Lefkandi and Eretria

From Vasiliko a by-road descends in 2km, through a spreading area of suburban coastal residences, to Lefkandi­, site of one of the most significant loci of recent archaeology in Greece.

The importance of Lefkandi­ lies in the fact that it has illumi nated a hitherto little understood period of early history— referred to pejoratively as the ‘Dark Age’—between the 11th and 9th centuries bc. In precisely this period, Lefkandi­, which had nonetheless been inhabited from the Early Bronze Age, became a particularly flourishing and important centre for a wide area of Eastern Greece, the Islands, and the Eastern Mediterranean. Then, around 700 bc, it was deserted and is heard of no more. Lefkandi­ has been suggested by some as the site of ‘Old Eretria’, the city Homer linked with Chal cis in the Catalogue of Ships, and which was the city Strabo saw and claimed (incorrectly) to be the city sacked by the Persians in 490 bc. Archaeological evidence has now shown that the city which the Persians destroyed was on the site of present-day Eretria.
   The fascinating finds that come from Lefkandi­ are in the museum in Eretria (see below). On site there are two main points of interest—the settlement itself, where for the visitor there is little to see, and the remarkable heroon which lies a short distance away. The latter, however, should not be missed because of its considerable archaeological importance.
   The settlement site lies a short walk from the south end of the main bay. The top of the flat headland of Xeropolis here was explored in 1965/66 and 1969/70 by the British School and found to be a settlement with three associated cemeteries. The excavations yielded unusually informative layers of Late Helladic IIIC through to Proto-Geometric material (12th to 10th centuries bc). The material suggests significant wealth, as well as clear commercial links with Cyprus and the Levant coast after the middle of the 10th century bc.
   In a modern residential area, 200m uphill to the north of the harbour (between Chrysanthemon and Plateon Streets, on ‘Toumba Hill’), are the remains of the * heroon, now covered by a functional protective roof. These are the surface vestiges of what would have been a spacious and ambitious peripteral structure—the largest building of its period (c. 1000 bc) so far known in Greece. It was built of mud-brick on a high (1.5m) stone socle and measured about 14m wide by almost 50m long, with an apsidal end to the west and an entrance from the east. With internal and external wooden colonnades supporting a steeply raking roof, it represents a new form of monumental architecture and in many impor tant aspects it prefigures later Greek temple design. In the main chamber was buried a man, a woman and four horses: the cremated remains of the warrior, wrapped in a fine cloth, had been placed in a bronze urn, together with the body of the woman surrounded by rich accoutrements. Unlike the warrior, the woman had not been cremated; the finding of a knife close to her head has led to speculation that she may have perished in a ritual sacrifice. It is particularly notable that the building was demolished in the same generation as it was constructed and deliberately covered with a mound, probably so as to form a hero-shrine to the deceased buried within. Viewed in comparison with both the grandiose and much earlier constructions of Minoan and Mycenaean Greece and of what followed later in the Archaic period, the vestiges remaining at Lefkandi­ can seem less inspiring. But the monumentality of what is intimated here is remark able for a period which has otherwise offered little that is of comparable size or complexity. It provides a crucial link in a possible continuity of architectural design between the Bronze Age and the historic period in Greece; it helps us to understand the design of the very earliest temples built at sites such as the Heraion on Samos and the pan-Aetolian sanctuary at Thermon on mainland Greece. But the fascinating questions the building raises about cultic practice in this important transitional period are more perplexing, since it cannot yet be established whether this building was originally constructed as a palace or ‘megaron’ for the dignitaries later buried in it, or specifically as a place for honouring their passing, or even whether there was any primary divine aspect to the building and its cult which may have led to the burials under its roof.

From Lefkandi­ the coast road soon leads to Eretria (23km), 3km to the north of which are the ancient quarries (now reactivated) of the beautiful maroon-red and white decorative marble, known as marmor chalcidicum or ‘Chalcidian marble’ to the ancients, and as Fior di pesco (‘peach flower’) during the Renaissance.
   The modern settlement of Eretria was founded as ‘Nea Psara’ in 1824 by refugees from the island of Psara. The new town overlies much of the city of Ancient Eretria whose ruins are the most extensive on Euboea.

As between siblings, proximity and similarity of position meant that the history of Eretria was intertwined with that of Chalcis its powerful neighbour only 20km to the north along the same coast—at times in close cooperation, at others in fratricidal conflict. Eretria’s wealth grew from its exploitation of important maritime trade routes just as Chalcis’s did, and the two cities participated together in the trade emporion of Al Mina on the Syrian coast: Eretria, like Chalcis, founded distant colonies in the 8th century— in the Northern Aegean, and on the islands of Corfu in the Adriatic and Ischia in the bay of Naples. In the same period, however, the two cities came to blows over possession of the Lelantine Plain which lay between them, and it may have been Eretria’s loss of that struggle which led to the abandon ment of ‘Lefkandi­’ (possibly Strabo’s ‘Old Eretria’) in favour of the site now known as Ancient Eretria—although traces of Mycenaean, Proto-Geometric and Geometric occupation have been found on the acropolis above the site, suggesting a pre-existing occupation. The city of Miletus had come to the aid of Eretria in the Lelantine struggle, and it was perhaps for this reason that Eretria in turn joined Athens in supporting the Ionian revolt led by Miletus in the first years of the 5th century bc. In the revolt, Sardis —the Persians’ regional capital—was razed by the Greeks. That conspicuous support cost Eretria dearly: when Darius invaded Greece is 490 bc, almost his first objective was the destruction of Eretria and the enslavement of its people. The city recovered from the devastation and sent significant contingents to both the battles of Salamis in 480 and Plataea in 479 bc. Thereafter, in spite of a rebellion in 446 bc, the city was largely under Athenian control until it broke free in 411 bc, when Athens’s attentions were elsewhere in the aftermath of the Sicilian debacle. In 377 bc it joined the Second Athenian Confederacy. Caught up in the intrigues between Athens and Macedonia, and subsequently between Macedonia and Rome, it was sacked by the Romans in 198 bc. After a second destruction in 87 bc during the Mithridatic wars, the ancient city was never rebuilt.

The principal archaeological sites lie scattered to both sides of the main highway. A visit to them best begins at the excellent displays in the museum (open daily 8.30–3, except Mon) which stands just to the south of the road. The museum has two rooms: one dedicated to exhibits from prehistoric times to the beginning of the 6th century bc; the other containing the pedimental sculpture of the Temple of Apollo Daphnephoros and later Classical and Hellenistic pieces.

Room 1: the cases to the left exhibit the extraordinary finds from Lefkandi­, bearing witness both to its wealth and the extent of its commercial trade overseas. Of particular note: the broad alabastron (case 1) in clay with magnificent designs of gryphon, deer and roe-buck in a light slip on dark background (c. 1100 bc); vases imported from Italy and Palestine; an elegant and un-threatening clay centaur (case 3), both man and horse, with fine Proto-Geometric decoration. This piece was curiously found broken in two halves and included in separate burials. Note also the wheeled horse carrying two amphorae (case 4), possibly a child’s toy, of Attic origin; and the curious * cup, whose single handle which steadies the cupeniously ends in a leg wearing a fine laced boot. These pieces, which all date from the 11th and 10th centuries bc, show that, although surface decoration was mainly confined to pattern and geometric forms, there was an underlying ferment of creativity in plastic, figurative forms. Case 5 exhibits simple but refined items of gold jewellery. The showcases to the right display a wide variety of pottery including a number of large, decorated funerary amphorae, characteristic of the Geometric period. Amongst other items are imported artefacts from as far away as Syria, such as the 9th century bc decorated horse-blinkers fashioned in bronze (case 12).

   Room 2 houses the sculpture fragments from the * west pediment of the Temple of Apollo Daphnephoros (i), which date from the end of the 6th century bc. The scene, presided over by a central, standing figure of Athena with the Gorgon’s head on her breast-plate, depicts Theseus carrying off Hippolyta (also called Antiope), Queen of the Amazons, on his shoulders. The predominantly ‘Athenian’ subject matter may reflect political connections between the two states. Lacking now the vibrant colours which once decorated their surface, the elements appeal to the eye even more intensely through their poise, clear forms, and elegant, rhythmic contours. They are typical of the aristocratic art of the Late Archaic period. The showcases in the room exhibit objects mostly from Eretria in the Classical and Hellenistic periods—domestic items, votive burial offerings, Euboean coins (case 16), and Panathenaic amphorae awarded to athletic victors (case 18).

The modern highway almost exactly bisects the area of the ancient city. Points of archaeological interest lie to both north and south of the road.

To the north of the highway are:
The West Walls and West Gate. A circuit of nearly 4km of walls surrounded and protected the city, joining the acropolis hill in the northeast with the harbour in the southeast corner. The first enceinte was built (further to the east of the surviving walls) in the 8th century bc. The one visible here dates from c. 400 bc and is well-preserved, with the moat and the bases of external bastions extant along the western section of the excavated area, north of the highway. At the point where the ancient road from Chalcis entered the city is the West Gate and Barbican, constructed with a wide variety of kinds of masonry. The base of the walls in a tightly in terlocking trapezoidal system is particularly impressive; the ample vaulted passage beneath that drained off the torrent is also finely constructed with a round arch at one end and a corbelled support at the other.
   Directly inside and to the southeast of the West Gate are the remains of a small heroon in which were incorprated some noble-family tombs containing weapons and grave goods dating from the 8th century bc. At that time the heroon would have been outside the city walls which were only enlarged and moved further west in the late 5th century bc. In reaching this point on the site from the entrance to the archaeological area, you will have traversed an excavated area of large residences or so-called ‘palaces’, some contiguous with the West Wall. There are several superimposed layers of construction in this area, but the houses at the highest level, mostly built around a central peristyle court, date from the late 5th and 4th centuries bc. A well-preserved clay bath remains in situ in one. Many different colours and types of stone were used for the threshold blocks.
   To the northeast of the West Gate is the base of a 4th century bc temple of Dionysos, which was a Doric, peripteral structure with an altar which stood a short distance to the east. As is appropriate for Dionysos, the presiding divinity of drama, the precinct of his temple abuts the 5th century bc theatre, whose form is clear although it has largely been left covered by earth. It is curious that the natural slope of the acropolis hill to the east was not used to create the theatre, and that massive terracing had therefore to be undertaken to support its cavea on this flatter site. It retains its seven lower rows of seats, much defaced; the upper tiers, which were ex posed to view, have nearly all been removed, block by block, to build the modern village. A semicircular drainage channel almost 2m wide runs in front of the lowest row. The design has unusual innovations: from the orchestra, steps descend through a square opening into an underground vaulted passage, leading to the hyposkenion; this was used for the sudden appearance and disappearance of agents of the underworld, as well as for the facilitating of special sound effects. The high stage is raised on seven or eight courses of masonry.
   Further east, at the foot of the acropolis and above an area identified as the stadium, is a Gymnasium which was first excavated in 1895. By its west end was found an inscribed stele set up in honour of a gymnasiarch and benefactor. At the eastern extremity is an extensive series of water conduits which supplied the bathing troughs, still clearly visible along the side of a room with plain mosaic floor.
   Above the Gymnasium, paths lead up to the acropolis where the late 5th century bc enceinte and its well-preserved towers in isodomic masonry are visible, especially to the east side. On the way up are (left) remains of a Thesmophoreion (sanctuary to Kore and Demeter) and (right) the sanctuary of a female deity, perhaps Artemis Olympia. On returning once again towards the highway, you pass the ‘House of the Mosaics’, recognisable because it is partly covered by a mod ern building and roof. This is a large and important residence—sometimes attributed to the philosopher Menedemos—constructed around 370 bc with a private area and an ample public area. Much of the furniture and small objects, including the exceptional terracotta Gorgon’s head, which were found here are exhibited in the Museum (Room 2, case 17). The figurative mosaics—especially those in the middle reception room on the north side—are preserved in situ. They are executed mostly in black and white, and soberly highlighted with colour. The house appears to have been destroyed by fire a hundred years after it was built.
   On a hill 1km west of the theatre, a tumulus encloses a Macedonian tomb. (Key held by museum. Not signed. Take asphalt road parallel to west side of the archaeological area; then first fork left. Road climbs; as it turns sharply right, the tomb is at the summit of the hill crowned with pines.) The neatly cut dromos on the north side leads to a square vaulted chamber containing two funeral couches in marble, with their pillows and draperies, two thrones and a table, all once coloured. A funerary sculpture—a lion or a sphinx—would have marked the grave from above.

To the south of the main highway:

The temple of Apollo Daphnephoros is Eretria’s most significant monument, and was always the hub of the ancient city. (East on highway, then last street south before the round about.) Now that the Archaeological Department has re covered with earth most of the recent excavations, all that is visible is the large crepidoma of the Doric peripteral temple, erected c. 530/520 bc, to which the pedimental sculpture in the museum originally belonged. It had 6 x 14 columns, with a cella articulated in three aisles divided by a double row of columns. Noteworthy is the beautiful dressing of the blocks of the lowest level, which possess their natural irregular pro file underneath, and are finished to a perfect, flat, lipped ledge on the upper surface. Below what is seen however, archaeologists have identified two earlier buildings: the first, dating from c. 800 bc, was an apsidal ‘Daphnephoreion’, per haps designed to imitate the early ‘hut’ of laurel branches which traditionally stood at Delphi; the second, built over it in the mid-7th century bc, was a longer building, again terminating in a wide apse at the northwestern end, with six (wooden) columns on the ends and 19 down each side. In plan and design this building has affinities with the heroon at Lefkandi­ and with the early hekatompedon at Samos . It lies partially under the north edge of the visible temple base.
   Three other points of interest lie further to the southeast. A meticulously cut, circular base with a central circular pit is visible in an area occupied by the ancient agora. This tholos dates from the 4th century bc and is possibly also the sanctuary of, or monument to, a hero. Beyond it, on what was the edge of the harbour in ancient times are the baths of the 4th century bc, probably belonging to a gymnasium complex. To the east of these are the ruins of a temple of Isis, whose cult was introduced into the Greek world by mariners and merchants returning from Egypt. The broken cult statue in terracotta was found in situ when the building was excavated in 1917.

Euboea Island, Greece

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