Lefkandi: illuminating the Greek Dark Age

Many brushed off the Dark Age of Greece, until new discoveries in Lefkandi, Euboea, offered a different perspective. Irene Lemos, director of excavations, talks to Neos Kosmos about the significance of this Early Bronze Age site

Where is Lefkandi and what communities lived there? Who were the people that lived in Lefkandi during – dark only to modern man – the Greek Dark Age?
It was only during the last three decades that Greek-British excavations were carried out on the island of Euboea and its archaeological site, situated on the west coast, Lefkandi. It was the British School at Athens that began excavations at Lefkandi in 1964 under the direction of Mervyn Popham and Hugh Sackett.

The first excavations took place on the ancient settlement of Xeropolis, revealing that the history of the site started around 2100 BC.

Its findings, that forever changed the perspective of the Greek Dark Age, were outstanding – from rich cemeteries, to decorated pottery older than well known Attic examples, to the statuette of a fine centaur – the earliest representation of the mythical creature in Greek art.

Equally important was the discovery of Late Geometric structures and houses which reveal evidence for the production of bronze artefacts and a number of early graffiti in the Euboean alphabet. Contrary to what was previously thought, sophisticated metalworking was being carried out in the Aegean at an early stage of the Dark Ages.

With 1968 excavations and five burial plots found, the importance of the site was apparent to the academic community. The cemeteries covered the period from around 1050 to 825 BC, a period which before the discoveries at Lefkandi was known as the Greek Dark Age.

In 1981, a building was located to the east of the Toumba cemetery. Its discovery is said to be one of the most striking discoveries of the last thirty years in
Greece, that forever changed our ideas of this crucial period in the history of Greece.

In 2003, university of Oxford professor and now director of excavations at Lefkandi, Irene Lemos, resumed excavations on the hill.

But for Lemos, her connection with the site goes further back than this.

Brought up in Athens, in a family from the tiny island of Innouses, and surrounded by the amazing monuments made Irene want to learn more about the past.

While still a first year student in Classics and Archaeology at the University of Athens, it was her visit to an excavation site that was crucial in following a career in archaeology rather than history or philology.

“I started working at Lefkandi as a student, when I first went to Oxford. I actually went to Oxford because of Lefkandi. I was very interested in this particular period, it was known as a Dark Age of Greece.

“I think we were in the dark, they were not,” Professor Lemos says with a laugh.

For the last 11 years, Irene Lemos has been teaching at the University of Oxford. In a field that is often seen as not financially viable, she says the interest of students remains the same.

“It is certainly not easy to find jobs but it was never easy to find jobs in archaeology because there are not that many jobs in this field. I’m lucky that I am at Oxford because I have very good students, very dedicated students, and to be honest – if you want to do something like archaeology or classics, Oxford is the best place to be. So you have to be really dedicated and love what you are doing,” she tells Neos Kosmos.

“I’m not a pure classical archaeologist, my speciality is in Pre-classical Greece – what I call Early Greece. It’s a difficult period, not very well studied, so you need an extra enthusiasm to be doing this, as you are not dealing with the Parthenon and the temples and all that.”

Now in Australia as the 2014 Professorial Research Fellow at The Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens (AAIA), Professor Irene Lemos will give the lectures ‘Lefkandi in Euboea: Past and Recent Archaeological Research’ and ‘The Arts and Crafts of Early Greece’ at universities around the country.

Of Lefkandi, where she has been director of excavations for more than a decade now, Professor Lemos says it has offered much to the archaeology of the late Bronze and Early Iron Age in the Aegean, with discoveries that have changed our perspectives of the period from 1200 to 700 BC.

The history of Lefkandi started in the Early Bronze Age, when the settlement was occupied for the first time, to become an important node in the Aegean during the Middle Bronze Age.

After the collapse of the Mycenaean administration system the site became one of the key settlements in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean.

“While studying the early site of Lefkandi we may try to understand what Classical Greece is all about. We have the Mycenaean collapse when the palaces were destroyed at around 1200 [BC], and then most people know the emergence of the city state – polis, of democracy, the classical period. But there is a period in between, very formative, and studying and understanding this period may contribute to appreciating more the importance of Greek civilisation and what Greeks had to offer to the rest of the world – which is the institution of democracy, polis, and all these things that we appreciate about classical civilisation.”

When, in 1982, Irene Lemos went to Oxford for postgraduate studies, it was one year after an amazing discovery was made – a 50-metre long building, dating from the 10th century, that completely changed the views of what people in this time could accomplish.

“I went to Oxford to study with the excavator of the building, Mervyn Popham, who was my supervisor, so Lefkandi proved that at least in Euboea there was no Dark Age. And that people could manage not only to build impressive structures but also to have a lot of contacts with the rest of the known world – either the Greek world or outside the Greek world – with Cyprus, the Levantine coast, Egypt. A detail contrary to the prevailing theme of isolation typical of life in Dark Age Greece.”

With the discovery, the notion of a Dark Age popular amongst the scholars of ’70s and ’80s was now destroyed. The Lefkandi burial record had revealed artefacts suggesting it to be the richest site in Dark Age Greece, that – atypically for the Dark Age – suggested an overall emphasis on importance to the living rather than goods symbolic of the dead’s life.

“Lefkandi is very important even now. There are other sites, such as Knossos in Crete, which saw similar kind of development but are not that spectacular in their findings.

“But archaeology is accidental; we are lucky to have Lefkandi. I keep saying there must be more Lefkandi – it’s an unusual thing for an excavator to say because every excavator says their site is unique. I’m a bit more optimistic. I think that the discovery of this period forced people to look out for more remains of the period between 1200 down to 800, 700 BCE. We are still trying to make more sense of what was going on in those times; we still have a lot to learn about it,” Professor Lemos says.

The evidence to back up Professor Lemos’ enthusiasm that there may be more Lefkandi around Greece may not exist yet on an empirical basis. But in her opinion, the argument that there can’t be only one Lefkandi, one site in the whole of the Aegean – is good enough. Still, there are some practical and physical obstacles to it.

“Usually the evidence we find from this period comes from graves, and this is a thought of the archaeologists rather than the period itself. There are not so many systematic excavations and if you want to excavate under a classical temple – you are not going to demolish a temple or a Byzantine church in order to find the remains of this period. Sometimes I joke that we need to demolish the Parthenon in order to see if there is a huge building underneath there – but I don’t think anybody is going to listen to me,” she says with a giggle.

The remains of this early period remain under later remains. The place to find it, in Professor Lemos’ opinion, would be the coast of the sea and the islands, rather than inland sites.

“When there was no control from the palace administration of the sea route, that connected the Aegean Greece and the rest of Mediterranean, it became quite important for people on the coast and on the islands to take things into their own hands.

“It is clear that Lefkandi’s strategic position was significant to maritime activity. To keep operating trade, I feel that this is one of the important changes that triggered the initiative of a site like Lefkandi to become very important. Another thing that made Lefkandi very important is that it’s next to a famous plain, so they didn’t need to worry too much about feeding the population, that was normally a big issue. It was both factors – very good position controlling sea traffic but also fertile plain to feed the population.”

Based on the findings that illuminated the Greek Dark Age, the type of community that might have lived at Lefkandi was self-sufficient, technologically-skilled, powerful, with skills in craft and seafaring.

Professor Lemos’ lecture ‘The Arts and Crafts of Early Greece’ will showcase the craft of Lefkandi, but also of other regions of the Greek world in this period – from the Aegean islands, to Achaea, near Patras.

“I’m trying to show to people that in the period after the Mycenaean collapse and before the Archaic period some of the skills that we thought were completely lost – like the skills of metalworker, potter, architect – were still there. But there were changes in the way they wanted to portray their taste on art and craft. It’s interesting to see how within these 500 years they change their perspective of what they want to display on pottery or other forms like jewellery.

“At the beginning they were very keen to portray scenes from everyday life – but then at the beginning of the 10th century they completely rejected any iconographical presentation and they went for geometric designs.

“Everybody knows about the Classical or Mycenaean or Minoan period. I’m like an apostle to tell about the period not many people know about. For me, this is an opportunity to promote this very interesting stage of development of the Greeks.”

Professor Irene Lemos will give lectures at University of Queensland (14 and 15 August), Macquarie University (22 August), The University of Sydney (2 September), Australian National University (4 and 5 September), and University of Melbourne, with Classics Association of Victoria (9 September). For more information, contact AAIA on 02 9351 4759 or via email arts.aaia@sydney.eu.au