Linear B tablet of Iklaina, Greece; the earliest-known government record in Europe

Monumental discoveries in Iklaina, including an open-air pagan sanctuary, have reinforced the view that this ancient Greek town was no backwater as had been thought, but a major center of Mycenaean culture – that throws back the formation of the earliest complex states in ancient Greece by hundreds of years.

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Iklaina was made legendary by Homer’s Iliad, which romanticizes the town’s war with Troy. Until now the town, which indeed dates to the Mycenaean period (1500 to 1100 B.C.E.), had been considered to be something of a backwater. Evidently, it wasn’t.

The true lofty status of ancient Iklaina now coming to light is based on discovery of a monumental palace and other massive buildings that apparently served as administrative centers; a tablet with the earliest-known government record in Europe, discovered in 2011; and newly uncovered sprawling public spaces such as the sanctuary, the archaeologists explain.

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Complex states feature centralized political administration, specialized administrative organization, complex social ranking, advanced economic organization, and formalized institutions. If until now, the earliest complex state in ancient Greece had been thought to have arisen around 3,100 years ago, the evidence from Iklaina indicates that the complex states were taking form as long as 3,400 years ago, though that was thousands of years after these forms of government began to arise in Mesopotamia, going by the solid evidence.

It appears that Iklaina was the capital of an independent state for a good part of the Mycenaean period, in competition with the other major site in the area, the Palace of Nestor in Pylos, says Prof. Michael Cosmopoulos of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, head of the excavations.

Apparently, Iklaina was ultimately vanquished by that next-door bitter rival. It was destroyed by enemy attack at the same time that the Palace of Nestor expanded, Cosmopoulos explains: “It appears that the two events were connected, and that it was the ruler of the Palace of Nestor who took over Iklaina.”

The excavations at Iklaina brought to light massive walls, several administrative buildings, open-air shrine, murals, a surprisingly advanced drainage system with massive stone-built sewers, and an elaborate water delivery system with clay pipes that was far ahead of its time. The tablet the Iklaina archaeologists discovered, which they believe to be 3400 to 3500 years old, also throws back the advent of widespread literacy across this region of the eastern Mediterranean Basin.

The legend of Nestor

There is no archaeological evidence of Nestor to back the Homeric writings, but Cosmopoulos does not rule him out as a historical figure.

“Quite a bit of what is described in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey is based on the historical reality of the Mycenaean world: this applies to artifacts described by Homer, to citadels like Mycenae and Pylos, which archaeologists have found,” he says.

The so-called “Palace of Nestor” in Pylos, some 10 kilometers from Iklaina, may or may not have housed the legendary wise king, but it definitely was a major palace of the Mycenaean period. The Pylos site has yielded over 1,000 Linear B tablets containing government records, dating 150 to 200 years later than the Iklaina tablet.

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Giant Cyclopean Terrace

Eight years of excavations ending in late 2016 unearthed more of an enormous building that the archaeologist labeled the Cyclopean Terrace, which dominates the entire site. The terrace consists of worked limestone boulders fitted roughly together, with smaller chunks placed between them.

Whoever built it, the massive Cyclopean Terrace had supported a two- or three-storey building. Unfortunately, the part of the building that once stood on the terrace (as with the stepped-stone structure in the City of David in Jerusalem) is gone forever. However, rooms of the same building complex survive on the plateau to the south, which give a good idea of the date and function of this Cyclopean Terrace complex.

In theory the massive structure could be a Mycenaean temple or fortress, Cosmopoulos admits, but analysis of the finds led him to conclude that it was a powerful palace or administrative center.

“It appears that it was the buildings where the ruler and his family resided, part of the ‘administrative center’ of the site. It was built sometime between 1350 and 1300 B.C.E.”

No massive structure like this, the construction of which required abundant resources and a great capacity to plan and execute, would have been built in an out-of-the-way and remote settlement. These buildings are monumental and formal, and suggest that Iklaina was the capital of an independent state for a long part of the Mycenaean period – before such states were thought to exist in ancient Greece.

Cosmopoulos’ conclusion is bolstered by the earlier discovery of the tablet containing a bureaucratic record, written in Linear B.

The tablet has inscriptions on both sides, on one side a list of male names with numbers (possibly a personnel list), and on the other a list of products – only the heading is preserved, which reads ‘manufactured’ or ‘assembled’. But the tablet is broken and the actual list is missing, Cosmopoulos said.

The discovery makes it the earliest-known government record in Europe, he says, adding: “But until the final study, we don’t know whether it dates to the period when Iklaina was an independent capital.

(Source: https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/MAGAZINE-unknown-palace-rewrites-ancient-greek-history-1.5492227)

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3D reconstruction of the Mycenaen Palace of Iklaina

(Photo sourced from: http://www.diadrasis.gr/archives/517?lang=en)

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From the official website of the “Iklaina Archaeological Project – Researching the origins of states in Greece” we extract the following information:

The transition from a world without states to a world where the state is the dominant political institution is one of the most fascinating chapters in human history. The earliest recorded states in western civilization emerged in ancient Greece, during the second millennium BC. The purpose of the Iklaina Archaeological Project (IKAP) is to investigate the processes by which states and governments emerged in Greece and the western world.

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Situated at a strategic location overlooking the Ionian Sea, Iklaina appears to have been an important capital city of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1600-1100 BC), a period also known as “Mycenaean” and famous for such mythical sagas as the Trojan War. Through the systematic and interdisciplinary investigation of Iklaina, we seek to shed new light on the mechanisms that led to the formation of the Mycenaean state of Pylos and to generate cross-cultural models that help us to understand the processes of state formation around the world.

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The project has already produced unexpected finds in the form of monumental buildings that may belong to a Mycenaean palace, Cyclopean walls, frescoes, pottery, metal finds, and administrative records in the form of a Linear B tablet. These surprising discoveries challenge the current model of chiefdom-to-state evolution and suggest that until now we had been missing an important piece of the puzzle: the new evidence suggests that bureaucracy and literacy appeared earlier than what was previously thought and that they were not restricted to the major palatial centers. The interaction between Iklaina and the neighboring Palace of Nestor is crucial in understanding how a two-tiered form of government, with central and district capitals, was formed.

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In the triangular space formed by the east end of wall N-041 and the south wall of drain α we found a burned refuse pit, approximately 1 m. deep. In the pit we found a fragment of a Linear B tablet and pottery dating to the LH IIB/IIIA1/early LH IIIA2 periods, which makes it the earliest stratified Linear B tablet from the Greek Mainland.

(NovoScriptorium: The interested reader may search for relative papers published by Professor Cynthia Shelmerdine)

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The dominant feature of the site is a massive rectangular terrace constructed with “Cyclopean” limestone blocks. Over the course of the centuries it has sustained a lot of damage, but the heaviest damage was caused by a mechanical bulldozer that destroyed its central part in the 1960s or 1970s.

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The terrace measures 8 x 23m, with its long axis oriented southwest-northeast and features the offsets known from Cyclopean terraces at other Mycenaean sites.

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(Source: http://www.iklaina.org/)

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An amazing 3D reconstruction of Cyclopean Terrace Building can be found in the link that follows: (https://iklaina.wordpress.com/the-site-2/3d-reconstruction-of-cyclopean-terrace-building/)

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In order to see aerial views of the site and the area please follow the following link: (https://iklaina.wordpress.com/excavation-photos/)

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“The fact that we have a tablet like this means that this government had scribes, and scribes are a product of bureaucracy,” Dr. Cosmopoulos said. “And this suggests some degree of political complexity and a growing need to keep track of commodities, property and taxes, all earlier than we once thought.”

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Archaeologists are only beginning to consider the implications of the discovery. It suggests that political states in ancient Greece originated at least a century and a half earlier than had been documented.

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Donald C. Haggis, an archaeologist and classics professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the tablet discovery was “really exciting and important because we don’t know much of the dynamics of these palace sites and the early phases of state formation in Greece.”

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Dr. Haggis, who was familiar with the research but not a member of the team, said that nearly all that had been known of the dynamics of these government centers came from excavations in the final stages of the Mycenaean period. Now the tablet, he said, “tells us this place had an administrative function at an early stage” and the architecture of the palace “reflects authority” and “looks like a place for ritual, communal dining and production of crafts.”

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(Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/05/science/05archeo.html?_r=1)

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The interested reader can find an official report by Pr. Michael B. Cosmopoulos (Title: IKLAINA ARCHAEOLOGICAL PROJECT 2011 FIELD REPORT) in the link below:

(https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/30279115/2011report1.pdf?response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3D2011_Report.pdf&X-Amz-Algorithm=AWS4-HMAC-SHA256&X-Amz-Credential=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A%2F20190621%2Fus-east-1%2Fs3%2Faws4_request&X-Amz-Date=20190621T205650Z&X-Amz-Expires=3600&X-Amz-SignedHeaders=host&X-Amz-Signature=e1f704d3c371ff6a7aeecd0e5c2ed51e33857bc936d213fdc9f8299cd27ecaa9)

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Very interesting information is provided in the paper titled “New accelerator mass spectrometry 14C dates from the Mycenaean site of Iklaina“, by Michael Cosmopoulos,  Susan E.Allen, Danielle J.Riebe, Deborah Ruscillo, Maria Liston, China Shelton, of which we present the ‘Abstract‘ here:

Although the ceramic phases and relative chronology of the Mycenaean (or “Late Helladic” abbr. LH) period on the Greek mainland are well established, there is ongoing disagreement regarding the relationship between the ceramic phases and their associated calendar dates. Part of the problem is the small number of radiocarbon dates from Mycenaean sites. In this article, we publish a set of 15 new AMS radiocarbon dates from the Mycenaean site of Iklaina, in southwestern Greece. The resulting date ranges allow us to establish an absolute chronology for major stages in the life of the Iklaina settlement and the associated relative chronology based on ceramic phases. In general, the Iklaina dates show a better fit with the High Chronology for the early Mycenaean period. Specifically, the transition from the Middle to Late Helladic, at the beginning of the Mycenaean period, is placed between the end of the 19th c. and the beginning of the 17th c. BC. The LH II period, when large-scale architecture appears at Iklaina for the first time, spans the 17th century BC and the LH IIIA1 period goes into the 15th century. None of the analyzed samples were recovered from secure LH IIIA2 deposits, so they do not affect the chronology of this period. However, the samples from the destruction of the monumental buildings, which ceramically is placed in the LH IIIB period, provide a general latest use date in the 13th century. Given the possibility that this destruction marks the annexation of Iklaina by the Palace of Nestor and the unification of the Pylian state, this becomes an important chronological marker for the formation of this state. It also indicates a very short life-span for this state, since its destruction is traditionally dated to ca. 1200 BCE.

(Source: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352409X18307624)

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From the paper titled “A non-destructive technological study of three fresco fragments from Iklaina, Pylos, Greece“, by G. Tsairis, E. Palamara, N. Zacharias & M. Cosmopoulos, we also present the ‘Abstract‘ here:

The objective of the present study is to conduct a non-destructive characterisation analysis of three fresco fragments from Iklaina, southern Peloponnese, Greece, in order to identify their manufacture techniques. Furthermore, this study aims at using the results of the scientific and analytical analyses to produce accurate replicas of these fragments (use of similar composition mortars, pigments, and manufacture techniques), which can be used for the restoration program of the site. These replicas will be exhibited alongside the originals in the new Pylos Archaeological Museum.

Due to the high archaeological value of the objects, the analytical approach we followed was completely non-destructive and was based on the parallel use of optical microscopy, p-XRF and SEM/EDS. The analyses suggest the use of Egyptian blue pigment for the backgrounds. The wavy black coil of hair was painted with an organic black pigment. The use of inorganic pigments has been revealed on the upper layers on the basis of the identification of minerals and rocks. The substrate of the wall paintings is made of aluminosilicate lime mortars. The results corroborate the suggestions of previous studies for the pigments comprising the Mycenaean artistic palette and provides further insight on the artistic and technological choices made by Mycenaean artists.

(Source: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/20548923.2017.1395153)

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Another relative and interesting paper by Pr. Cosmopoulos (Title: “A Mycenaean open-air cult in Iklaina“) can be found in the link that follows: (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283419157_A_Mycenaean_open-air_cult_in_Iklaina_In_R_Wilkinson_ed_Nanno_Marinatos_A_Tribute_JAEI_73_41-49)

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Relative Bibliography:

1. Title: Mycenaean Habitation in the Region of Iklaina. The Political Geography of a Mycenaean District: The Archaeological Survey at Iklaina (2016)

Publisher: Library of the Archaeological Society at Athens

2. Title: A Group of New Mycenaean Frescoes from Iklaina, Pylos
Mycenaean Wall Painting In Context. New Discoveries, Old Finds Reconsidered

Publisher: National Hellenic Research Foundation, Institute for Historical Research

3. Title: The Political Geography of a Mycenaean District. The Archaeological Survey at Iklaina

Publisher: The Archaeological Society of Athens

4. Title: Iklaina. The Monumental Buildings

Publisher: The Archaeological Society of Athens

Further information about Pr. Michael Cosmopoulos can be found here: https://michaelcosmopoulos.org/

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Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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