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Unearthing the Cycles of Civilization

May 7, 2011

Agamemnon Gold Death-Mask

By Meredith McGroarty

Fifteen hundred years before the Goths and the Vandals fractured the Roman Empire and ushered in the period commonly referred to as the European Dark Ages, a similar phenomenon befell ancient Greece, which saw the achievements of Mycenaean society collapse in the 12th century BC, leading to a widespread decline in material culture and social development in the Greek world. These cycles of growth and decay have played out several times in ancient civilizations, and University of Tennessee researchers are leading an archaeological project that aims to look at these prehistoric phases as a tool to understand how and why great societies begin or cease to exist.

Since 2004, UT classics professor Aleydis Van de Moortel has co-directed the Mitrou Archaeological Project, or MAP, an annual summer field project that takes place at Mitrou, an islet in the North Euboean Gulf in central Greece. The abundance of settlement remains, graves, pottery sherds, and many other finds make the site an ideal location to study the changes that were taking place in that region during the Bronze Age and Iron Age.

“Mitrou is a very rich archaeological site, and the periods for which it has the most material are periods of transition that are not well understood,” says Van de Moortel, associate professor and Lindsay Young Professor in the Humanities.

Van de Moortel’s research focuses on Aegean prehistory and the rise and fall of complex societies. She first learned about Mitrou from a colleague shortly before arriving at UT in 2002.

In addition to field research, MAP also includes a field school where students receive instruction in excavation and analysis techniques. MAP is a joint venture of the University of Tennessee and the Greek Archaeological Service, conducted under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Its team comprises students, faculty, and staff from more than 14 countries, and four to six UT students participate in the project each year. Outside funding for MAP comes mainly from the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Loeb Foundation at Harvard University.

The story of human civilization at Mitrou starts back in the Early Bronze Age. The earliest excavated level dates around 2400 BC, an era of moderate sophistication in the Greek world.

“In Early Bronze IIB, in several parts of Greece we have large corridor houses. This is the first official architecture we have in Greece. These buildings were designed with very substantial walls, and they had terracotta roof tiles. They were the political centers of these early settlements,” Van de Moortel says. At Mitrou, roof tiles and substantial walls were found, but it is not yet clear whether there was a corridor house.

Around 2200 BC, this early society collapsed, and from then until approximately 1650–1600 BC, the Greek mainland had a village culture with simple houses and no physical evidence of powerful leaders. Starting around 1600 BC, there is evidence of a rapid increase in power among local elites. Before MAP, this evidence came primarily from graves, but Mitrou is the first site to provide major new insights into this social development from settlement remains.

Two large complexes were built on Mitrou—possibly belonging to two leading families vying for power—and a network of broad, well-paved roads was laid out over the earlier settlement, indicating a stronger central authority and demonstrating a transition to a more urban society.

Finds at Mitrou also provide more insight into the foundations of the new elite’s power. The discovery of a horse bridle piece from the Balkans suggests the presence of a trading network between Mitrou’s elite and the north, as Mitrou was located on strategic land and sea routes. Evidence that purple dye—a luxury in ancient times—was produced on Mitrou could indicate that Aegean leaders traded purple cloth with eastern civilizations in exchange for copper and tin, which were needed to produce bronze, the key metal for Bronze Age weapons and tools.

MAP archaeologists also found elite graves with gold jewelry and the remains of helmets covered with boar’s tusks, indicating that the local elite in the late 16th and the 15th centuries BC became increasingly wealthy, gradually adopting elements of Mycenaean elite culture.

Although this adoption of Mycenaean practices appears to be gradual and voluntary, evidence at Mitrou and other sites suggests that the establishment of palatial societies around 1400 BC involved violence. In the early 14th century BC, Mitrou was destroyed by fire, perhaps as a result of an earthquake, but possibly through warfare. Van de Moortel suspects that the area was taken over by one of the more powerful neighboring rulers, probably the leader of Orchomenos. She explains that Mitrou never developed a palace itself and shows remarkably little activity throughout the 200 years following its destruction (approximately 1400–1200 BC), even though this period marked the height of Mycenaean palatial society. Only when Mycenaean palaces collapsed did Mitrou begin to recover, albeit slowly, never attaining the level it did in the 16th and 15th centuries BC.

Excavations at Mitrou and at other sites in the Aegean are also shedding more light on what happened after the collapse of Mycenaean palatial society, a period sometimes referred to as the Greek Dark Ages.

“We have several sites in the North Euboean Gulf area that are flourishing in the 12th century but not in the palatial period. For the first time, naval warfare imagery appears in several areas of the Aegean, including at a site near Mitrou. I think we’re starting to see here the rise of a new elite that succeeded the palatial elite and gained power from naval raids,” Van de Moortel says.

A balloon photo of the islet of Mitrou in 2008.

A balloon photo of the islet of Mitrou in 2008, showing the northeast excavation sector and outlying trenches. The northwest excavation sector is hidden under the olive trees.

In the 12th century BC, many sites in Greece still had an urban character, but by 1100 BC society had become rural again. Possible explanations for this change range from immigrations by new people to large-scale abandonment of the land as a result of natural disaster or warfare, with the remaining people unable to maintain a coherent urban structure. Mitrou is one of only a few sites never abandoned, and thus it provides a rare opportunity to study this transitional period.

From the end of the 12th century until the 10th century BC, Mitrou was home to a village society that was less advanced than the civilization that had occupied the islet 500 years previously. Van de Moortel and her team are now examining the human remains and all aspects of Mitrou’s material culture to see whether they can find an explanation for this reversion to a rural society. Mitrou was ultimately abandoned in the late 10th century BC, and has remained uninhabited ever since.

The patterns of rise and fall seen at Mitrou raise important questions about how societies change, collapse, and rebuild, Van de Moortel says. The fall of a fairly advanced social structure in the Early Bronze Age, the rapid rise of a local elite class in the 16th century, and the failure of the people of Mitrou to rebuild after the disaster of the 14th century are all important indicators of how civilizations do or do not survive.

“Our finds at Mitrou are reshaping scholarly debate on how complex societies come about, and also on what happens when a complex society disintegrates. How do people survive? How do they look back to the older society?”