and badgers, all of which were hunted. Bones from a bear, for example, astoundingly still bear knife marks.
The community also made its own jewelry, drilling holes into deer-like teeth and shells from the nearby river. The remains of beeswax were also found in the community. The newest findings show that an estimated 43 people lived in Theopetra Cave during the Neolithic era.
7. Byzantine-era skull shows signs of complex surgery
Skull showing signs of complex surgery from the 4th- 7th century AD, a unique Greek archaeological discovery. Credit: AMNA
A proto-Byzantine-era skull which was discovered by anthropologists in the Paliokastro area on Thasos island shows signs of complicated surgery, in one of the more shocking examples of what was discovered this year in all of Greek archaeology.
The skull, which dates from the early Byzantine period — the fourth to the seventh century AD — bears traces of surgery that are “incredibly complex,” according to researcher Anagnostis Agelarakis, Ph.D., who teaches at Adeplhi University.
The discovery was made by an Adelphi University research team led by Agelarakis. A total of ten skeletons, of four women and six men, were found and studied. They are likely to be persons of high social status.
“According to their skeletal-anatomical features, both men and women lived physically demanding lives…The very serious trauma cases sustained by both males and females had been treated surgically or orthopedically by a very experienced physician/surgeon with great training in trauma care. We believe it to have been a military physician,” the report says.
8. Building from Sixth century BC discovered at Epidaurus
The sixth century BC building predated the building constructed directly atop it, which is from the fourth century BC. Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture
Archaeological excavations conducted in July of 2020 revealed the remains of an even older temple building found at the shrine to Asclepius, the god of medicine, in the vicinity of the Tholos at the ancient site of Epidaurus, outside Athens.
The partially-excavated building, which is dated to about 600 BC, consists of a ground floor with a primitive colonnade and an underground basement chipped out of the rock beneath. The floor is an intact pebble mosaic, which is one of the best-preserved examples of this rare type of flooring to survive from this era.
The find is also considered significant because it predates the impressive Tholos building in the same location, whose own basement served as the chthonic residence of Asclepius, and which replaced the newly-discovered structure after the 4th century B.C.
This shows that the worship of Asclepius at Epidaurus began much earlier than previously thought and had the same chthonic features, while altering what is known about the history of the region in general.
9. Countless inscriptions and artifacts found on Vryokastraki
Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture
Archaeologists from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Thessaly discovered yet more important artifacts this summer on Vryokastraki, the small rocky islet near the Greek island of Kythnos, once home to a significant city in the early Byzantine period.
Well-preserved ceramics, jewelry, and female figurines were discovered in the sanctuary, leading experts to believe that there was an important cult to a female deity there.
The finds, only recently released in an announcement by the Greek Ministry of Culture, also include many epigraphical remains that detail the history of the island, which was continuously inhabited from the 12th century BC until the 7th century AD.
One of the inscriptions, which are considered “very important” by scholars, describes a pirate named Glafketis who took control of Kythnos in the 4th century BC.
According to the recently discovered artifact, Glafketis had support from the Macedonians, but was eventually forced out of power by the Athenians.
10. Oldest Greek Archaeological Discovery of 2020: Eighteen Million Year-old Petrified Trees on Lesvos
The oldest Greek archaeological discovery of 2020. Credit: AMNA
Finally, in a find that far predates human history but is nevertheless just as fascinating, fourteen petrified trees were found as a result of excavations for rainwater drainage pipes in an area near Sigri and in the region of Lesvos island’s Petrified Forest this year.
The area was declared as a Protected Natural Monument in 1985 but the additional trees that were found this year were extremely old, dating back to 18 million years ago.
The trees were killed by blasts of gas from the volcanic explosions and then covered by ash. Extensive heavy rains then flooded the area, sweeping away both the ash and sections of tree trunks. The giant mudflows blocked valleys, and the tree trunks piled up in successive layers, where they became fossilized.
Professor Nikos Zouros, director of the Petrified Forest of Sigri Museum said of the summer 2020 discovery, “The trunks were in a very good state of preservation – they are impressive logs laid on successive strata, one above the other.”
The Middle Bronze Age on the mainland (c. 2000–1550)
The mainland was disrupted again about 2000 bc with new levels appearing at sites such as Lerna in the Argolid and Eutresis in Boeotia there seem to be new burial habits on both coasts. Some scholars see an intrusion from the north of “Indo-Europeans,” but this is a difficult, perplexing topic. Some handmade pottery may have Balkan affinities, and there is string-impressed ware at a few places that resembles in some ways the pottery of the Black Sea region. In any case, the newcomers apparently were pastoralists. Although not wealthy, they may have been one source for the appearance of the horse in Greece, an established fact before the Shaft Grave Period. Many scholars view this wave, which covered most of Greece, as representing “the coming of the Greeks” others regard the Greek language as a rich amalgam formed within the confines of Greece and not imposed from outside. A new pottery appeared on the mainland: a class of gray burnished ware, wheel-made, with sharp angular shapes copied from those of metal vases. The polished gray surfaces of this “Minyan” ware (as it was named by Schliemann after the legendary inhabitants of Orchomenus in central Greece, where he first came upon it) look as if meant to imitate silver later, some pieces were coloured red or yellow. After some time, “Matt-painted” pottery also appeared, again with simple linear patterns on a light ground. The traditional “long house,” often apsidal, was the preferred architectural form by the end of the period, some villages were walled.
The level of cultural attainment seems low, and not much metal circulated at first. The newcomers quickly developed connections with the islands and Crete they imported Cretan vases, and some local vases show mainland ships. Minyan and Matt-painted pottery has been found in the nearer islands and even as far as Crete and the Anatolian coast. Burials grew from single interments to larger “family” chambers at Eleusis in Attica and on both coasts in Messenia, in parts of the Argolid, and at Marathon there appeared a novel kind of multiple burial, with individual cists (burial chambers) or pithoi (large earthenware jars), the whole cluster being covered by a single mound. These tumulus burials, which had already appeared earlier at Leucas in the Ionian Sea, may reflect Balkan practice. In Messenia a Late Bronze Age beehive, or tholos, tomb was cut into the older mound as though that particular burial place were special. By the end of the 17th century, the newcomers had taken their full place on a newly emerging international scene and were always to be in a special relation with the Cycladic islands, Crete, and, probably, Troy. Bronze knives and gold ornaments were found with some burials, and, by the time of the Mycenae Shaft Graves in the 16th century, a luxuriant style of native goldwork had been created.
Culture which was the first culture of the Late-or upper paleolithic in Europe.
Title: The Chauvet Cave also known as the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc
Era/Date: The art is reliably dated between c. 33,000 and c. 30,000. It has ties to both the Aurignacian and Gravettian Eras.
Medium/Materials: They made black paint from charcoal or manganese dioxide. Red paint was made from haematite. Both paints were applied to the rocks using brushes, fingers, bits of charcoal as pencils, or stump-drawing. Paint was also sometimes sprayed against the walls using tubes. Wall scraping was also a technique used.
Size:The sizes of the paintings vary, however they fill up the sides of the walls within the cave.
Original Location: A Palaeolithic cave situated near Vallon-Pont-d'Arc in the Ardeche region in southern France.
There are over 100 paintings on the inside of the cave. The paintings range from red dots, hand prints, and over 420 animal representations. What makes the paintings of animals unique is that the majority of the animals were not hunted, which is unique because after the Gravettian era the painting of animals used to only be prey animals.
In addition to this the Palaeolithic people were thought to have believed in a Shamanistic in which art and hunting of animals played an important role.
Pandemic notwithstanding, archaeologists have been quietly working away at sites across Greece, making extraordinary finds.
Despite the travel bans and safety measures, archaeology in Greece had a bumper year in 2020, unearthing an array of fascinating finds across the country.
Even as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic reduced overseas tourism last year to a gentle trickle, many archaeological sites across Greece still had daily visitors.
Archaeological teams pressed on with skeleton crews, scaling back their efforts but nevertheless making a startling array of exciting discoveries.
In some cases, the lack of visitors proved a blessing, allowing researchers to pore over popular sites that would otherwise feature crowds of tourists. Meanwhile construction projects in Athens also carried on, leading to a number of unexpected finds.
This list, by no means exhaustive, explores ten of the most significant archaeological finds reported over the past months when Covid’s spread across the globe drew our attention elsewhere.Theopetra Cave in Thessaly is a visitable site, famed for a set of preserved Neanderthal footprints, and other remnants of a long period of prehistoric habitation.
Theopetra Cave in Thessaly is a visitable site, famed for a set of preserved Neanderthal footprints, and other remnants of a long period of prehistoric habitation.
1. Theopetra Cave, Thessaly
New evidence shows Stone Age Greeks ate healthier than many modern humans
Theopetra Cave in Thessaly, central Greece, is a hugely important site that was continually occupied by humans for a staggering 130,000 years. Famous for the fossilized footprints of a group of young Neanderthals and one of the oldest known human constructions – a 23,000 year-old wall – excavations at Theopetra have also revealed the well-preserved remains of a young woman, aptly named Avgi (‘Dawn’) who lived in the cave around 7000 BC, during the Mesolithic period.
Reporting in 2020, prehistoric archaeologist Dr Nina Kyparissi-Apostolika, who led excavations at the cave from 1987 to 2007, presented results from an analysis of recent finds, which revealed further clues about the lifestyle and diet of the cave’s later Neolithic inhabitants.
A study of the bones of 43 people who lived in the cave during this period show that they were quite a healthy group, subsisting on a diet of wheat, barley, olives and pulses – staples of the traditional Mediterranean diet that we all know today. A moderate amount of meat from a mix of domesticated and wild animals was also consumed, including wild boar – a big game species that still roams the Greek countryside.
It was also found that domesticated sheep and goats represented around 60 percent of the animal bones at the site, and were likely kept for their by-products of wool and milk in addition to their meat. Further evidence suggests the cave’s inhabitants also kept cattle, pigs, and at least one dog, perhaps as a companion for hunting and herding.Excavations at Akrotiri have brought to light a settlement with a sophisticated layout dubbed "Greece's Pompeii" due to its high level of preservation
Excavations at Akrotiri have brought to light a settlement with a sophisticated layout dubbed "Greece's Pompeii" due to its high level of preservation
2. Akrotiri, Santorini (Thera)
Spectacular new finds uncovered in “Greece’s Pompeii”
Santorini’s strategic position on the maritime routes between the southern Cyclades, Crete, and the copper-rich island of Cyprus ensured it became an important center for trade in the Middle Bronze Age (or Middle Minoan, 2160–1600 BC).
In early 2020, Professor Christos Doumas reported on recent archaeological finds made during excavations at the famous settlement of Akrotiri in the south of the island.
Among the finds in the interior of a building known as the ‘House of Thrania’ (‘House of Benches’) – most likely a public or communal building – were two large double-headed axes (Diplous pelekys or labryes) made of finely-crafted bronze plates these are artifacts that are emblematic of Minoan culture and religion in Crete and the southern Aegean.
Also found were a large number of miniature ceramic vessels, perhaps used as drinking cups during group rituals, other bronze items, and fragments of jewelry, including a small bead of rock crystal carved in the shape of a figure-of-eight shield.
Most remarkably, the team discovered an inscription of Linear A, an as-yet undeciphered writing system used by the Minoans, on a fragment of what would have been a wooden construction, perhaps a box or chest. These finds shed more light on the life of the inhabitants of the Bronze Age town prior to the Theran eruption in 1628 BC, one of the largest and most catastrophic volcanic eruptions in the history of the Mediterranean.
Since the first excavations started in 1967, the site, often referred to as the ‘Minoan Pompeii’, has revealed thousands of beautifully preserved artifacts, many of which are on display in the Museum of Prehistoric Thera. Eye-catching frescoes and entire pieces of wooden furniture, preserved for three-and-a-half millennia in the volcanic ash, present some of the most iconic images of Bronze Age Aegean art and culture.An aerial view of the archaeological site at Despotiko, which will soon acquire a visitor trail network.
© Ephorate of Antiquities of Cyclades
An aerial view of the archaeological site at Despotiko, which will soon acquire a visitor trail network.
© Ephorate of Antiquities of CycladesParts of the Temple of Apollo on Despotiko have been restored, giving visitors a sense of the height of the once grand structure.
© Ephorate of Antiquities of Cyclades
Parts of the Temple of Apollo on Despotiko have been restored, giving visitors a sense of the height of the once grand structure.
© Ephorate of Antiquities of Cyclades
3. Despotiko, Cyclades
New buildings discovered at the Sanctuary of Apollo on the “other Delos”
2020’s scaled-down excavations on the uninhabited island of Despotiko in the central Cyclades, under the watchful direction of Dr Yiannos Kouragios, uncovered the remains of yet more buildings at the sanctuary, famous for its impressive Late Archaic temple from the 7th century BC.
Two new buildings were found at the sanctuary itself, bringing the total number of structures to 29, while a further eight were found on the nearby islet of Tsimidiri, once connected to Despotiko in antiquity by a narrow isthmus, bringing the total number there to ten. All are large structures with solidly-built foundations, and form part of a vast religious complex dedicated to the god Apollo, mentioned by ancient writers Pliny the Elder and Strabo.
More ceramic artifacts were found on Tsmidiri, including large quantities of decorated storage containers (pithoi), prompting Kouragios to believe the buildings there functioned as warehouses at the entrance of the port.
Much of the attention of this past season, however, focused on the restoration works of the temple, including its decorative pediment, and the large ceremonial feasting hall (hestiatorion). After 22 years of excavations, the Ephorate of Antiquities of the Cyclades is now preparing to accept visitors in the not-too-distant future, establishing an open-air museum in the same vein as the site on nearby Delos another must-see for visitors to the Cyclades.An overhead view of the Sanctuary of Asclepius in Epidaurus. The Tholos is the round building in the bottom right.
An overhead view of the Sanctuary of Asclepius in Epidaurus. The Tholos is the round building in the bottom right.
4. Epidaurus, Peloponnese
The mysterious Tholos at the Sanctuary of Asclepius reveals deeper secrets
The ancient theater at Epidaurus in the eastern Peloponnese is a major draw for thousands of visitors every summer, but the theater is only one part of a vast complex of monuments that form the Sanctuary of Asclepius, god of healing, truth, and prophecy.
Capitalizing on the reduced number of visitors, excavations in July 2020, under the direction of Professor Emeritus Vassilis Lambrinoudakis, unearthed the remains of a building underneath the 4th century BC Tholos, the mysterious circular building next to the Temple of Asclepius noted for its subterranean maze.
The hitherto unknown building, dating to the 6th century BC, is rectangular in plan, complete with a pebble mosaic floor and a peristyle (or colonnade) of wooden columns. Traces of a staircase leading up from the basement were also found.
Lambrinoudakis and his team now believe that the cult of Asclepius, where supplicants would come from across the ancient world to be healed of their illnesses, began much earlier at the sanctuary than initially thought, soon after the end of the 7th century BC. Over time, the older building was demolished to make way for the Tholos, which served as Asclepius’ tomb, famously described by the 2nd century AD traveler Pausanias.The newly uncovered inscription of the name Peisandridas appears to confirm ancient accounts of Tanea being founded by Trojan prisoners of war.
© Greek Ministry of Culture
The newly uncovered inscription of the name Peisandridas appears to confirm ancient accounts of Tanea being founded by Trojan prisoners of war.
© Greek Ministry of Culture
5. Tanea, Corinth
Newly discovered inscription lends weight to an ancient legend about this once-powerful city
Excavations at ancient Tanea enjoyed another bumper season in 2020, with further finds in the areas of the large bath complex and commercial district. Work around the modern village of Chiliomondi, some 15 km southeast of Corinth, started in 2013 under the direction of archaeologist Dr Elena Korka, but scattered artifacts, including the famous Archaic Kouros of Tenea, now in the Glyptothek in Munich, Germany, have been found in the area since at least the mid-19th century.
The legendary city was said to have been founded by Trojan prisoners of war from the island of Tenedos in the northeast Aegean who were brought back to Greece by Agamemnon, and is mentioned in many Greek myths, including the story of Oedipus.
Proof of its existence finally came in 2018 following the discovery of the remains of a housing settlement with carefully-constructed walls, marble floors, and a significant number of richly adorned graves with coins, vases, and jewelry dating to the Archaic and later Hellenistic periods.
Work over the past summer uncovered two inscriptions, one on a statue base from the 4th century BC bearing the name Peisandridas, who ancient writer Pindar describes as the ancestor of the Peisandrids, the hegemonic family of Tenedos. This is the first hard evidence uncovered of a direct connection between the city of Tanea in the Peloponnese and the island of Tenedos, lending weight to the ancient descriptions of its founding by captive Trojans.
Two small coin hoards were also discovered in the baths, dating to the 4th and 5th centuries AD a further indication of the long settlement history of the city from the Archaic to the early Byzantine period.The island of Rineia - protected by law from touristic development - likely hides many more ancient artifacts waiting to be discovered
The island of Rineia - protected by law from touristic development - likely hides many more ancient artifacts waiting to be discovered
6. Rineia, Cyclades
Mapping the mysterious Cycladic island of Rineia, Delos’ “twin sister”
In this age of pandemic and quarantine, recent work on the island of Rineia has a particular resonance. Used as a quarantine site during periodic outbreaks of plague and cholera until the late 19th and early 20th centuries – Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy spent two days there on his first trip to Greece in 1901 – in antiquity, the island served as both a birthplace and necropolis for the nearby sacred isle of Delos, the site of the Sanctuary of Apollo.
With Rineia fabled as the birthplace of Apollo’s twin sister, Artemis, archaeological research on the island began over 120 years ago in 1898, and focused on recording the visible surface remains of numerous burial structures and marble figures, including the famous sarcophagus of the Roman Tertia Oraria and the Great Lion sculpture.
Last summer’s investigations under the direction of the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities involved an intensive surface survey that revealed a raft of new and important finds, among them large fragments of sculptures, the architectural remains of ancient farmhouses, a previously unknown road, and the probable location of a temple. Researchers also found remains of more modern structures, including Byzantine and post-Byzantine farmhouses and chapels.
The island is famously mentioned in Thucydides’ Book Three, where he describes the Athenians conducting a ‘ritual cleansing’ of Delos in the winter of 426/5 BC by “exhuming all the dead and their coffins” and transporting them to nearby Rineia, declaring that “no one should die nor be born [on Delos], but the dying and the women about to give birth should be transported to Rineia.”The head of Hermes discovered recently during construction work just 1.5m below busy Aiolou Street in central Athens
© Greek Ministry of Culture
The head of Hermes discovered recently during construction work just 1.5m below busy Aiolou Street in central Athens
© Greek Ministry of Culture
7. Aiolou Street, Athens
Ancient bust of Hermes unearthed from beneath a busy downtown Athens thoroughfare
The well-preserved head of a statue depicting the god Hermes was discovered last November during construction works on fashionable Aiolou Street in central Athens, lying a mere 1.3 m under street level.
The head is thought to have formed part of a Hermaic stelai or herma (literally ‘heap of stones’), one of many similar statues that functioned as road markers or indicators of important public or private spaces in ancient Athens. Worshipers also placed these cult statues, often with a squared lower section and male genitalia, at crossroads in the hope of invoking Hermes’ protection on their travels.
This particular example was used as common building material, found built into a wall to support a modern water pipe a humiliating end for the once-sacred sculpture and reminiscent of the infamous “mutilation of the herms” in the spring of 415 BC. That sacrilegious act, carried out prior to the departure of the Athenian fleet on the doomed Sicilian Expedition during the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), may have been the work of saboteurs, perhaps even Spartan sympathizers from Athens itself.
Based on its style, the newly found bust dates to around the end of the 4th or the beginning of the 3rd century BC and resembles the type of bearded Hermes Propylaios famously sculpted by Alcamenes, considered by many as one of the finest sculptors in ancient Greece. Its unearthing is yet another timely reminder that Athens is still packed with hidden archaeological treasures waiting to be discovered.
Just two of the finds recently uncovered during works to extend the Athens metro to Piraeus
8. Piraeus, Athens
Ancient aqueduct uncovered during Athens Metro works
Large-scale excavations during the ongoing construction works to extend the Athens Metro line to Piraeus have uncovered the remains of an ancient aqueduct and a treasure trove of rare artifacts from Hellenistic and Roman times.
Investigation of the remains of the aqueduct are providing important clues to the city’s water supply system, which brought water to Piraeus from Ardittos Hill along the Long Walls that protected the road linking the city and its port. The sections of the aqueduct under current investigation were in use from the 2nd to 5th centuries AD, from the time of the emperor Hadrian to the Gothic invasions.
The construction works have also led to the discovery of a beautiful pebble stone mosaic floor and a number of ancient wells containing some 4,000 well-preserved artifacts found buried in soft muddy deposits below the water table. Among them are 1,300 rare wooden objects, including everyday household items, furniture, utensils and tools, forming the largest collection of wooden artifacts from the classical world yet discovered in Greece.
One of the rarest finds was a headless wooden statue of the god Hermes, dated to the Hellenistic period, perhaps discarded in a well during the sacking of Athens by the Roman general Sulla in 86 BC. These excavations, under the direction of Giorgos Peppas, demonstrate how large-scale construction works and delicate archaeological research can work hand-in-hand.
Last year, the artifacts were moved to a Piraeus workshop where the archaeological team continue to work to identify, record, and conserve them for a planned exhibition at the Piraeus Municipal Theater metro station. Visitors can watch the archaeologists at work from overhead lofts.An amphora is collected from a Roman-era shipwreck off Kasos
© F. Kvalo / Institute of Historical Research • National Hellenic Research Foundation
An amphora is collected from a Roman-era shipwreck off Kasos
© F. Kvalo / Institute of Historical Research • National Hellenic Research Foundation
9. Kasos, Dodecanese
Roman-era shipwreck provides insight into ancient maritime trade routes
The world of underwater archaeology never fails to fascinate and excite the popular imagination, and the seas around Greece are home to some of the most astonishing finds in the history of the discipline. Preeminent among these is the Roman-era Antikythera wreck dating from the 1st century BC, renown for its cargo of bronze and marble statues, and the remains of a mechanism that many regard as the oldest known analogue computer.
The underwater excavation of yet another Roman-era wreck, this time off the island of Kasos in the southern Aegean and dating to the 2nd or 3rd century AD, has revealed a large cargo of storage jars (amphorae), mainly of types manufactured in Guadalquivir in Spain and in Tunisia. Kasos, the southernmost island in the Aegean, lies at the navigational crossroads between Crete and the Dodecanese, and expedition co-leader Xanthis Argyris believes the vessels contained olive oil, wine, and possibly much-prized fish sauce (garum) destined for the island of Rhodes and ports along the coasts of Asia Minor.
This latest expedition forms part of a three-year research project (2019–2021) aimed at exploring the seabed off Kasos. Under the auspices of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities in collaboration with the Institute of Historical Research of the National Hellenic Research Foundation, a team of 23 specialists conducted around 100 dives in September and October last year, totaling more than 200 hours under water. It is hoped that research will continue in the area this year, including a comprehensive survey using state-of-the-art remote sensing equipment to pinpoint the locations of other sites of interest.
So far, the team have discovered five historical wreck sites, including two from the 4th and 1st centuries BC, a third from the Byzantine era, which included five conical-shaped stone anchors and an iron canon, and a fourth dating to the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s.A part of a human skull dating to the early Byzantine period found on the island of Thasos and which shows clear signs of sophisticated surgical techniques A part of a human skull dating to the early Byzantine period found on the island of Thasos and which shows clear signs of sophisticated surgical techniques
10. Thasos, Northern Aegean
An early Byzantine skull on the island of Thasos shows signs of complex surgery
A recent analysis of human remains found on the island of Thasos in the northern Aegean has called into question the way anthropologists understand the development of complex surgical interventions in the early Byzantine period. A total of ten skeletons were exhumed from an early Christian burial ground in the area of Paliokastro, comprising four women and six men, all bearing clear signs of extensive physical trauma.
Researchers believe the individuals, who lived sometime between the 4th and 7th centuries AD, were of high social status on account of the location and architecture of their burial site. Lead researcher Dr Anagnostis Agelarakis believes the men were either horse archers (equites sagitarii) or heavy cavalrymen (cataphractii), elite units of the Late Roman army, and the women were related, possibly as wives. All bear the signs of acute trauma and were treated surgically or orthopedically by an experienced physician.
One of the male skulls in particular caught the attention of the team, bearing the conspicuous signs of a delicate and highly dangerous surgical procedure known as trephination (from the Greek trypanon, literally ‘borer’). This procedure involved drilling two tiny holes into the cranium, most likely in an attempt to relieve pressure on the brain due to an infection or the build-up of blood following a severe head injury.
While the archaeological evidence for trephination can be traced back as early as the Neolithic period some 7,000 years ago, the new findings in Thasos suggest an altogether more sophisticated surgical procedure – an early precursor to brain surgery. Furthermore, the mere fact that such a dangerous surgical intervention was attempted in the pre-antibiotic age is evidence that the individual was considered highly important to the local community.
Close inspection of the cranium suggests the man did not survive the surgery, or died shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, it is clear that the procedure was the work of a highly skilled physician, perhaps a military surgeon with extensive experience of treating cases of battlefield trauma.