First Mycenaean Harbor and Port Town Offers a New Opportunity to Understand the Rise and Fall of a Great Expansionist Ancient Greek Civilization

20 MARCH 2008, PHILADELPHIA, PA—Homer, living centuries before the Classical era of Athens, is renowned for his epic tales of an even earlier time, when the Mycenaeans of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1600–1100 B.C.)—with a rich warrior aristocracy and wide-ranging trade—came to rule the land and the seas.

Archaeologists have uncovered great Mycenaean cities, like Mycenae and Pylos, extraordinary circular burial chambers, elegant frescoes, even written language, as well as widespread evidence of Mycenaean expansion and trade—but no harbors or port towns to help them understand the far-flung connections, or the rapid expansion and equally sudden demise, of this ancient Greek culture—until now.

The Saronic Gulf region, showing the locations of the Kalamianos site and Kolonna, the center of a powerful Bronze Age state on the island of Aigina. Image is a Google Earth map modified by Thomas Tartaron.The Saronic Harbors Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) has begun study of the first-ever positively identified Mycenaean harbor and significant fortified port town, built about 1300 B.C. Working with a permit from the Greek Ministry of Culture, under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, the interdisciplinary research team is led by Dr. Thomas F. Tartaron, Research Associate at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Daniel J. Pullen, chairman of Florida State University’s Department of Classics. The project promises to shed new light on a wide range of questions about how Mycenaean influence in the region spread so quickly, and what the forces were that caused so many Mycenaean centers, probably including this port town, to be abruptly abandoned just a century later.

The settlement, Kalamianos, in the Korphos region, rests on the shores of the Saronic Gulf in the western Aegean Sea about 60 miles southwest of Athens, today’s Greek capital.

Although SHARP engaged in its first field season last spring, Kalamianos was discovered by the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS) project in 2001, using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) computer technology to create a model of the characteristics of optimal Bronze Age harbors, followed by a careful search of hundreds of miles of Saronic coastline. With a shoreline susceptible to erosion and renowned through the ages for extensive tectonic activity (two of the earth’s major tectonic plates, the African and the Eurasian, collide under Greek waters), the team, which included Pullen, Tartaron, and their colleague Dr. Richard Rothaus of St. Cloud State University, expected to encounter difficulties finding archaeological evidence on an ever-shifting terrain.

“What we discovered in 2001 was not only a probable Mycenaean port town, but an unusual opportunity for archaeologists,” noted Dr. Tartaron. “Kalamianos as a site is unique. Soil erosion and tectonic activity actually helped to reveal the site to us, because much of the soil had already been stripped from the site. Architectural remains of about 20 acres of closely built structures were plainly visible.”

Here was that rarity of rarities: a large, newly discovered archaeological site that would require relatively little digging.

Last season’s SHARP project, with a team of about 25, began with a detailed mapping of the architectural remains using differential global positioning system (DGPS) technology, analysis of the layout and construction techniques of the buildings, and a surface collection of artifacts on the site and in the countryside up to two miles around.

A well-preserved wall at Kalamianos, showing the distinctive Mycenaean masonry style known as cyclopean. Photo: Thomas Tartaron, 2001.Earthquakes and the forces of nature have collapsed the structures at Kalamianos, leaving the building’s foundations, including walls that in some places still stand nearly five feet tall. The grid pattern of the town’s layout, as well as collections of surface artifacts inside the walls, indicate that the community was planned and built at one time, about 1300 B.C.—the height of the Mycenaean civilization.

“Heavy fortification walls with gates, identified on the inland side of the port town, point to its role as a fortress, possibly protecting the harbor,” noted Dr. Tartaron. “Additional Mycenaean architectural complexes—probably hamlets and fortified enclosures—as well as isolated concentrations of pottery sherds we found on the surface in the site’s hinterland, indicate that the Mycenaean presence at that time was on a regional scale.”

Archaeologists studying the Bronze Age know that in the middle of the Gulf, directly facing Kalamianos, was the ancient city-state of Kolonna on the isle of Aigina. It was a probable rival of the burgeoning city-state of Mycenae, about 40 miles inland to the west of Kalamianos, during the middle of the second millennium B.C. One of the key questions for SHARP is how and why Mycenae expanded and incorporated the Saronic Gulf region into her sphere of influence by 1300 B.C., just around the time that the port town was built. The architecture at Kalamianos shows close affinities to building techniques and styles in the area around Mycenae, prompting Pullen and Tartaron to hypothesize that Mycenae established this fortified settlement as a key port in an expanding maritime economic network, and as a powerful statement, in full view of Kolonna, of a changing of the guard in the Saronic.

It appears that Kalamianos was abruptly abandoned just a century later, based on the absence, so far, of any material dating to the period immediately following the phase known as Late Helladic IIIB, defined by a style of painted pottery that ends around 1200 B.C. along with the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces. The causes of the demise of this brilliant civilization are not well known, with scholars debating theories about natural disasters, including earthquakes; droughts accompanied by food shortages and civil unrest; and even devastation at the hands of the shadowy “Sea Peoples” known from contemporary Egyptian records. The survey finds show no evidence for any significant reoccupation of Kalamianos, although some low-level activity is apparent in the later centuries of Roman occupation of Greece (roughly A.D. 400–700).

Indeed, after the Mycenaean culture went into demise, Greece entered its “Dark Ages”—from which it was emerging at the time that Homer wrote his Illiad and Odyssey.

Members of the 2007 SHARP team gather on a hilltop with a view overlooking Kalamianos and beyond. Photo: Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory.This spring, the team returns to continue the process of documenting the architecture and other remains at Kalamianos, and discovering other traces of Mycenaean activity in the region around it. Special emphasis will be placed on geological work that will reconstruct the contours of the Bronze Age shoreline. Until the coastal configuration is worked out, it will not be entirely clear why Kalamianos, which today lies on a rocky shore exposed to the sea, was chosen by the Mycenaeans as the place to establish such an important harbor. In 2009, excavation will begin at selected locations in the port town as the team seeks to learn about the daily lives of the people of Mycenaean Kalamianos.

“We still have so much to learn about how the Mycenaeans grew to dominate so large an area in ancient Greek times—and how they fell in to such rapid and permanent decline,” said Dr. Tartaron. “Now that we have found a significant Myceanean port town—one that was clearly built for a purpose, and one that collapsed just as suddenly one hundred years later—we have a tremendous opportunity to shine new light on these famous ancient Greeks.”

SHARP’s interdisciplinary team includes archaeologists specializing in architecture, pottery, and stone artifacts; geologists and geomorphologists studying the history of landforms, soils and sediments, hydrology, and long-term coastal change; surveyors and mappers; anthropologists collecting oral and archival information about traditional ways of life in the Saronic Gulf; and experts in computer applications such as GIS and relational databases.

In Greece, the project is overseen by Mrs. Panayiota Kasimi of the 37th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities in Ancient Corinth. This office, directed by Mr. Κonstantinos Kissas, advocates on behalf of SHARP to the Ministry of Culture and provides essential logistical support.

SHARP has received financial support from several groups, including the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, the Loeb Classical Library Foundation, the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation, Florida State University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Photo 1: The Saronic Gulf region, showing the locations of the Kalamianos site
and Kolonna, the center of a powerful Bronze Age state on the island of
Aigina. Image is a Google Earth map modified by Thomas Tartaron.

Photo 2: A well-preserved wall at Kalamianos, showing the distinctive Mycenaean
masonry style known as cyclopean. Photo: Thomas Tartaron, 2001.

Photo 3: Members of the 2007 SHARP team gather on a hilltop with a view overlooking Kalamianos and beyond. Photo: Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory.

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