Trip 3: Central Greece

Right when I getting comfortable back in Athens again, it was time to take out next trip. This time we explored central Greece, including Boeotia, Phocis, and Thessaly.

The first morning was cold indeed (it had been raining in Athens the night before), and we drove an hour north into Boeotia. The major site across the border is the ancient polis of Tanagra. The site has had only a few excavations, and none within the boundaries of the ancient city walls. Dark gray clouds loomed over us for most of the day, and the Greek cold set in strong. It was difficult to write with my hands so cold. A herd of goats walked past a few times with their neck bells clanging. Since there was not much to see, after our on-site orientation to the site and Boeotia, we drove to the Schimitari Museum. This quaint museum not only home to finds from Tanagra and other local sites, but also three little kittens who kept the group enamored and entertained for a bit. After a quick coffee break, we continued on to a bizarre site called the Kabeirion—the home of a mystery cult that is understandably mysterious to us. It is thought that some sort of parody cult focused on ritual mockery and Dionysiac feasting existed here. The site is most famous for a certain type of ceramic ware dubbed Kaberic ware for the site at which many were found. These depict scenes of pygmies battling cranes, symposium scenes of men with strange, googly-eyed faces drinking, and standard mythological scenes like Odysseus and Circe, as well as what might be a depiction of a local myth involving an ogre-like woman chasing a pygmy—truly bizarre stuff. A few kilometers away is the crown jewel of Boeotia, the ancient and modern city of Thebes. In fact, the modern city is built on top of the ancient settlement. This creates for a frustrating situation for the pre-history scholars among us because we know and can even see some parts of the Bronze Age palace and walls. Even though Thebes was destroyed in 335 BC by Alexander the Great after a failed rebellion, there are still many ancient remains from before and after the destruction. The city was refounded in 316 BC by King Cassander of Macedon, one of the successors of Alexander. The Thebes Archaeological Museum, which reopened just over a year ago after almost ten years of renovations, contains many great artifacts and finds from Thebes and other sites in Boeotia. Of all the museums I have been to in Greece, this is easily one of the best, if not the best, in Greece. Some highlights: a brilliant display of Mycenaean larnakes (funeral sarcaphagoi), a small collection of Kaberic cups, fragments of the stele (a stone dedicatory monument) detailing the gifts for the rebuilding of Thebes in 316 BC by Cassander of Macedon, a large stone mosaic from the Christian period with personifications of the months, and a “hoard” of Venetian coins stuck together in ball. Of course there were many objects for which my written description would not do justice. In the front courtyard of the museum were a collection of inscriptions and dedicatory monuments. Perhaps the most interesting was the curved stone bases of the Muses found in the Valley of the Muses near Mt. Helicon dedicated by the Thespians. Each of the nine Muses (Polymnia, Thaleia, Terpsichore, Melpomene, Kalliope, Kleio, Ourania, Erato, and Euterpe) had a statue and an epigram composed by the first-century BC poet Onestos. There was also a list of victors from the Erotideia at Thespiae from the second century BC and a funeral stele depicting a dog “sitting on his hind legs and lifting his head, as if waiting for its master” (so says the museum’s plaque). In the center of the courtyard was a medieval tower built by Nikolaos II Saint-Omer in the late 13-the century; it survived to be a prison in the late 1800s (graffiti from the inmates can still be seen today). After the museum, we embarked on a walking tour of the city to view the visible ancient sites. The visible sites we went to include the “House of Cadmos,” the “arsenal” which contained many Mycenaean weapons as well as Linear B tablets, the Electra Gate, and the Temple of Ismenian Apollo. The weather the entire day was on the brink of pouring rain, and the clouds were dark gray and ominous. It was only a matter of time before they opened up on us. Unfortunately, it was during our walking tour, so I was unable to take many pictures of these sites. The rain finally let up around the time we made it to the hotel. After a hot shower and some rest, a group of us went out to a “Barbeque” restaurant (apparently Thebes is known for its barbeque). With such delights as onion rings and barbeque pork belly, it was surprising delicious. We finished the evening with Tsipouro at a bar across the street from the hotel. It was a long day, but even longer days are to come.

 

Looming rain clouds the next morning reminded us of the rainy walk we had the day before. I remembered my gloves and beanie this time. The first stop on our tour of southern Boeotia was at the ancient city of Thespiae. To our surprise we got off the bus at a dirt patch between a warehouse and some abandoned houses. This was ancient Thespiae, or at least what is left of it. While only some very few sections of the city walls remain, over 1,400 inscriptions have been discovered (though many were carried off by the Frenchman P. Jamotin the 19th century). The Greek poet Hesiod lived some five kilometers away from Thespiae, the likely place of “gift-devouring kings” whom the poet’s brother Perses bribed in a lawsuit over their fathers patrimony (Works and Days, 37-39). Hesiod’s legacy surely outlasted these kings and Thespiae. It was fitting for us to next visit the Valley of the Muses near Mt. Helicon where the Muses visited Hesiod and inspired his poetry (Theogony, 1-35). Not too much remains from this site either, but the bases of the Muses at the Thebes Museum were found here. The famous Greek moralist and biographer Plutarch set his Dialogue on Love at a festival called the Erotidae at the Valley of the Muses. It was a less-than-lovely day given the cold, wind, and low-hanging clouds obscuring our view of Mt. Helicon. Even Hesiod himself lamented the weather of his home at Ascra, calling it “a miserable hamlet, shitty in the winter, grievous in the summer, and good at no time” (Works and Days, 639-640). Hesiod’s depiction has staying power. By the time we got to the next site, Thisbai the sun had come out but the cold remained (a σοκολάτα ζεστή “hot chocolate” helped to remedy that). This site occupies two hills which the ancient people of Thisbai encompassed within their city walls (an atypical feature). A stained, white tower stands in disrepair along the ruined walls. Dense clouds formed a wall to the north, a stark reminder of where we came from. But a rainbow and giant wind-turbines lightened the scene. Even a colorful caterpillar was enjoying the sun while listened to our professor. The next site had a wonderful view of the Corinthian Gulf. Tiny Chorsiae, one of the smallest ancient poleis in the Greek world, only had 40km2 of territory, and it was surrounded on three sides by rugged hills only suitable for grazing livestock. It had a small plain for cultivation (which is not covered by olive trees). Why bother visiting this site? Chorsiae had one of the best harbors, and it was important for people traveling in and out of Boeotia through the Gulf. By this time, our energy was running low and we needed food. We enjoyed a picnic below the acropolis of the next site at Siphai, another important harbor town. We hiked to the top and had a great view of the harbor where the Theban fleet once harbored in the fourth century BC. On the northeastern side of the bay is a shallow salt pan with a reddish hew which gives its name to the modern town there (Αλυκή). While making our way back to Thebes the gray clouds returned, and we took an impromptu stop at a Hellenistic tower all by its lonesome on a hill looking at Siphai. Then we stopped at the battle site of Leuctra and its trophy. The brown earth of the fields under a gray sky was a decent was to imagine the place where the Thebans defeated the seemingly invincible Spartans in 371 BC. The final stop was at the Neolithic and Bronze Age site called Eutressis. It was excavated by Hetty Goldman (of Goldman-Sachs pedigree) who was the first woman to lead an excavation in mainland Greece during the 1930s. It was a muddy trudge up the hill to the site, and it was mostly overgrown by weeds and such, thus obscuring its exact orientation and layout. Southern Boeotia had much to offer, and even though the clouds threatened for most of the day, we escaped any major downpours that may have ruined an otherwise great day of travel.

 

 

The sun came out the next day as we let Thebes in order to explore the Copaic Basin of Central Boeotia. The cold, however, did not leave us right away. We passed through some very dense fog to arrive at the first site, Oncestos. This was an ancient village (κώμη) and home to some religious festivals to Apollo in the 6th century. After the defeat at Chaeronea in 338 BC (more on this later) and the destruction of Thebes in 335 BC, the Boeotian Koinon established a meeting hall here. Unfortunately, recent excavations were covered with black tarps to protect it from rain. We continued on to the next ancient polis called Haliartos. We hiked across a field and up to the acropolis escorted by a flock of sheep. We saw the foundations of a sanctuary and fortification walls. After bringing his forces too close to the walls of Haliartos, the Spartan general and conqueror of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, Lysander, was killed in 395 BC. In antiquity, Lake Copais would have come within 150 meters of the walls on the north side. The Copaic Lake was drained for agriculture in the late 19th century, but was famous in antiquity for its eels. The former extent of the Lake is identifiable by the places where the early morning fog rests. Next, we drove to the western edge of the basin to ancient Orchomenos, the home of the ancient Minyans—the creators of distinctive gray and yellow Minyan ware. We first visited the Mycenaean tholos tomb dubbed the Tomb of Minyas after the eponymous founder. It had a magnificent side chamber with neatly a decorated ceiling. Around the corner on the path to the ancient theater was a graveyard of sorts for stone fragments which contained the recently unearthed remains of an ancient trophy in the shape of a helmeted, armless soldier and stacks of shields. The air warmed up considerably, and just in time for our first major hike of the trip to the acropolis. The city is laid out as a long strip that gradually moves up toward to a hilltop and away from the basin. The heat, sweat, and strain were rewarded with a spectacular view from a ruined section of fortification walls from the late 4th century. After carefully moving back down we visited a Byzantine church at the foot of the hill called Panaghia Skripou. This church was made in 874 AD out of spoliated stone blocks from ancient buildings in the area. The church has several painting and other images of a famous event during World War II. When the Nazis moved through the area of Orchomenos on September 8-10, 1943, three German tanks we immobilized, presumably by the intervention of Panaghia (Mother Mary), and the town was spared by the German commander Hoffman, who allegedly had a vision of Mary during the event. Hoffman later returned every year after the war to the church. It is quite a strange thing nevertheless, to see images of German tanks and soldiers inside of a Greek Orthodox Church. The day we visited was October 27th, the day before Oxi Day (pronounced “O-hee”), the day Greece said “no” to an Italian ultimatum and marked Greece’s entrance into WWII with the Italian invasion in 1940. Since Oxi Day fell on a Saturday this year, it was being observed on Friday, so naturally many places were closed including much needed food venues in this small town. Sans lunch, we moved on toward Gla, an iconic Mycenaean site. But first we mercifully stopped at a roadside bakery to grab a quick bite and check out a surviving section of the Mycenaean dike system around the ancient lake. Gla (apparently a Serbian toponym) used to be an island within the Copaic Lake, and an understanding of the site has not been thoroughly fleshed out (there has been drama surrounding recent attempts to excavate). Gla lies almost halfway between the Mycenaean sites at Orchomenos and Thebes, and the relation between the three sites is also uncertain. For its size, it is curious that Gla was not the home to a Mycenaean palace. With the afternoon running out of daylight, we moved to the next site, an oracular sanctuary of Apollo Ptoieus. This three-terraced site on the side of a rocky mountain face was the home of an oracle of Apollo (one of many in Boeotia). Ptoieus was either some sort of local hero that was syncretized with Apollo, or a son of Apollo himself—traditions are conflicting. A little below the sanctuary was the Ptoion hero cult site where a large bronze tripod would have stood. To be honest, lack of sustenance, water, and the hike from earlier made me less than perfect with note- and picture-taking that afternoon. Plus, going to eight sites in one day is pretty taxing. The bus finally took us to our hotel in Levadia where we were greeted with an Oxi Day music festival going on across the street with music and dance groups from different regions of Greece. The guys went out for giant gyros to feed our stomachs and souls.

 

The next morning was quiet, very quiet. The town was preparing for the scheduled Oxi Day children’s parade that would take over the town. We to the river Hercyna past old watermills and bridges to a place where there are a few empty caverns in the side of the rock face. It is believed that this is where the oracle of Trophonios was located. Among the various accounts of how the oracle got started, the most common idea is that this guy Trophonios was swallowed up by the earth and becomes an oracle. The rituals associated with this oracle include, of course, many sacrifices, bathing in the cold river, and a ritual escort by young boys, but also descending into a room shaped like an oven by a ladder (which had to be supplied by the suppliant) and through a crack feet-first through a crack into a swift-moving river. When the suppliant emerges, he tells a priest what he learned/saw and the priest interprets. Then a dedication is made of what was learned. Our best source for this is Pausanias the traveler who claims to have gone through the ritual himself (Description of Greece, 9.39.5-14). The geology of the site has changed since antiquity, so there is no exact location of where these underwater chambers may have been. In any case, we rushed back to the bus to get out of town before the 10am parade, and we drove into the Cephissus River valley. Our first stop was at the battle site of Chaeronea where Philip II of Macedon defeated the rest of Greece in 338 BC. We saw the giant Lion Monument where the dead of the Thebans were buried. The monument was buried, reburied, and uncovered again between 1808 and 1879. The final Greek excavation uncovered 254 bodies placed in an orderly fashion (i.e. it was not an insincere disposal). The skeletons showed several interesting indications of their potential identity: the individuals were tall for their time (about 6 feet), they had signs of previous wounds (probably from other battles), and many were killed in brutal ways (some had the entire face missing, suggesting a death blow by an attacking cavalryman). Therefore, it has been suggested that these men were part of the 300-man, so-called Theban Sacred Band. Plutarch writes that some thought they were 150 pairs of lovers and beloved (Plutarch, Life of Pelopidas, 18). Whether this is true cannot be confirmed by archaeology, but is nevertheless interesting for modern readers to consider. The Lion Monument was reconstructed between 1902 and 1904, and it now proudly stands towering over visitors. We briefly perused the Chaeronea museum and stopped at the ancient theater before going to the ancient city of Panopeus, just beyond the border into the region of Phocis. This site is perched up on a hill overlooking the valley below. Clouds threatened yet again, but we managed to escape dry. We picnicked on the acropolis and heard about Phocis and Panopeus. Panopeus has a special place in American School history. Back in the early 1990s, Regular Members rediscovered a dedicatory inscription to Herakles as well as an inscription in connection with the sanctuary of Delphi. This inscription dated to the mid-fourth century BC was a copy of an inscription found in Delphi (over 26 miles away) from the sixth century BC. In other words, the inhabitants of Panopeus took great lengths to remember and record an inscription at an important Panhellenic sanctuary, thus showing the importance of the relationship between the two cities. Once we wrapped up exploring the site to “rediscover” the inscriptions ourselves, we drove back to Levadia. We went to see an unfinished Temple of Zeus on a hilltop just outside of town. This time is rained a little on us, so my camera was unable to capture any images of the foundations. Afterward, a few of us took an optional hike to the medieval Castro where the Church of Saint Sophia resides. After this watery trek, we treated ourselves to a drink at a café near the Trophonios oracle. After taking a hot shower and eating dinner, I went out on my own to see a Greek Iron Maiden tribute band play a free show at a bar up the road from our hotel. I only stayed long enough to see the opening act (which was pretty terrible). Perhaps this was a missed opportunity, but it was only a tribute band (a YouTube search of the tribute band [ReMaiden] later revealed that the singer has an uncanny vocal resemblance to the Bruce Dickinson). I wandered the streets alone at midnight and stumbled upon yet another metal concert happening in a basement. This venue was much more crowded, but a bit less of my scene—that is to say, I felt even more uncomfortable than before (the language barrier was the primary inhibition from walking in). I went to bed late that night having learned that Levadia had a decent metal scene, though I did not fully experience it myself. Perhaps that is for another day.

 

Before our journey into Phocis, we made one last stop in Boeotia the next day at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hosios Loukas, a Byzantine Monastery. It was nice to revisit this place since my trip to Greece last summer. A Sunday morning visit had the added bonus of overhearing a service going on in the secondary Church of Panagia, which allowed us tourists to explore the main Katholikon of Saint Luke (the buildings actually share a common wall). Saint Luke, who founded the monastery as a healing center for pilgrims, was known for his asceticism and ability to make predictions (such as the one that the Byzantines would retake the island of Crete from the Arabs. The main church is beautifully adorned with a dome, marble floors and walls, and gold-backed paintings of over 150 saints. After this, I took the opportunity to be alone and look out over the valley below as the sun began to peek over the mountain tops on the other side. Today would turn out to be a very somber day. The monastery is still active, although it is not the bustling place it used to be. You are able to wander the site and see where the monks used to make olive oil and where they would warm themselves in sauna-like room. The Crypt which contains the relics of Saint Luke and Saint Barbara was not open this time around. An eager and persistent purveyor of snacks at the gift shop outside persuaded me to buy some peanut brittle and local Phocian honey (a local specialty). The next stop was the modern city of Distomo, the site of a massacre by the Nazis on June 10, 1944. A giant marble monument overlooking the town was our first stop. The open air memorial consists of three, long, off-center, rectangular marbles, one jutting straight into the sky. The shortest bears the names and ages of the 214 men, women, and children killed. It even makes me sad to remember how I felt when I visited. This was only a taste of what was to come. Once in the town, we stopped at a seemingly inconsequential museum of ancient artifacts, but just around the corner was a museum about the massacre. This museum contained newspaper from just after the massacre, pictures and documents from Nazi soldiers describing details of the massacre, and an entire room with pictures of those killed. I left the room in tears. Honestly, it took about a day to feel “normal” again. It was (and still is) difficult to stomach the idea such brutality [I will not share the details of the massacre. I leave that to each person to seek on their own] or that these could have been my children, my wife, my parents, my friends. I had to sit by myself a while, and I felt cold. This made the rest of the day difficult to go through. Nevertheless, we ventured on to ancient Ambryssos where we saw a bit of the fortification walls. Then we went further toward the coast and stopped at ancient Medeon, whose acropolis now overlooks an aluminum factory. There was a Mycenaean tholos tomb just below. The next stop was across the bay at ancient Antikyra where there were the ruins of a temple of Athena with a beautiful view of the blue gulf. On our drive to the final site of the day, Delphi, we received some wonderful news from a friend of our professor. The Olympic torch on its way to the Pyeongchang, South Korea, was passing through Delphi that evening. When we got to Delphi, we first visited the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia which sits just below the main site. When the sun had set, it was time to make our way into the main part of the site for the ceremony. We sat on the ruins of the Base of the Corcyreans to watch the female runner come up the Sacred Way dressed in white and bearing the burning torch. After a pause, she lit a cauldron in front of the Temple of Apollo whose restored front columns were illuminated with white light. There was a speech by the Mayor of Delphi, a representative of South Korea, and others (but we left before those). This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we were very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. This day was full of highs and lows, and it was a reminder of the beauties and horrors that humans are capable of.

 

Delphi is a place that a person could easily spend a lifetime studying. We only had about two and a half days exploring the area in and around Delphi. We started off by hiking up the western hill adjacent to the site to see the fortification walls. By the time we made it to the walls and tower, I had to strip all of my extra layers because we were sweating. These walls challenge the notion that the Panhellenic sanctuary was an undefended, neutral space. In reality, Delphi was a place of intra-Greek tugs of war for centuries. This set the tone for our tour of the sanctuary. For four straight hours we walked up the Sacred Way looking at and discussing the various monuments, dedications, treasuries, and the Temple of Apollo. It was not a lifetime, but four hours was enough of a dose for that time. There are simply too many things at Delphi for me to recount in any detail here, but since I presented on the Treasury of the Athenians, I can provide a brief highlights. The Treasury is located around the first bend of the Sacred Way, and housed expensive dedications from Athenians to the sanctuary. The date of construction is hotly contested among scholars. Some follow Pausanias the traveler’s account that it was built from the spoils at the Battle of Marathon (Description of Greece. 10.11.5). Others have argued based on the sculptural reliefs and decorations that the building dates to roughly 500 BC (i.e. ten years before the Battle of Marathon). Based on the architecture of the building, a porch on the south side of the building with a dedicatory inscription reading, “The Athenians to Apollo the first fruits from the Mede [Persians] from the Battle of Marathon,” cannot predate the building because it is built underneath the blocks for the treasury, therefore it must antedate the Battle of Marathon. This is the scholarly consensus these days. Sculptural reliefs decorate the tops of all four walls (a unique feature) and depict the various labors of Theseus and Herakles, although the exact positions of these have been endlessly debated. The Treasury was reconstructed between 1903 and 1906, financed by a wealthy Athenian family. It occupied prime real estate in antiquity, and it stands out today because it is the only building fully reconstructed at Delphi. A four hour tour requires some reenergizing, but after a 30 minute lunch break we met back at the museum for another strong couple of hours. As with the site, the museum contains far too many items to be cataloged here, but here were some highlights: the Sphinx statue from the Column of the Naxians, the decorative frieze from the Treasury of the Siphnians as well as the metopes from the Treasury of the Athenians, the famous bronze statue of the Charioteer, and the fragments of 2.5 meter long bull made of silver sheets. Once done with our tour of the museum, we had free time for our own. I went on a run through the town visiting the local camp grounds and looped back around to see the site lit up at night (since the sun went down before I could return). For dinner we ate at a place where all the Greek bus drivers eat, a small taverna run by an old woman. The food was not the best, in my opinion, but you could tell that it was made with love, and it was pretty darn cheap.

 

On our last full day in Delphi we fanned out from the city center to the peripheral regions of Delphi by first going to the Corycian Cave located on a broad plateau above Delphi. To get there we drove through the city of Arachova and up into an alpine landscape of mostly deserted ski resorts (which will surely be populated once the snow starts falling). As with many sites on this trip, the bus drive to a site was only a precursor to a short and steep hike up a mountain. I trail-blazed with our professor and arrived at the cave in 18 minutes (a new record he says). The mouth of the cave is relatively small compared the cavernous interior which could have parked a couple semi-trucks inside. Excavations of the cave revealed thousands of votive figurines and animal bones. Some brave colleagues went to the very back of the cave with the assistance of ropes anchored into the cave walls. I opted out because I did not have a flashlight or headlamp which was absolutely necessary in the bowels of this cave. An inscription on a rock near the entrance listed the names of two symperipoloi (basically, “border patrol”). Once back on the bus we went down to the sacred harbor of Delphi after making a quick stop at the quarries of Profitis Elias from which many of the buildings at Delphi got their stone blocks. The sacred harbor of Delphi was called Kirra or Krysa (even ancient authors could not get it straight). Anyone traveling to Delphi from the south would go through this harbor. Not much remains today, of course, because a modern town is on top of it, but rescue excavations unearthed what some scholars have called ship sheds. Others think they are simply storage buildings, and I perhaps agree with them, but that is only based on our 15 minute visit. Afterward we had a picnic on the beach, followed by a solid block of silence among the group as we hung our legs over the stony ledge starring out at the water and listening to the tiny waves lap up on the rocky beach. It was true bliss. This was interrupted by our need to return to Delphi. When we got back we reentered the site and walked straight to the top where the stadium was located. Unable to pull strings to let us onto the race track, our professor was able to convince the guard to let us step over the rope to get a closer look for five minutes. The reason why this type of special access is rarely given at a site like Delphi is because there are so many other tourists that they all think they can get special access. And of course, once we went over others not in our group started to follow which roused the irritation of the guard. We left as soon as possible and made our way to find an important inscription carved on the wall of the stadium on the main path of the site. This special inscription requires that spectators of the games must consume their wine before leaving the stadium. Anyone caught has to pay a fine, and some of the money is given to the snitch. The reason for this proscription is likely that the organizers of the sacred games did not want people to resell the sacred wine for high prices outside the sanctuary where they could likely fetch high prices and profit off of the sanctity of Delphi. One may imagine that spectators left feeling pretty good from that stadium. Just when we were sick of long hikes, the rest of the afternoon was open and available to an optional hike up the Phedriades, the rough rocks directly above the sanctuary (the same ones responsible for falling rocks that were capable both of damaging the site and fending off the Persian invasion in 480 BC). This long hike had the nice reward of a view of the Pleistos Valley like no other. Had it not been close to sunset, we would have gone up a bit further to where the trail meets the broad plateau there the Corycian Cave is located (the cave would be another 1.5 hour hike away though). Again, as a compensation for our sweat and hard work, we treated ourselves to local beers at a café. A mysterious donor paid our bill which made the beer taste even better. Dinner was spectacular, but the homemade desserts of the taverna were excellent: homemade Greek yogurt served in a wooden pail with grapes sweetened into a preserve with honey, and homemade baklava. Νόστιμο (delicious)! Being pooped from all the hiking in the past few days made me turn in for the night right after dinner.

 

Our time at Delphi and Phocis had to come to an end sometime. We drove about two hours north to visit the museum of Lamia. It is a small museum mostly restricted to the second floor. The first floor had a few inscriptions and statues, but more prominently, the offices of the regional ephor of antiquities. Some notable pieces in the museum included: a marble votive relief offering to Artemis-Eileithyia (the goddess of childbirth) depicting a four-person procession to an altar [one woman had her newborn baby facing the goddess in her outstretched arms; also, there were clearly visible reliefs of clothing hanging above which women dedicated to the goddess after childbirth], a painted clay bowl of various animals (a former Regular Member argued in an article that these animals were actually depictions of constellations—the earliest extant in the Greek world), and a sea of cups and figurines. Near the entrance to the front courtyard was a marble relief of Melina Mercouri, a famous Greek actress, activist, and minister of culture. She is most famous for protesting the Greek military junta in the 1960s and 70s, as well as being an ardent supporter of repatriating the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum. We continued our journey north into the region of Thessaly, and first stopped at a site called Proerna. All that is left of this ancient city is its impressive fortification walls which preserve a good example of ekplekton construction—basically making compartments out of sections of the continuous wall so that if part of the wall was damaged the whole wall would not be compromised. Just a few miles northeast from here is the city of Pharsalus where we visited a Protogeometric Period tholos tomb (the first of many in Thessaly). The guard forgot his key so he had to use a Dremel tool to saw off the lock, although we could have easily hopped the low fence. Thessaly is somewhat peculiar for its continued use and evocation of Bronze Age traditions. Achilles was from Thessaly, and so perhaps it was natural for the Thessalians to harken back to time of their traditional hero. Over the next few days, I grew fairly sick of tholos tombs (“once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”), but what really captured my interest in Thessaly was the plethora of Neolithic sites scattered across the region. We drove next to the Middle Neolithic (c. 6,000 BC) site called Koutroulou Magoula where we received a tour from Panagiotis (Takis) Karkanas, renowned geoarchaeologist and director of the Wiener Laboratory at the American School. Just as I was excited by the narrative of the Mycenaean world from our guest lecturer in Pylos on Trip 2, Takis’ explanation of the Greek Neolithic Period (when humans became more sedentary, achieved accidental and intentional genetic modification of plants and animals, and developed more sophisticated building techniques) was fascinating. This site in particular, the oldest in Greece, revealed a large settlement with multiple buildings with “paved” floors, well-selected white stones for construction, and spaces for animals. This magoula (= tel) is right in the middle of a cotton field, so the true extent of the site is unknowable. This settlement’s sister-site, whose name was impossible for me to understand and write down correctly, was a short drive away and contained kilns for pottery and making lime. We were given a personal tour by one of Takis’ graduate students who is writing his dissertation on the kilns there. He showed up the various phases of kilns and how they reached such temperatures that they “baked” the walls around the kilns. He also showed us deposits of lime in the stratigraphy of his excavation. Due to my ignorance, I asked what lime is, and what did Neolithic people used it for. It turns out that when you super-heat limestone, it turns the stone into a white chalk called lime. When you add water to this chalk it makes a paste that is used for plaster. Who knew? The sun was already setting by this time, but we had two more sites to visit, so we skipped them and went in the dark to our hotel in Kastraki. After a pleasant dinner across the street, a few of us got a drink at the hotel bar. It was my first time trying Metaxas, a smooth, dark brandy. I’m not a brandy-person, but this was great.

 

Because it was so dark when we arrived in Kastraki, I did not realize just how close we were to the famous Meteora monasteries. I was blown away when I looked out the window at breakfast to behold the dark gray rocks jutting out from the earth holding buildings into the sky. Meteora means “rocks suspended in air,” a fitting name for this UNESCO World Heritage Site. We did not visit the monasteries immediately as we first went to the Theopetra Cave museum (unfortunately the cave is no longer accessible to visitors due to recent rock falls). This well organized and thoughtful museum exhibited finds from the Neolithic Period (stone tools, jewelry, animal bones, petrified plant seeds, some skeletons, and even fossilized footprints of two children from 130,000 years ago). Afterward we hopped back on the bus and went to Meteora. These iconic sandstone/conglomerate spires were created by violent movements in the earth’s crust sixty million years ago and subsequent weathering by the elements in the Pineios River valley. Six monasteries perched above different rock formations remain today of more than twenty at the 14th century height of activity. Until recently, monks received supplies by a basket-and-pulley system. The main monastery (The Great Meteoron) is now a museum and receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. There are various rooms which preserve “daily life” rooms such as carpentry, wine-making, and a bakery/kitchen. There is a church whose many-vaulted, front room contained paintings of various martyrdoms. I kid you not, a vast majority of these images depicted beheadings in graphic, almost comic, form (one saint appeared to be grasping for his head as it rolled just out of his reach). Apart from this bizarre sight, the side wall of another chapel contained a painting about twenty feet wide with full-body portraits of twelve famous individuals who lived before Jesus Christ (with two exceptions). They are fashioned in such a way that they appear to be welcoming Jesus holding scrolls with carefully chosen words prefiguring Jesus or a Christian interpretation of the divine. Such illustrious people included (from left to right): The Sibyl, Solon, Pythagoras, Socrates, Apollonius, Paul the Apostle, St. Justin, Homer, Thucydides, Aristotle, Plato, and Plutarch. Except for Paul and Justin (the two closest to the central figure of Jesus), I seriously doubt these people would appreciate their likenesses railroaded for a Christian syncretism. Also, somewhat hilariously, Plutarch is called the “father of history”—which is a famous epithet for the historian Herodotus (not in the painting). Plutarch explicitly tells us (Life of Alexander, 1.2) that “it is not Histories that I am writing, but Lives.” Right around the corner was an exhibit displaying the various ancient manuscripts that the monastery possessed, although they were mostly more “recent” religious texts and none of texts of those ancient authors in the painting outside. In any case, we had to get back on the road, this time toward the city of Karditsa. Along the way we stopped in Trikala to visit the Osman Shah Mosque. I foolishly left my camera and notes on the bus, but I can say that I got a nice picture from the bus. At the Karditsa Museum, we got a sneak peak of a temple of Apollo we were going to visit later in the day by seeing some of the archaeological remains. The so-called cult statue is a little bronze statue of Apollo wearing armor and holding his right arm in a striking pose. There is also a giant terracotta horse head from the acroterion of the temple. The temple itself is some distance away isolated between some houses. There is a giant steel roof covering the foundations of the temple. The temple had a mudbrick superstructure which obviously does not survive (mud and 2,000+ years of rain and elements don’t go well together). Peripteral temples like this are very rare in Thessaly, so it was actually a change of pace, especially since the next site was another protogeometric tholos tomb. There are fifty five known tholos tombs from this period. The one at Ambelleroi looked a lot like the others. This one had the distinction of being used as a container for dead animals in the Byzantine period. This day just kept going and going. The next site was an ancient polis called Kierion which dominated a small plateau in the middle of the plain. According to ancient tradition, the Boeotians used to live there, but they were eventually pushed to Boeotia by the Thessalians arriving from the Pindos Mountains. Daylight was running out, and we had one more sight to see, this time back at Pharsalus. We drove up a small hill to see the rough area where the famous battle between Caesar and Pompey took place in 48 BC. We did a brief reenactment of the battle and how Caesar masterfully maneuvered his lines and cavalry to overwhelm Pompey’s less-experiences forces. Just behind us was a destroyed former church with spoliated remains throughout. The most important piece was a Roman milestone from the reign of the Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD, though it was curiously placed upside-down (I mean, if I was building a church out of some blocks, I would at least try and put it up straight so you could read it… perhaps the builders could not read, or did not care). In the aps of the church was a barely visible painting of Christ Pankrator (All-Powerful). From the highlight of Orthodox Christian architectural achievement at Meteora, we came a long way to a run-down church on a grassy hill. Our day ended with a drive to the coastal city of Volos. The city is known for its Tsiporadiki (Tsiporo tavernas). At this type of restaurant, one does not need to order food. You simply order a round of tsiporo, a clear, Greek whiskey. Foods of different variety come with the drink (appetizer things). The more you drink, the more you eat. The more you eat, the more you drink. You get the picture, I’m sure.

 

This final full day of the trip began in the Volos Museum which had an impressive collection of Mycenaean pottery, painted grave stele (with the painted images still for the most part visible), cool finds from Pherai that are mostly unpublished, and a gold coin of Alexander the Great, among much more. As we were leaving, an adorable kindergarten class holding hands was entering. I’m not sure what they would get out of this museum, but I think it is good to start them off young with learning about the ancient world. Back on the bus, we drove to the first site of the day at Sesklo. Sesklo was first occupied in the Neolithic period and reached a height of about three to four thousand people in the Middle Neolithic. There are many different scattered house foundations as well as a formidable “fortification” wall—some scholars dispute whether the wall indicates a major defensive project in the Middle Neolithic or if it was some sort of terrace wall. I hold the view that it was defensive simply by its size and location. A few miles away was another Neolithic site called Dimini, situated on a hill and built up with layers of circuit walls in a manner reminiscent of the citadel at Mycenae. The settlement pattern here suggests that there was little social stratification and a more egalitarian organization. Many spondylus shells were found at this site (and many others in Greece). What is neat about these types of sea shells is that chemical analysis can identify the exact location where it came from, thus revealing an important aspect of ancient trade networks. There were two big tholos tombs, one on site and other just a five minute drive away. The site’s guard opened up the latter for us. Its roof was still intact so we were better able to get a sense of its original size. The next stop was at a major ancient city called Demetrias, the namesake of its founder Demetrias Poliorcetes (the city-sieger). It was founded in 293 BC and became the residence of several Macedonian kings. Having a 12km2 circuit wall and nearly 25,000 inhabitants, it was one of the largest cities in Greece in its heyday. Demetrias, along with Corinth and Chalcis, formed the “fetters of Greece”—fortified cities which held the Greeks under Macedonian control. We first visited the theater and section of the city’s aqueduct. After a quick picnic at Pefkakia (“the little pines,” a Byzantine part of the port—now it is home to a night club called Graceland [an homage to Elvis?]), we then went into the main city to see the palace. Some fragments of the ancient frescos are still visible identified by their characteristic Macedonian red, white, and blue. The next site was a few miles south along the coast at a place of disputed identification; some say it is ancient Amphanai, other says ancient Pagasai. The suggestion of Pagasai, the ancient harbor of Pherai, seemed more accurate to me (but what do I know). There is an extramural “temple” there with the following characteristics: a single colonnade of nine columns running through the middle, three of the walls have benches for seating, and a “barbeque” pit in the western corner. Some scholars see it as a temple for some reason, but it seems more like a leske, a type of dining hall/social club space. I mean, c’mon, a barbeque pit! Anyway, it has a nice view of the harbor to the east across the bay at Goritsa where we went next. It was little hike up to the site, but we were pros by then, and it was worth the reward: a massive Hellenistic fortification tower/artillery complex and a beautiful view of the sunset over the bay. A large torsion catapult would have sat atop the tower to guard one of the mountain passes through Mt. Pelion into the Volos area. Under the tower along the coast is now a massive cement factory chugging away, but if you looked too the west you would capture a beautiful sunset descending over the Church of the Life-Giving Fountain (Ζωοδόχου Πηγής). This last night of the trip was the group dinner. We ended up at the same place as the night before (apparently after the good reconnaissance we did from the night before). There was a graveyard of over 100 little tsipouro bottles on the table at the end of four courses (a new American School record?).

 

At last, the final day had arrived. Most of the day was spent driving and making our way back to Athens, but first we had to back-track a bit to the northwest. We visited the ancient city of Pherai, one of the more influential poleis in the Classical Period and home of Jason, a tagos (supreme military commander of Thessaly) who had 15-minutes of fame on the Panhellenic stage before being assassinated in 370 BC. Most of what remains here is the notable Hyperian fountain which was monumentalized in the Classical Period. The fountain was still used for water mills into the 14th century AD. Much of Pherai has been built over by the modern town, but about a kilometer up the road are the foundations of a Temple of Ennodia. The cult of Ennodia was associated with pilgrims and travelers, and shared many associations with Hecate, a goddess of the underworld (it was built over a Protogeometric cemetery). It originally began as an open-air sanctuary, but a temple was built in the late 6th century BC. Its architecture bears many resemblances to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (and its dimensions are exactly 1/3 of the Apollo temple), thus contributing to the number of associations between Thessaly and Delphi in the Archaic and Classical Periods. Just up the road was another tholos tomb (this one was well-covered and made for showing to the public). Continuing northwest, we visited the new museum in Larisa, a large one-room hall that exhibited archaeological Thessalian finds from the Neolithic through Ottoman periods. The cases and displays are a bit of a maze, but this creates for surprises around every corner. There is a funeral stele depicting the rare scene of a woman breastfeeding an infant. There is a silver box with a lid that has a dog lying down with its mouth open as if about to roll over for a belly rub. There are also impressive mosaics of Dionysus and various animal scenes. We made a quick stop in the city center of Larisa to see a Hellenistic theater. About fifteen houses were removed in order to excavate the theater in the 1980s, but perhaps it was justified by the fact that this is the only ancient theater in all of Thessaly. After a quick lunch (Larisa is apparently known today for its bagels, a fact to which some in the group can testify), we made our way down south. We went back through Boeotia and stopped at ancient Eleon where we received a tour from an associate member of the school who digs there regularly with the Canadian school and is writing his dissertation on the site. It was a good reminder of what we learned about Boeotia in the beginning of the trip. Just as our first time through Boeotia, rain clouds circled overhead, and we just missed a storm before arriving. We trekked through a muddy field to reach the site. There are interesting Mycenaean foundations of an administrative (palatial?) building as well as Bronze Age burials. There are also large sections of the fortification walls and a defensive tower attached to a gate. Even better was the behind-the-scenes tour of the dig’s apotheke (storeroom) where most of the pottery, figurines, and other finds are stored. In this small room dozens of milk crates are stacked along the walls about six feet high with labels written in permanent marker. Laid on two tables were some of the better preserved and reconstructed ceramics and figurines for us to see and touch. After scraping off the mud from our shoes we hopped back on the bus and returned to Athens after eleven days on the road and visiting fifty sites. Dinners are not served in Loring Hall on Saturday nights, so a group of us ordered delivery from an Indian restaurant. The chicken tikka masala wraps sated our hungry stomachs. With little energy and nothing to do that night, a few of us kicked back and watched This is Spinal Tap (I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it yet!). All in all, this trip was full and exhausting, challenging and totally rewarding.

 

 

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