Scholars' Association News
Issue 22
May 2012


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The origin of the first states in Greece

The institution of state governs every aspect of our lives. But that was not always the case. The transition from a stateless world to a world consisting of states is one of the most intriguing chapters in human history; and there are only a few places where this transition can be studied as systematically as in Ancient Greece.

We know for a fact that in continental Greece the first city-states were founded during the late Bronze Age period known also as the Mycenaean Age (around 1650-1100 B.C.). The Mycenaean states had a complex structure and were governed by specialized civil services and official institutions. Their territory was divided into districts, each with its own capital, and were governed by district officials.

Although we know much about the administration of these states, we are still in the dark regarding their formation. According to the predominant theory, they were formed by small independent kingdoms. In the early Mycenaean Age, some powerful Mycenaean kings expanded their realms by absorbing neighbouring kingdoms and creating complex political and social structures which were later to become the first states.

This theory could neither be confirmed nor reputed to date, mainly due to the fact that all available archaeological evidence came from the capitals of the Mycenaean states, the glorious palaces of Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos, etc. But this is not enough because, on the one hand, the developments that led to the formation of the Mycenaean states took place largely outside the palaces and, on the other, the remains of the palaces that have been preserved date back to the end of the Mycenaean Age and reveal only fragments of the first stages of their formation. A new excavation at Iklaina, Messenia, (Fig. 1) came to bridge this gap in knowledge.

In July 1954, distinguished archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos visited Iklaina to investigate the plausibility of certain information about farmers finding ancient relics in their fields. During his four-day excavation, he discovered parts of a monumental building which he described as a palace. He also unearthed a paved path and Cyclopean walls.

Marinatos never returned to Iklaina and the site remained unexplored till the 1990s when Prof. Georgios Korres called it an important site in Messenia in need of further research and asked me to continue the excavation. In 1998, the Iklaina Archaeological Project began and its purpose is to thoroughly investigate Iklaina and the surroundings. The excavation is being carried out under the auspices of the Athens Archaeological Society and the project is funded by the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Harvard University, the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Government.

At Iklaina (Fig. 2), the digging spade is not only, gradually but methodically, bringing back to life the eventful history of Mycenaean Greece, but it is also shedding new light on the origins of Mycenaean states. Thus, we are now in a position to know that from 1500 B.C. to around 1350 B.C, Iklaina was a district capital. The new excavations have brought to light the ruins of a magnificent two- or three- storey building complex of Cyclopean construction, with three wings built around a rectangular court (Fig. 3, 4).

The external walls were very meticulously constructed with ashlar blocks of equal size and orthostates, while the rooms were decorated with elegant frescoes of Minoan art portraying ships, dolphins and female processions (Fig. 5). High quality pottery, metal objects and fragments of Minoan stone vases were discovered in the substratum of those rooms. This reveals the official significance of the building which suggests it was used as the local royal residence and can thus be considered a type of administrative center, Based on the archaeological data from the survey area, Iklaina dominated a 12-15 km2 territory.

Sometime between 1400 and 1350 B.C., both the palace and the city surrounding it were violently destroyed by a hostile invasion. After that, Iklaina appears to have been ruled by a new sovereign. The most impressive change after the destruction is the radical change in urban planning and architecture: the administrative center was demolished and the ruins were buried. The location it was built on was forever abandoned and the buildings that emerged after 1400/1350 B.C. were built further away and had a different orientation from the previous ones, possibly in an attempt by the new ruler to efface all monuments connected with his predecessor.

But who was this new ruler of Iklaina? Iklaina was not the only capital in the area. A few miles to the north, in the Ano Eglianos hill, another capital was booming and had its own palace. While Iklaina was destroyed around 1350 B.C., the city of Ano Eglianos continued to thrive and to expand till it developed to the renowned capital of the Mycenaean Age, Pylos, with the palace of King Nestor. Given the fact that, in the mid 14th century B.C., Iklaina was conquered by another ruler while Nestor’s kingdom was expanding, it can be concluded that the conqueror and new ruler of Iklaina was most likely the king of Ano Eglianos, who through the conquest of Iklaina (and possibly other chiefdoms in the area), annexed new territories into his realm thus creating more complex political and social structures. These developments resulted in his becoming sovereign of the Mycenean state of Pylos.

This marks the beginning of the second and last era in the history of Iklaina, not as an independent city but as one of the district capitals of the kingdom of Pylos. The names of the district capitals of the state are preserved in the records kept by the central administrative services in Eglianos in clay tablets etched in Linear B. Archaeologists think that Iklaina is identified with a-pu2, one of the capitals inscribed in the records. As a district capital, Iklaina had its own administration, territorial official and governor. The large Building X, built at the time and found during the excavations, may have served as the residence of that official.

Another important element mentioned in the records for Iklaina/a-pu2 is that it was an important metallurgical centre which employed more than 200 metalsmiths. The economic growth of the site is also revealed by a large building complex with multiple warehouse facilities and workshops (Fig. 7) which were served by a complex built-in drainage network. This period of economic bloom ended around 1200 B.C. when Iklaina was destroyed, this time completely.

Excavation at Iklaina site has allowed us for the first time to truly grasp in depth the developments that led to the formation of the Mycenaean states. These developments seem to have been the result of violent conflicts between local rulers, and of the annexation of weaker kingdoms into the administrative web of the stronger ones. Through this annexation, formerly independent kingdoms turned into districts of a new state, and a two-tiered administration system was created; the realm was now divided into districts, each with its own capital and administration but which were subject to the jurisdiction of the palatial centre.

Besides the wealth of new data uncovered about the history of the area and the creation of the Mycenaean states, the dig had one more thrilling and totally unexpected finding in store for us. In a pit used to burn rubbish and debris, next to the main drain, a Linear B clay tablet was uncovered. The tablet was etched on the one side with a list of products and on the other with a list of male names and numbers.

Given that Linear B tablets were exclusively used for state records, the discovery of this tablet at Iklaina reveals the existence of a state bureaucracy. This was an utterly unexpected finding as stratified tablets have only been found at the sites of large palaces. Based on recent archaeological research, the district capitals did not keep records. The discovery of the tablet at Iklaina led to the conclusion that the Mycenaean administration was more decentralized and that literacy was actually more widespread than what we had believed. On the other hand, the tablet is the oldest Linear B tablet from the Greek Mainland (it dates back to 1450-1300 B.C.) and it reveals that state bureaucracy and literacy appeared earlier than what we had known until now.

(Michael Cosmopoulos is a Professor of Archaeology, and the Endowed Professor of Hellenic Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, USA).

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